So you’ve planned a trip abroad.
You want to be able to blend with the locals, so you try to master a new language before take-off.
But there are just… So. Many. Words.
Your head feels like it might explode.
You don’t know which way is up anymore and you want to throw your studies down and forget the whole thing.
Well, no need for that.
Sometimes you just have to take it all back to the beginning.
If you want to get familiar with a new language then you need to get comfortable with common words and phrases.
“But that won’t make me fluent!” you say. No. It won’t. But it will get you there.
Before you get nominated for Linguist of the Year, you’re going to have to start with the easy stuff. It may not be glamorous, but you’ll thank yourself in the long run.
Why You Should Bother with Learning Common Phrases
Not quite sure when this happened, but at some point during the last few years the word “basic” became something of a swear word. “Ya basic,” has become a go-to joke or insult in movies, television and casual conversation. However, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss basic-ness, especially within the world of language learning. In fact, the basics are your foundation and you need to know them if you plan on building your proficiency in a language.
You Need to Embrace Getting By First
It’s difficult to think that you’re going to have to struggle to make it through learning a language. Everyone wishes they could become fluent overnight, because the learning process can be tough. Just remember this: You weren’t born learning how to speak English or any other native language that you may speak. You were born a blank slate and it took you years to get to a level of proficiency where people could actually understand you.
Of course, you don’t remember that learning process so it’s easy to think that speaking was just something you always knew how to do—but it isn’t. You struggled. You made mistakes. You probably even made up words. Luckily, there was someone there guiding you, correcting your mistakes and teaching you how to say things. And guess what? You learned!
Remember, when you’re learning a language you’re going to have to struggle a little bit. You’re going to make mistakes, and you may even have to make up some words in the process. However, nowadays you have access to so many people who can correct you when you make mistakes. Let the world be your language guide. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
And once you’ve accepted the struggle, you should try to make things as easy on yourself as possible. Yes, it will be difficult, but you should give yourself as much mileage as you can by breaking out the big guns first: Learn the phrases you’ll use every day. Learn the phrases that will help you navigate introductions and basic survival. Being realistic will take you far.
Small Talk Takes You to Big Talk
Let’s go back to the baby metaphor. Any time someone gets frustrated when trying master something new, others may tell them, “You have to learn to crawl before you walk.” Well, this is as true with language learning as with anything. You have to crawl, meaning, you have to learn basic, common phrases and vocabulary. This is the part that many people try to skip, because it’s not that fun, and maybe you already know a few words. So why bother?
Well, think of these common phrases as a launch pad. Common phrases get you started with having basic conversations. They’ll do wonders for you if you’re traveling or encounter other situations where you’re forced to speak an unfamiliar language.
First, they’ll help you learn to get comfortable speaking. Speaking is usually the biggest hurdle in language learning, especially if you’re in a place where most people know at least some English.
However, if you commit to learning a few common phrases, you’ll have identified yourself as someone who wants to learn. And that’s the second thing! People appreciate the effort. Sadly, Americans in particular have a reputation for being unwilling to learn new languages, but make the effort and you’ll see that people will be charmed by your attempt to assimilate.
So are you convinced that learning some basic phrases is good for your mind, body and soul? Great! We’ve got five different languages to get you started. And don’t worry if you don’t see your target language. You can still look up these phrases in whatever that language may be. And if you have any pronunciation doubts or questions, try Forvo.
To follow up with these phrases in context and to start moving on to big talk, try FluentU.
Forget GPS! 20 Guiding Common Phrases in Different Languages
It’s always nice to greet people when meeting for the first time. An easy “hello” is the simplest way to get it done.
- Spanish: Hola
- French: Salut
- Portuguese: Olá
- German: Hallo
- Mandarin: 你好 (nǐ hǎo)
2. How are you?
You don’t have to save this for friends and acquaintances. Even strangers appreciate when someone asks them about their well-being. You may not want to just approach someone in the street with this question, but maybe use it when you’re at a restaurant, grocery store or even the bank.
