Even with months to prepare for our weeks in Paris, I struggled with anxiety over trying to learn a new language. It got stronger and stronger as our flight grew closer and closer until finally I simply stopped studying altogether. As a lover of language, rhythm, and expression, I became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what I wanted to be able to communicate in any number of situations I imagined myself getting into. It was all too big.
And you know, I ended up just fine.
Sure the trip would have been easier if I had more at-the-ready French on my tongue, but even if I had continued to study and memorize the lists of "most useful French phrases," I wouldn't have known the ones that I actually needed and ended up using the most.
So here is a list of my own that I hope to use over and over again, translating them into whatever language I find myself traveling to. A bare-bones list to be sure, but a wonderfully bite-sized head-start for those first days of panic. I hope it will take care of you on your travels as well as it took care of me on mine and hey! You won't have to learn it on the fly if you don't want to.
phrases to know in your host language
My most commonly used phrase by far and the saver of many awkward situations.
"I'm so sorry"
This one proved particularly helpful as I endeavored to use a wider range of phrases and absolutely butchered them. Particularly good when combined with "I only speak a little French."
"Hello" / "Goodbye"
Make sure you're using the most courteous version of this phrase. For example, in France, it is always followed by "Madame" or "Messier." Old fashioned, yes, but respectful which very very rarely goes amiss. Note that different times of day may call for different greetings and farewells and collect a few of those as well.
"No, thank you."
For the flyers shoved in your face, the waiter who offers you sugar, or the determined local trying to ask you out.
"I only speak a little *host language*."
This lets your hosts know that you really are trying, perhaps understand a little, and don't expect them to cater to your language.
"Do you speak *your language*?"
For when all else fails or you need very specific directions or instructions.
Another vital phrase as you begin to learn more and find yourself the recipient of a torrent of words you don't understand because they believe you know more of their language than you do.
"My friend is returning soon." / "I have to go meet my friends."
Whether you're traveling solo or with friends, these two phrases can go a long way to keeping you safe or helping you get out of a sticky situation with grace.
"I don't know..."
Add all manner of words to the end of this one to expand your language skills. Or simply
"What is this?"
Another vocabulary builder and very helpful at fish markets.
"I don't understand."
Because sometimes (read often) you won't. And that's okay.