Best words to know in a language: The Big 5
In traveling, few things are more cherished by me than the preservation of culture. I believe that as travelers, we have a responsibility with the places that we visit to respect them and their culture. In exchange for our respect, we are shown the world.
Language learning is not natural to everyone. However, with some practice anyone can learn a second language. Even if you are not planning to stay in one place for a long period of time, it is always a good idea to learn a few phrases in the local language both for respect and for ease of travel. Whenever I travel, I typically carry a small notebook with me which I use to write down phrases and notes about the places that I am visiting. I have concluded that for me personally, I want to learn what I call ‘the big 5’. Although it is not exactly 5 things, it helps me to remember what I want to learn.
Best words to know in a language
1.) The greeting – The greeting is a very big part of every culture. I am always amazed at how artistic the greetings of other cultures can be. For example, we might simply say ‘hello’, ‘hi’, or ‘what’s up?’ in English. In Arabic, it would be common to say ‘Salamu alaikum‘, or ‘I come in peace’. In French culture, you will greet everyone in the room individually using a variety of phrases such as ‘bon jour’, ‘Ça va?’, et cetera. Surely, there are more exotic forms. Do you know any?
2.) Giving thanks – Expressing gratitude is a very important aspect of traveling. It is imperative that you give thanks to those who take care of you. Remember that people will typically be excited if you attempt to speak their language. Therefore, you do not have to worry about learning elaborate ways to say thanks. Just be simple, but use your physical expressions to show what you can’t tell using words. How do you say thanks in your language?
3.) Getting directions – It would be good if you could get the basics of directions before heading off to an exotic local. For example, learning words like ‘where is’, ‘right’, ‘left’, ‘east’, ‘west’, and maybe more. It will help out significantly. You’d be surprised at how far just a few directional words can get you.
4.) Bare necessities – You can’t be expected to have a complete vocabulary in a language in just a few days. You can be expected to know the basics though. For example, water, bathroom, home, food, etc. A traveler needs to be able to communicate basic needs in whatever way possible. Make sure you can take care of your fundamental needs and you’ll be good.
5.) Basic numbers – As with #4, you don’t need to be able to say 157 on your first outing with the Swahili language. It would be a noble idea though to be able to at least get to 5; counting to 10 would be even better. Remember that in most languages numbers build off of each other for the most part, so sometimes just knowing these small numbers you can get an idea of larger numbers. Imagine shopping in markets and trying to communicate prices and negotiate deals without knowing numbers?
Bonus: Learn – I come in peace! Hopefully, you won’t have to use it, but it is always good to know :).
A few Additional Tips
- Remember that when you are traveling, you are not at home. Don’t expect people to speak to you in English wherever you go. At the same time, don’t expect to be a pro in a new language immediately. It takes time.
- In languages that are vastly different from the ones that you may know, try to write out the big 5 phonetically. If you cannot read Cyrillic for example, don’t write ‘спасибо’ for thank you in Russian. Write ‘spa-see-ba’ instead. It’ll be easier for you.
- If you believe that you will need to handle more complex situations, then write out the sentences in full. I once sat next to a Turkish man on a plane, he didn’t speak a word of another language, but he had index cards with complete phrases written out because he had a medical condition requiring special needs. On the back of the cards the phrase was in Turkish. When he needed something, he just looked for what he needed in Turkish and showed the back to whom it concerned. Neat idea I thought.
- If you are having trouble with pronunciation ask a local to give you some guidance. I have never heard of someone who wasn’t willing to teach someone their language. They will be impressed that you are trying.
What do you do when you travel to learn the local language? Are there any other best words to know in a language that you’d add? What is your favorite way to give thanks or say hello in a foreign language?