60+ Vital First Words and Phrases to Learn in a New Language
When learning a new language, it can be difficult to figure out how to prioritize vocabulary.
What words should you learn first?
There are plenty of vocabulary lists for the most common languages, but where do you even start?
These 65 common words and phrases can provide you with the vocabulary you need to hold basic conversations and communicate important information.
Whatever your target language, you will want to start studying these words and phrases today!
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Why Is It Important to Learn These Phrases First When Learning a New Language?
What makes these 65 words and phrases to special? This vocabulary provides a jumping point for communication. Learning this vocabulary will…
- Ensure you are able to communicate when traveling. You don’t need to be fluent in a new language for travel, but learning key phrases can provide you with the skills you need to ask important questions and share basic information on your travels.
In addition, if you happen to travel to a country that speaks a similar language, you might still be able to use this information to communicate—that is because there are mutually-intelligible languages, which are languages that are similar enough to each other that speakers of one language can understand the other language.
- Allow you to communicate in common situations even if you aren’t that far along in your studies. Learning key words and phrases early enables you to use the language sooner, thereby helping you communicate more clearly and motivating you to keep studying.
- Help you build on your new vocabulary. Many of these words and phrases are very common, so they an act as a foundation for the rest of your learning. As you get more and more proficient, you can add to it with more phrases like slang in different languages.
- Assist in learning verb conjugations and grammar rules. Whenever you encounter a similar sentence, you can use the phrases you’ve learned to help you construct it.
See how important it is to learn key phrases and words like the ones on our list?
The 65 First Words and Phrases to Learn in a New Language
It is impossible to understate the value of being polite. Especially if you don’t speak a language very well, knowing a few polite words and phrases can help clarify that you have good intentions.
Not only is “please” a valuable word to tack on to any request, you can also use it alone to indicate that you want something. For instance, if you see something in a store or at a restaurant that you want, pointing at it and saying “please” will generally communicate your intentions.
- Thank you
Expressing gratitude is appropriate whenever someone helps you out. It shows show them that you know they did you a favor and you appreciate it.
- You’re welcome
While you might not need to use it as often as other polite words, if someone thanks you, it is always nice to respond in kind.
- I’m sorry/Excuse me
“I’m sorry” is usually appropriate if you’ve messed up or want to express remorse. In some languages, it can also be used to express that you didn’t hear/understand. “Excuse me” can be used if you want to get someone’s attention, or get through a crowd. In many languages, the two phrases can be used interchangeably. Since the usage of “I’m sorry” and “excuse me” varies between languages, you will want to investigate which one is more useful in your target language.
These might seem obvious but you will use them often, so they are important to be familiar with.
Greetings & Getting to Know You
Knowing basic greetings and getting-to-know-you conversations in your target language is a setup for a friendly interaction.
You can never go wrong with “hello.” Depending on the level of formality of the interaction, you could also consider using “hi.”
- What is your name?
When the person introduces himself/herself, try to repeat the name. Not only will this give them an opportunity to correct your pronunciation, it will also help you remember the name.
- I am…/My name is…
In some languages you introduce yourself with “I am…” while in others you say “my name is…” or even “I call myself…” instead. Because there is so much variation, it is helpful to pay careful attention to what is most common in your target language. Although learning “I am…” could never hurt. After all, depending on the language, you might also use it to indicate characteristics or feelings, like “I am an American” or “I am happy.”
- Nice to meet you
When someone introduces himself/herself, it is polite to express joy at meeting them. “Nice to meet you” or “it’s a pleasure” are common, but this may vary across languages.
- How are you?
In some places, “how are you?” is a generic greeting. In other places, it is a polite way to show interest in someone’s well being. Regardless, it is a polite question to ask.
- I’m well
If “how are you?” is a generic greeting in many languages, the best way to respond is by saying “I’m well” or “I’m fine,” even if you are not. This also avoids awkward followup questions if you do not speak much of the language.
- Where are you from?
If you want to learn more about a person, this is a good option to start out with. Additionally, if you are traveling abroad, you might hear this question a lot.
- I am from…
At some point you might want to clarify where you are from. Just remember that place names are also likely to be different in your target language, so you will want to also learn the right name to for your home country.
- What is your profession?
If your conversation is going well, you might consider asking “what is your profession?” or “what do you do for a living?” If you are going to ask this, though, be sure you also know the words for common professions, or you might end up a little lost.
Simply walking away from a conversation might seem rude. Knowing the word for “Goodbye” will help. Most languages also have less formal words for goodbye, like “bye” or “bye bye” that you can use with friends.
