How To: Speak a Foreign Language for Travel

I almost titled this post, “How I Stopped Crying and Learned to Love German.”  I studied German for the dumbest reason anyone has ever picked a language.  My high school boyfriend and I were cruelly separated by college.  We tearfully vowed to reunite during our junior year abroad in Germany, a country he picked for us.  Then, wait for it… We broke up during first semester.  Due to intensive foreign language requirements, I was stuck learning German for my entire undergraduate and graduate programs.  Six long years.


I was terrible at German.  Here are a few excerpts from my illustrious German academic career, which I may have embellished, but only slightly.  Please note that there were no “safe spaces” at college back then.

  • University Language Proficiency Panel: “Your presentation (in German) on Alexander the Great was one of the worst we have ever heard.”
  • Professor: “Stop crying.  The German language isn’t trying to ruin your life.”
  • Admissions letter from my graduate school: “You have been kind-of admitted to our prestigious university.  Your German appears to be horrid.  To fully enroll in our university, you must take three hours of German every night for the entire summer.  Congratulations-ish.”

When I finally completed my graduate degree, I was overjoyed that I would never, ever be required to utter another German syllable.  Then, I visited Austria, and a funny thing happened.  It turned out that I had picked up quite a lot of German in six years.  Moreover, the kind Austrians were amazed that an American, of all people, could order meals and train tickets IN GERMAN.

Since then, I have craved the praise of people who are shocked when Americans trot out a few phrases in a foreign language.  Here are a few tips on speaking a foreign language for travel:

  • Find a good online language program.  I recently discovered Transparent Language.  Unlike other language programs, Transparent specifically focuses on the basics that tourists require — how to use transportation; order food; stay in a hotel, etc.  The company is not paying me and doesn’t know I exist.  I just love this program, and it doesn’t require a huge investment of time.
  • Download a translation app.  I enjoy the Google Translate app, and it continues to improve for off-line use.  You can:
    • Look up a phrase you want to say, and the app will provide you with the written text.
    • Play the phrase out loud so you can hear how it is supposed to sound.
    • Compose e-mails in the foreign language and then translate the responses you receive.
    • Take a picture of any sign in a foreign language, including information in museums or menus in restaurants, and the app will translate it for you.
  • Let the locals correct you.  Don’t take offense.  Embrace it.  A woman in Italy  was pleased that I was attempting Italian.  She refused to  sell me a train ticket until I rolled my “r’s” to her satisfaction.  It is actually one of my favorite memories.  She and I, late at night in an empty train station, rolling r’s together.
  • Buy a pocket travel dictionary:  The travel dictionaries usually have summary pages of the most-used words and phrases.  I take photos of those pages with my phone for easy access.
  • Own it!  Due to the trauma of my earlier language acquisition efforts, I am still shy about speaking a foreign language until I get warmed up. This results in me accidentally trying out each new phrase in a truncated whisper that no one can possibly hear. For instance, the confident and loud sentence, “I would like a table for two,” becomes a whispered, “Table. Two.”  Be better than me.  Be confident from the get-go.
  • Put in even a little effort:  I don’t buy into the belief that Americans are ignorant and obnoxious for not knowing twelve languages before the age of five.  English is a language spoken by people in many countries, which reduces our collective sense of urgency to learn additional languages.  The United States also is a huge country geographically, which further disincentives its citizens to learn new languages.  I can leave my house in California, and twelve hours later, I still will be driving in California.

I do believe that it is the responsibility of a good traveler to learn the basics–please, thank you, do you take a credit card, and goodbye.  Figure out how to say, “Do you speak English?” in the foreign language.

Over the years, I have found that the people of this world are kind and generous to travelers when given half a chance.  Give them a reason to be generous.  Be respectful.  Learn their language.  A little bit goes a long way.