- Spanish: ¿Cómo está? (formal) / ¿Cómo estás? (informal)
- French: Comment allez-vous ? (formal) / Comment ça va ? (informal)
- Portuguese: Como você está?
- German: Wie geht es dir?
- Mandarin: 你好嗎？ (nǐ hǎo ma)
3. I’m doing well
This is a common response in almost every language. It’s polite and brief, especially when speaking to a stranger. You can elaborate if you’re more familiar with a person.
- Spanish: Estoy bien
- French: Ça va bien
- Portuguese: Tudo bem
- German: Mir geht es gut!
- Mandarin: 我很好 (wǒ hěn hǎo)
4. My name is…
This is another common introductory phrase. Basic phrases like these are short and simple and can help you get used to how words and letters are supposed to sound without stumbling over your speech too much.
- Spanish: Me llamo… / Mi nombre es…
- French: Je m’appelle…
- Portuguese: O meu nome é…
- German: Mein Name ist…
- Mandarin: 我的名字是… (wǒ de míng zì shì)
5. What’s your name?
If you’re sharing your name then, of course, the cordial thing to do would be to ask a person theirs. Again, it’s a great way to start small conversations and let people know that you’re making an effort.
- Spanish: ¿Cómo se llama usted? (formal) / ¿Cómo te llamas? (informal)
- French: Comment vous appelez-vous ? (formal) / Comment t’appelles-tu ? (informal)
- Portuguese: Qual é o seu nome?
- German: Wie heißen Sie? (formal) / Wie heißt du? (informal)
- Mandarin: 貴姓呢？ (guì xìng ne)
6. It’s nice to meet you
Many cultures are similar in how they meet and greet. You want to put your best foot forward, so telling someone that it’s nice to meet them will at least show that you’ve got some manners.
- Spanish: Un placer conocerle / Un placer conocerte
- French: Enchanté(e)
- Portuguese: Prazer em conhecê-lo
- German: Nett, Sie kennenzulernen (formal) / Nett, dich kennenzulernen (informal)
- Mandarin: 很高興見到你 (hěn gāo xìng jiàn dào nǐ)
7. I’m from…
This is a great conversation starter! People are always curious to know about where you’re from.
- Spanish: Yo soy de…
- French: Je viens de…
- Portuguese: Eu sou de…
- German: Ich komme aus…
- Mandarin: 我來自 (wǒ lái zì…)
8. Where are you from?
In the same vein, it’s always interesting to hear where others are from. Maybe you’re from the same place, maybe you’ve traveled to their home country, maybe you have friends or family from their town or country. The “where are you from” question almost always sparks a fun and interesting conversation.
- Spanish: ¿De dónde es usted? (formal) / ¿De dónde eres tú? (informal)
- French: D’où êtes-vous ? (formal) / D’où es-tu ? (informal)
- Portuguese: De onde você é?
- German: Wo kommen Sie her? (formal) / Woher kommst du? (informal)
- Mandarin: 你從哪裡來？ (nǐ cóng nǎ lǐ lái)
9. What time is it?
Practicalities always come into play during travel, and depending on your itinerary, you may be on a schedule. If you find yourself without a watch or phone, this question is handy when you’re racing against the clock.
- Spanish: ¿Qué hora es?
- French: Quelle heure est-t-il ?
- Portuguese: Que horas são?
- German: Wie spät ist es?
- Mandarin: 幾點了？ (jǐ diǎn le)
10. Where is…?
This phrase is good to know because it’s versatile. You could be talking about a person, place or thing. Where is Mindy? Where is my phone charger? Where is the Taj Mahal?
- Spanish: ¿Dónde está…?
- French: Où se trouve… ?
- Portuguese: Onde é…?
- German: Wo ist…?
- Mandarin: …在哪裡？ (… zài nǎ lǐ?)
11. How do I get to…?
This question is very place specific. If you’re trying to get around and you don’t have access to Wi-Fi or GPS, most locals will be able to tell you how to get where you’re going if you just ask.
- Spanish: ¿Cómo llego a…?
- French: Comment puis-je arriver à… ?
- Portuguese: Como faço para chegar até…?
- German: Wie komme ich nach…?
