I don’t speak the language, what should I learn?

As I’m preparing to go south of the border and be forced to butcher the beautiful Spanish language, I am writing a list of key phrases that I know I need to be ready to say.  Realizing I’m crunched for time, I can’t learn every phrase and every food item, so I’m beginning a narrowing process of what I should learn.


I’ve ordered coffee in many different countries, and so I went through and tried to see if I could remember them off the top of my head.  I could for the most part, but I definitely couldn’t spell them so I had to look that part up.  The three I could mostly remember off the top of my head were:

Italian: caffe latte per favore
French: cafe au lait s’il vous plait
Spanish: cafe con leche por favor

I had to look up Portuguese (cafe com leite por favor,) because I couldn’t remember that one.  Three out of four isn’t bad.  I’ve never visited any of the Asian countries, so as I’m looking at how to say those, that seems immensely challenging to me.

I always purchase a general phrase book, and big shocker, I prefer Rick Steve’s books because they are specifically travel-related phrases.  I purchased this Spanish book for when we went to Ecuador, and even though it’s specific to Spain, it seemed to work well for our purposes.  

You have limited time and can’t learn everything, so what should you do?  Here are some tips for what I found to be the most useful.

1.  Learn the words for what you don’t want to eat, not everything you like to eat.  I like to try new things to an extent, but if I know there’s something I hate or something I’m allergic to, I can skim the menu and quickly eliminate those items.  You’re not going to be able to memorize every word, so as long as you can agree to eat anything but XYZ, you’ll be fine.  For me, I don’t like fish so I can easily eliminate every item with “pescado” in it.  

2.  Learn how to say “I don’t speak the language.”  Here’s where it gets tricky.  When you try and pass for knowing what you’re saying, they’re going to assume you understand so they’ll start talking quickly, throwing a lot of phrases and words at you that you can’t understand.  We started saying right off the bat “I don’t speak this language.”  Because, frankly, we don’t.  I’m trying to get by with a few key phrases, but if I immediately start talking in the language, they actually think I can speak it AND understand it.  Basically, if you ask a question in French you’re going to get a response in French and you better hope you understand it.  Or, just set the record straight by openly admitting you don’t know, and the proceed with trying to communicate with the very few words you know.  This will help the person know what they’re dealing with and they can begin pointing and miming to try to help you understand them.

3.  Learn “hello” “please” “thank you” and “good day.”  These are ones that don’t require responses or a going back and forth conversation, but they show that you’re polite and making an effort.  Plus it’s fun.  In Portugal, my husband would say thank you differently than me, because men say it one way, and women say it another.  So I would say, “obrigada” and he would say “obrigado.”

4.  Learn basic transportation phrases.  You should be able to recognize the words for airport, bus, car, taxi, etc.  When you see the giant signs at the airport, it’s good to know where the metro is and what words they use to describe it.  People do not want you to interrupt the flow by stopping and reading signs for 30 minutes, so at least try to do some homework ahead of time.

5.  Prepare mentally for the frustrations that lie ahead of you.  There will be times when you just simply can’t understand and someone will not understand you.  That’s just part of the package.  Just be mentally prepared for this, and expect to have some times when you get your dinner and it’s steak when you thought you ordered chicken.  Just be ready to get lost because you thought they said turn left, but they meant turn right.  Be prepared to walk into the ladies room and see a man because you didn’t know the word for “women’s bathroom.”  Misunderstandings and miscommunication will happen and they will be easier the more you can accept them and move on instead of letting it ruin the day.  These will be the times you’ll laugh at later, so why not try to laugh as soon as possible?

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