How Much of a Language Should I Know?

This is a question that I get a lot and the answer varies on destination. For the most part, major tourist destinations around the world are pretty friendly for English speakers. If you speak English in a way you are a bit blessed as it is the third most spoken language (native speakers) and out of the 7.5 billion or so people on Earth roughly 20% of them speak English – even though it might not be their native language.

I’ve traveled with various levels of language preparation. For a 4 day trip to France I took a 6 week French for travelers class, that was overkill. Did something similar for my trip to Italy. When I went to Thailand I didn’t even know how to say hello, I survived but felt like a bit of a jerk not even being able to greet the wonderful people I was meeting. In Japan, I pick up a bit more vocabulary with every trip which delights the locals.

Why is it important to learn some of the language?

For me, this stems from being a guest in someone else’s country and I want to show them I appreciate the culture and place that I’m visiting. Even just showing that you are trying the bare minimum to speak to them in their language can turn an interaction with a local in your favor. Learning some words is the simplest way to show you want to connect and are trying to be a good guest.

What words should I learn?

I was having a conversation with E. Felicia from and she summed up her knowledge of Spanish as being enough to, “Not die, starve, or pee myself.” And I think that’s the perfect amount of a language to learn beyond, “Hello, thank you, excuse me, yes, and no.”

Where can I learn common phrases for a language?

Here are some options that I have used:
Rosetta Stone – It’s a bit pricey but it does work well and I’m not just saying that because I worked the Rosetta Stone QA department in college. There are also multiple language learning software out there like Duolingo and Babbel.

Take a class – Check your local University or Community Colleges, many of them have “informal classes” that are available to the public without having to be a formal student. The Italian class I took was through my local community college. There are also classes that can be found at local foreign alliances or clubs dedicated to another country. For example, I took my French classes at the local Austin chapter of Alliance Française which has over 800 chapters worldwide.

Hop on YouTube – There are so many videos of native or fluent speakers giving instructions on how to say helpful phrases. You could spend days picking up some easy and helpful phrases online.

Podcasts – Similar to the YouTube option, there are plenty of podcasts that you can download to listen to on your commute or at the gym and pick up some phrases for your trip.

Pinterest – I have found some amazing links to infographics and blogs with common phrases on Pinterest. I just add them to my board or screenshot them to have them in my phone as a reference for later.

Phrasebooks – There are literally hundreds of travel-sized phrasebooks that you can order on Amazon, read through, and then toss in your bag to have on your trip.

Apps – Google Translate is my favorite and it’s great if you decided to skip all the options above and you end up in a country with little to no language knowledge. While it doesn’t have all the languages and some of them are hit or miss (looking at you Japanese) it’s a great resource to look up phrases and even use the camera on your phone to translate signs or menus. Just make sure you download your desired language pack before you leave your home country if you’re not sure about the internet situation when you land.

I hope this inspires you to learn some words before your next trip and gives you some good resources as a jumping off point.

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