Top Phrases to Know Abroad

Traveling is all about the experience and part of that experience is being able to communicate across languages and thru cultural barriers.

On the second leg of my European tour a few years back we pulled into Paris from London by train. I couldn’t wait to get out on the streets and see Paris! The food, the sites, the shopping! So much to take in! Before any of the fun stuff though we needed to drop our bags at our flat. As we exited the train, I pulled out my wallet to find a wad of British pounds and a US twenty dollar bill! Where were my Euros?! I had packed them somewhere deep in my backpack and was too panicked and embarrassed to unpack it all right there in the train station. Surely someone would take US currency?! I quickly ran outside the train station and to my delight, I found a currency exchange place right away! I ran up to the man in the window, still panicking and out of breathe when I asked him, “Hello, do you speak English? Can you exchange this?” as I held out my $20. He sneered at me in disgust and walked off muttering “I’ll see what I can do.” Immediately I knew what I had done wrong. I hadn’t said hello and even worse, I hadn’t done it in French! I’ve reviewed book after blog after travel show enough to know, the French are sticklers for two things: being polite and attempting to speak French. My theory: this cold exchange was an example of why Americans think the French are rude and vice versa, but more on that later. For now, the man had exchanged my $20 and my fleeting but serious feeling heart attack was over for the time being. My next attempt to speak to a Frenchmen would be better, I promised myself.

It’s well known that you should always bring a phrase book or list of key words to a new country. In the days of Google Translate, I wouldn’t worry about this too much, but there will be times when your internet fails you and your brain will fart and you just have to figure out how to survive. Make sure you’re prepared for what travel will throw at you with a note of key phrases and words in your phone or wallet. Basically be prepared for things to trip you up along the way linguistically and culturally. These are my biggest linguistic and cultural lessons learned along with a free guide to top phrases you should know abroad.

France: Round 2

Uber driver. This time, I’m prepared. I know (and remembered this time!) the French value two things from their travelers.

  1. You begin with a formal “hello” before continuing a conversation.

  2. You attempt to communicate in French FIRST.

The reality is that most places you go in the world, in major city centers, you’re going to find English speakers. This is especially true in major European cities so this isn’t always going to be an issue. However, I’ve been told by more than one person in France that when they come to my country, they speak my language, so they expect the same when I come to their country. That’s fair. I respect that. So I decided to play the game better this time. Before getting into the Uber, I made sure I knew how to say “hello” and “do you speak English” in French to my driver, to which he promptly turned around and said “sure, where are ya going?” almost like a New York taxi driver! The man was so pleased that I even attempted French, he carried on in full, bubbling conversation for the rest of the ride. This was not the cold, rude French exterior I had prepared myself for and inadvertently created with the man exchanging my currency. Were the French really warm and fuzzy?? Had I been lied to about their tough exterior towards Americans? Turns out pretty much everyone I met in France was beyond kind and patient with me and my terrible French. Apparently a simple “hello” before demanding an answer to a question and ANY attempt to speak their language went far and beyond to make them smile.

So back to my theory on why Americans think the French are rude and vice versa. The French aren’t rude. Their just old fashioned and I love that. They want you to greet them before asking for something and an equal exchange of cultural respect by you attempting their language first. 9 times out of 10, they spoke English fluently, but would pretend not to if you didn’t do these things. I get that. Tell me your name before you jump in bed with me right? Be polite before you ask a favor. Are these simple human decencies slowly fading away from our culture? There’s nothing rude about their expectations. They have standards. I think I should act a little more French.

Cultural Differences in japan

Now, when we start talking about cultural differences, France isn’t actually that far off from our own. Japan on the other hand was a much greater learning curve for me. They bow, we handshake. They highly value respect, we eh…well, we’re different in that department. They slurp their soup as a sign to compliment the chef, we’d be appalled! Their understanding of personal space on the subway is non-existent, ours is lovingly referred to as a “bubble”. That’s just a few off the top of my head. Japan to say the least is…different culturally and brushing up on those cultural nuances could really save you some embarrassment on your trip. Every country is going to have it’s quirks so not only a list of phrases and words can help but a small study in culture will go a long way.

Things to think about in a new country:

  1. How do they tip? Do they tip? How much is acceptable? Or is it considered rude?

  2. Eating etiquette. Did you know there’s a certain place to put your chopsticks when you’re through? And other ways can be considered rude? Like pointing them at someone or sticking them upright into your food.

  3. Personal Hygiene in Public. I’m sure the pandemic will change a few things here however in Japan it’s always been considered rude to blow your nose in public places. Some bathrooms will be two slats and a hole in the ground. Don’t forget to bring your toilet paper if you’re in a country where this is common.

  4. How to Dress. Not only do you not want to stick out as the “Ugly American” for safety reasons, you want to be respectful of the country’s dress code. You’re not walking into the Vatican in a miniskirt or down the street likewise in certain countries out of either respect or safety.

England and Different English

Now England was a place I thought I’d be safe because they speak English! Their our brother from another mother…kind of. Our cousin across the Atlantic! But every now and then those Brits would throw me for a loop. Like the time I spent and hour trying to track down a gas station, turning every head sideways with confusion, before I realized that gas is called “petrol” in the UK. Or that the “bin” is where the trash goes, or that one time I got into an elevator in Manchester with a man who’s accent was so thick, I’m not quite sure what we were talking about. My goodness! There were so many regional dialects in the UK, and I hadn’t even made it to Scotland or Wales at that point where there are different dialects AND different languages. The lesson here is to never assume that you don’t need to do your cultural research before heading to an English speaking country. I’ve been thrown by the Irish, Scots, Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, heck even New Yorkers at times! You aren’t guaranteed safety when it comes to language and culture. Not even within the good ol’ US of A, so do a quick search before you head out of town and to ensure a slightly smoother communication.

Top Phrases to Know abroad

To make that search just a bit easier for you. I’ve put together this list so you can spend a little less time researching and more time on the road!

There’s nothing that will 100% prepare you for leaving home. The only thing you can do is go! I learned these lessons on the road, often without researching ahead of time. The little I did know, I learned from reading blogs and watching travel shows. The best advice I have is to be as prepared as you can for your trip with a small collection of key words, phrases, and cultural expectations in a note on your phone or in your wallet and you’ll be good to go. Practicing a little ahead of time doesn’t hurt either! Traveling is learning that only happens if you get out there and give it a go.

Quick ‘Need To Know’ Phrases

  1. “Hello (formal/informal), how are you?”

  2. “My name is, what’s yours?”

  3. “Goodbye”

  4. “Please, Thank You, You’re welcome”

  5. “I need to find ______”

  6. “Where is ________”

  7. “Can you help me/us?”

  8. “I need help quickly.”

  9. “I would like to order _______”

  10. “May I have _______”

  11. “Excuse me”

  12. “Please repeat”

  13. “I don’t understand”

  14. “Do you have _______?”

  15. “How much?”

  16. “Do you speak ______ (usually this would be English, or your native language)?”

  17. ATM/Currency Exchange

  18. “What time do they open/close?”



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