You can’t plan for everything ahead of time, so sometimes you need to ask questions to get information. Here are some common questions you are likely to use.
- Where is…?
If you are traveling abroad, at some point you are likely to need directions. “Where is…” is a good question to solicit this information. Just pair it with common place names (which we will discuss later).
- How do I get to…?
“Where is…” could lead to a description of the location rather than directions. Use the more direct “how do I get to…?” to yield more specific directions.
- How far is…?
This is an easy question to forget, but knowing the distance from one place to another is an important way to determine what mode of transportation you will use. After all, chances are you don’t want to spend a full day walking to a tourist site when a bus could take you there in an hour.
- Can you show me on a map?
If you do not know enough of the language to follow directions, “can you show me on a map?” is an easy way to avoid using much language. Plus, this will allow you to better visualize your route.
- Could you write that down?
Asking people to write information down allows you to see the printed words, which can be easier to understand than spoken language. If you do not recognize the words, you can later look them up in a dictionary without an awkward pause in conversation.
- How much does it cost?
Whether you are shopping, booking a room or eating out, this will ensure you do not overspend. You might also pair this with “could you write that down?” to make your expenses even clearer.
- What is this?
You can use “what is this?” to learn more about things like food or clothing that you are unfamiliar with, or you could use it to learn new words in your target language.
- What time is it?
If your phone battery dies or the timezone change has you reeling, being able to ask the time can help you avoid missing flights, trains and buses.
- Do you have…?
If you are shopping or want a particular dish at a restaurant, this will help you ask for it by name.
- Do you have anything cheaper?
Not only is this a good way to find out if there is anything more affordable, you might also use this question to try to negotiate a better price.
- Do you like…?
“Do you like…?” can be used for getting-to-know-you activities, but it is also an easy way to find out if something is worth doing. For instance, if you ask a local if they like a particular restaurant and they give you an adamant “no,” you might want to dine elsewhere.
- What is the best…?
Locals always know best, so asking locals what is best is a helpful way to find out the best restaurants, shops and tourist sites.
- How do you say…?
To build your vocabulary, you might try using this phrase. Friendly English-speaking locals might be able to help you if you list a word or phrase in English, or you can point to indicate what you want to learn to say.
- What is fun to do around here?
If you have a gap in your schedule, this is a good way to solicit awesome local tips that other tourists haven’t figured out yet.
- What do you recommend?
Whether you are inquiring about food, hotels or even style choices, being able to ask what someone recommends not only shows them that you respect his/her opinion, it also provides you with valuable insight.
- Where can I…?
You might need help finding the right place for something. For instance, “Where can I buy a matryoshka?” “Where can I get the best sushi?” “Where can I get another unicorn tattoo?”
No, you won’t need to show off your counting skills to locals, but you will undoubtedly need to know numbers for buying things, telling the time and even understanding your hotel room number.
- 1-10, 100, 1,000
The numbers 1 to 10 are essential. In many languages, numbers 11 through 99 are based on the earlier numbers, so you can usually deduce higher numbers if you know the basics (for instance, twenty-two and forty-two use the same rule). One hundred often breaks the conventions, so you will need to learn it. Depending on the local currency, learning higher numbers, like 1,000, could also come in handy.
When traveling internationally, most travelers will at some point travel via air, so learning the word for airplane is important.
Train travel is common in many countries, so this word could come in handy.
If you are looking to hire a car, learning the word for taxi is essential. Luckily, in many languages, it’s just “taxi.”
Whether you plan to rent a car or not, this is still a useful word to know.
Buses offer a convenient and affordable mode of transportation, so you might want to learn the word.
It is vague and generic but it can also be useful. If you do not know the name of a place, the word “place” might help you. For instance, if you can’t remember the word for “restaurant,” you might ask “Where is the place…?” and then make an eating gesture . Sure, it’s not elegant, but it gets the job done.
Everyone likes food, so it is best to just learn the word for restaurant. Your stomach will thank you.
If you are staying in a hotel, this word is important. If you are renting an apartment or condo, you might learn these words instead.
When you are running late for a flight, you will be glad you learned the word for airport.
- Train/bus station
If you plan on doing any train travel, knowing the word for train station can help you get the directions you need. Similarly, learning the word for bus station can help you find the desired station rather than standing around on the street frantically trying to wave down 10-ton vehicles.
If you have a shopping bug (and who doesn’t?) knowing the word for market will help you find your next great souvenir. It is important to note, however, that in different languages, there may be different words for food markets, clothing markets, etc.
Communicating Basic Information
- I like…
It can be a friendly way to share interests or give compliments, but you can also use “I like…” to try to get what you want. For instance, saying “I like pasta” in a restaurant would let the waiter know to direct you towards pasta dishes, especially if you pair it with “what do you recommend?”
