Foreign languages can be tricky, and even the most well-intentioned travellers can get shy trying to use the more unfamiliar ones. But there are a handful of words and phrases that every self-respecting (and other-culture-respecting) traveller should learn.
Our multilingual guide – with the English word or phrase followed by 15 international languages – can help get you started with the basics.
We’ve included a bit of context or explanation where necessary. For instance, in some languages you use different words or phrases to address men from those you use to speak to women.
Tip: Keep in mind too that there’s often more to being polite than simply using the right words. You may want to dig a bit deeper into your destination’s customs and proper etiquette before you go in order to avoid any embarrassing or offensive situations.
We’ve also made the assumption that because you are travelling to a foreign country and will likely be meeting or speaking to people for the first time, you’ll use the formal versus the informal forms of greeting.
1) Hello. How are you?
Everyone’s go-to icebreaker.
Arabic: Ahlan. Kayf haalak?
Note: When greeting a group of people in Arabic, the proper, polite approach is to individually greet each person. Bear in mind that many Arabic-speaking nations think it rude for men and women to publicly greet one another.
Cantonese: Néih hóu. Néih hóu ma.
French: Bonjour. Comment allez-vous?
German: Hallo. Wie geht es dir?
Hindi: Namaste. Āp kaise haiṅ?
Italian: Ciao. Come stai?
Japanese: Konnichiwa. O genki desu ka?
Khmer: Niak sohk sabaay te?
Note: Traditionally, Cambodians say hello and goodbye – particularly the first time – with the sampeah: they put their palms together (like praying) and bow their heads. While sampeahing, you should also say the formal Khmer greeting “Choum reap sor”.
Mandarin: Ni hǎo.
Persian/Farsi: Salam. Shoma chetur hastin?
Thai: Sà-wàt-dee. Sà-baai dee măi.
Vietnamese: For males, use Chào anh. Anh khỏe không? And for females, say Chào chị. Chị khỏe không?
2) Thank you
If you want to express your gratitude, here’s how to do it.
Arabic: Shukran Jazilan (translates to “thanks a lot”).
Cantonese: Use “Dòjeh” when thanking someone for a present, and “Ḿhgòi” when expressing gratitude for a service.
Khmer: Aw kohn.
Malay: Terima kasih.
Portuguese: Use “Obrigado” for men and “Obrigada” for women.
Thai: Kòp kun.
Vietnamese: Use “Cảm ơn ông” for men; use “Cảm ơn bà” for women.
3) Where are the toilets?
Commit this one to memory first! This is not the question you want to forget how to say when you’ve had too many cups of tea or pints of beer!
Arabic: Ayn al-ḥammām?
Cantonese: Use “Chisó hái bīndouh a?” or “Sáisáugāan hái bīndouh a?”
French: Où se trouvent les toilettes?
German: Wo ist die toilette?
Hindi: Tāyalet kahāṁ haiṅ?
Italian: Dov’è il bagno?
Japanese: Toire wa doko desu ka?
Khmer: Bawng-kohn neuv ai naa?
Malay: Di mana tandas?
Mandarin: Cèsuǒ zài nǎlǐ.
Persian: Dashtshuee kojast?
Portuguese: Onde está a casa de banho?
Spanish: ¿Dónde está el baño?
Thai: Hông náam yòo năi?
Vietnamese: Cầu tiêu ở đâu?
4) How much is it?
The answer to this all-important question may determine whether you bring home that coveted souvenir.
Arabic: Ask either “Bekam?” or “Addesh?”
Cantonese: Nīgo géidō chín a?
French: Combien ça coûte?
German: Wie viel kostet das?
Hindi: Kitane kā hai?
Italian: Quanto costa?
Japanese: Ikura desu ka?
Khmer: Nih th’lay pohnmaan?
Malay: Berapa harganya ini?
Mandarin: Zhège duōshǎo qián?
Persian: Gheymatesh chande?
Portuguese: Quanto custa?
Spanish: ¿Cuánto cuesta?
Thai: Raa-kaa tâo rài?
Vietnamese: Cái này giá bao nhiêu?
Parting is such sweet sorrow, but it’s not so sweet if you don’t have these words up your sleeve.
Arabic: You’ll often hear “Ma’a as-salaama”, which means “goodbye” or “Ila-liqaa”, which translates to “until we meet again”.
Cantonese: Use “Joigin” or “Bāaibaai”.
French: Au revoir.
German: Auf Wiedersehen.
Khmer: Choum reap lear.
Malay: Use “Selamat tinggal” if you’re the one leaving and “Selamat jalan” if you’re the one staying.
Portuguese: Adeus (frm).
Thai: laa gòn ná.
Vietnamese: Use “Chào anh” for men and “Chào chị” for women.