- Mandarin: 我怎麼去…？ (wǒ zěn me qù…)
12. Left, Right, Straight
If you’re going to ask how to get somewhere then it might help if you understand directions. At least learning the most basic ones will get you where you need to go.
- Spanish: Izquierda, Derecha, Derecho
- French: Gauche, Droite, Tout droit
- Portuguese: Esquerda, Direita, Reta
- German: Links, Rechts, Geradeaus
- Mandarin: 左, 右, 直 (zuǒ, yòu, zhí)
13. I’m lost
This one is definitely important to know. Sometimes you get turned around. Especially when you’re in an unfamiliar area. Seek out a safe place and let someone know that you’re lost so they can help you get back on track.
- Spanish: Yo estoy perdido(a)
- French: Je suis perdu(e)
- Portuguese: Estou perdido(a)
- German: Ich habe mich verlaufen
- Mandarin: 我迷路了 (wǒ mí lù le)
14. Pardon me
Again, it’s always good to have manners. Whether you’ve had a tiny collision or you’re trying to get through a crowd, it’s good to be able to throw out an “excuse me” or a “pardon me” so that you can avoid a confrontation.
- Spanish: Perdóneme (formal) / Perdóname (informal)
- French: Excusez-moi (formal) / Excuse-moi (informal)
- Portuguese: Desculpe
- German: Verzeihung (more formal) / Entschuldigung (informal)
- Mandarin: 對不起 (duì bù qǐ)
15. Sorry, I don’t understand
You can master your basic phrases so well that you sound fluent. When that happens, locals will start speaking to you as if you’re fluent. That’s a good time to let them know that you don’t understand so that they can switch gears.
- Spanish: Lo siento, pero no entiendo
- French: Pardon, je ne comprends pas
- Portuguese: Desculpe, eu não entendo
- German: Verzeihung/entschuldigung, ich verstehe Sie (formal)/dich (informal) nicht
- Mandarin: 對不起, 我不明白 (duì bù qǐ, wǒ bù míng bái)
16. Can you speak more slowly please?
Switching gears usually means going slower. Let the person know that you’re still learning and you need them to slow it down. Most people will be happy to oblige!
- Spanish: ¿Puede hablar más lento, por favor?
- French: Pouvez-vous parler plus lentement s’il vous plaît ? (formal) / Peux-tu parler plus lentement s’il te plaît ? (informal)
- Portuguese: Você pode falar mais devagar, por favor?
- German: Könnten Sie (formal)/Könntest du (informal) ein bisschen langsamer sprechen, bitte?
- Mandarin: 你能說得慢一點嗎？ (nǐ néng shuō dé màn yī diǎn ma)
17. I would like…
This one is great for when you’re out at a restaurant or a cafe or really anywhere that you have options. Instead of using a harsh sounding phrase like “I want,” it’s better to take the politer route.
- Spanish: Yo quisiera…
- French: Je voudrais…
- Portuguese: Eu gostaria…
- German: Ich möchte…
- Mandarin: 我想要… (wǒ xiǎng yào)
18. I’m allergic to…
Sadly, allergies don’t go away when we’re abroad. Don’t compromise your health. Let a person know if you’re allergic to certain foods or animals. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Spanish: Soy alérgico a…
- French: Je suis allergique à…
- Portuguese: Sou alérgico a…
- German: Ich bin allergisch gegen…
- Mandarin: 我對…過敏 (wǒ duì… guò mǐn)
19. Thank you
If nothing else, a thank you is always the way to go. It’s the most basic form of polite conversation, and really, if it’s the only phrase you know in 100 languages, then you’ve done all right for yourself.
- Spanish: Gracias
- French: Merci
- Portuguese: Obrigado(a)
- German: Danke
- Mandarin: 谢谢 (xiè xie)
Farewell, friends. Hopefully this list of basic phrases will help you get started on the language learning adventure of your dreams!
- Spanish: Adiós
- French: Au revoir
- Portuguese: Tchau
- German: Auf Wiedersehen (formal) / Tschüss (informal)
- Mandarin: 再見 (zài jiàn)
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.