- I don’t like…
“I don’t like…” might not be as useful for friendly conversation as “I like…” since it could seem a little negative, but it is just as useful for trying to get what you want. For instance, “I don’t like onions. What do you recommend?” will let the waiter know you want help finding onion-free or low-onion dishes.
- I speak…
Clarifying what language or languages you speak will let people know how you communicate best. If they happent to speak the same language you can switch to it for easier communication.
- I’d like to go to…
This is a particularly useful phrase to use in taxis to let the driver know your destination.
- I’m allergic to…
If you have allergies, this is an essential phrase to share in restaurants. Be sure to also learn the words for any of your allergens.
- I would like…
Whether you are ordering food, requesting a specific hotel room or looking to purchase a souvenir, this phrase is incredibly useful.
- Can I have…?
This phrase is similar to “I would like…” although which one to use can vary between languages.
- Do you speak English?
If you are struggling to understand or be understood, this is good information to have. Even if the person you are speaking with does not speak English, they may help you find someone who does.
- Menu, please
Getting a restaurant menu is important. It gives you time to leisurely peruse the food items (and frantically look up any words you don’t know).
- Check, please
If your waiter doesn’t bring you the check, you will be glad to know this phrase. No one wants to sit around waiting for a check for three hours. No one.
No matter how hard you study, there are some things you might still miss. Here are a few ways to express your confusion.
- Repeat, please
Understanding a foreign language can be hard. Asking someone to repeat what they said will give you another chance to understand what you may have missed the first time.
- More slowly, please
Some native speakers speak really quickly. Even if you are proficient at a language, you might need them to slow it down a little.
- I don’t understand
Saying this phrase comes across so much better than just staring blankly. It also provides the speaker an opportunity to repeat or rephrase.
- I’m sorry, I don’t speak…
This is a polite way to let people know that you don’t understand the language.
- What does…mean?
When you don’t understand a particular word, this is a helpful way to get more explanation or solicit an impromptu charades session.
Hopefully you will never need to use the following words, but it is always better to be prepared!
You never know when you might need help, and you certainly do not want to be left scrambling for a dictionary or translator, so this is a good word to learn ahead of time.
You might not need it often, but you will certainly want to learn this word in case you see it on a sign or hear someone warning you.
Like “caution,” you might see this word on signs. Understanding it will help ensure you don’t fall into a hole or touch a live electrical wire—avoiding little things like that make a trip much nicer.
If you are experiencing a crisis, being able to use this word will help communicate what is happening.
You will not need it that often, but if someone is running down your hotel hallway screaming it you will be glad you studied ahead of time.
- I need a doctor
In a medical emergency, this phrase can help you get the assistance you need.
- Please call the police
You never want it to happen, but if you encounter ne’er-do-wells this phrase will let bystanders know you need police intervention.
More Places to Learn Your First 65 Words and Phrases
There are many different ways to learn your first words and phrases. You will need to find which way works best for you, but there are some particularly useful ways.
- Make your own vocabulary lists or foreign language notebooks to keep track of your favorite words and phrases. Only include the phrases you think you will want to use. This way, you have your very own, customized guide to help you learn.
- Watch Native Media. Watching YouTube videos or movies on Netflix in your target language can be a great way to pick up new words and phrases, especially with the help of subtitles.
You can also watch authentic clips on FluentU, a program that uses videos like movie trailers, news clips and music videos to teach you a language as it’s used by native speakers. The videos have interactive captions that let you click words and phrases to get a definition, example sentences and pronunciation.
You can save words to your flashcards from here, to review later. Or, you can search for any of the words in this post in your target language and find their flashcards and videos where they show up. This means that you can hear important words used by speakers of your target language, in context.
FluentU currently has programs for 10 languages and you can access them all with one account in a browser, on iOS or on Android.
- Group your vocabulary into small chunks. Staring down a long vocabulary lists is daunting, but if you break it into small chunks, learning vocabulary is much less intimidating. Plus, grouping vocabulary sets thematically will also help you link related words in your mind.
- Check pronunciations online. Listening to words and phrases can help you pronounce them better, so use Forvo and Google Translate to hear what each word/phrase sounds like. Forvo offers free, user-submitted pronunciations of common words and phrases while Google Translate offers translations and pronunciations. It also allows you to hear the word more slowly when you click a second time.
With these learning methods, along with the phrases in the list above, you will soon be on your way to communicating in your target language.
So now all that remains is for you to find out: what are these words and phrases in your target language, and how will you use them?
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)