How many spoken languages do you think there are?


There are about 6,500 spoken languages in the world today (Mandarin Chinese has the most speakers), according to How Many Spoken Languages - Infoplease. And at any given point, there are thousands of students learning many of these languages with plans to visit the country where the language is spoken.


Therefore, it’s a good idea to have down (learn well) the travel words you’ll need from your new language. Travel words are often easier to learn than other words in a language because they’re very specific and repetitive, such as asking for the restroom, where the bus station is, etc. And the fact that you’re going to use these phrases repeatedly will reinforce them in your mind. Plus, native speakers in the country you’re visiting are used to hearing foreigners ask these questions, and some are often happy to help you with pronunciation or the correct word.


What words are most useful?


“I’ve been to 25 countries and I can tell you that there are only 11 phrases you need to get by anywhere,” says Mark Abadi for Business Inside.  


Here’s what he recommends (in no special order):


Thank you 


This is self-explanatory, but you wouldn’t believe how many people rush off without expressing gratitude for someone’s kindness in the country they’re visiting.


Hello and goodbye


You already know these basic expressions from elementary and beginning language classes, such as, the different greetings you’ve learned from Level I Spanish words, and other Level I languages. The good thing is that all languages have words for hello and goodbye.


Excuse me


This isn’t just for apologizing for stepping on someone’s toes. This can be a very important way to get someone’s attention for something important that you must know.


May I have


When you want to order something in a restaurant, this is the phrase that will get you what you want to eat, or at least something to eat.


Sorry, I can’t eat … or I’m allergic to


You don’t leave your food allergies at home when you travel, so make sure you know this expression along with the specific allergy you have. If you get the idea that the waiter doesn’t understand you, skip the meal at that resaurant. 




Hopefully, you won’t need it, but it’s important to know it anyway. 


How much does it cost?


You must know this when you want to buy something, of course, but it can be a bit tricky when bargaining is expected in certain countries. And some experienced tourists will tell you that natives and tourists get different prices for the same item. The only thing you can do here is bring a friendly native of the country with you to help you out. 


Where is the bathroom? 


Says author Mark Abadi, commit this phrase to memory. Obviously.


Yes or no. 


Do not count on every nation’s citizens to mean “yes” when they nod their head, or “no’ when they shake their head. In some cases, it can mean the opposite! 


Sorry, I don’t speak …


If you’re ever in a panic trying to remember something in your new language, you can depend on this.  In almost every country, there is someone who speaks your language. And it can never hurt to carry a translator or language dictionary with you.

Where is the…

This is especially a significant phrase when you can’t read a map (like me) or you can get lost coming out of a restroom (like me).


Be specific.


If you’re going to China, you may think, “Well, I’ll think I’ll learn some Chinese so I can get along better as a tourist.” But which language will you learn? There are eight major languages in China. The largest spoken one is Mandarin (used more in the north) and Cantonese (spoken more in the south), according to Linguese.


As if that wasn’t enough, there are about 200 dialects (a particular form of a language that is spoken in a specific region or social group). Although, the major forms of Chinese may be similar, it’s not always the case (situation).  China is a big place! So, you may want to consider where in China you’ll be spending most of your time.


Now, let’s take (use as an example) Spanish. You would think, as many of us do, that Spanish travel language would be the same all over -- like Latin American-Spanish for travelers and the Spanish used in Europe, especially in Spain itself.  But, like with China, there are several varieties of Spanish.


In Latin America (Mexico, Argentina and Peru, for example), the “Spanish” language here is mostly called castellano (Castilian, after the Castile region) as opposed to español (Spanish), according to ESL Stories. There’s even a rivalry as to which form of Spanish is the best and purest.


The differences between Castellano (Latin America) and español (what many of refer to as “real” Spanish) aren’t that great, although there are some differences in vocabulary and pronunciation.  One striking example is the word cogerIn Spain, the verb coger (to catch, grab or fetch) is used all the time. But, in Latin America, coger is a slang or derogatory term used extensively to describe sex.  Therefore, it behooves you (is required of you) to decide which Spanish you’re going to use.


Likewise, if you’re planning a brief visit to France, you don’t have to know everything about the French language; it’s enough for you to learn French travel phrases, which consist of the basics of greetings, asking for directions and thanking people.




Rehearse several times before you leave for your destination.  It doesn’t matter how or with who by yourself, with a travel partner or even better, with your italki tutor.


Travel, work, live


Often, we travel to another country, planning to just visit, and then we want more.  More of the language and the culture. There are different kinds of immersion (listening and speaking in only your target language). Some experts believe that the he best immersion experience, if you’re fortunate, is to do a longtime stay in the country of your target language, speaking only that language.  For example, if you want to learn Japanese , live in Japan. Or if you want to become fluent in Germany, learn to speak German in Germany.  Even beginners can do this.


There’s a step beyond this: If you’re truly ambitious about learning a language, learn it by working in that country.  It may seem daunting (anticipating  great difficulty with something), but you can do it if you’re dedicated to learning the language and willing to take a job that may be below your skill and experience level.  Let’s say you’re keen on learning Spanish. One of the best ways is to be brave enough to live and work in Spain.  If you’re an accountant, don’t expect to get a job as an accountant in Spain.  You’ll probably be offered a job in something you would never expect to do in your own country.


These last two steps; learning a language through immersion or working is harder, of course, than using travel phrases for a trip. But you never know where starting off with a language’s basics will lead you: maybe even to  living in the country of your dreams.


Have a good voyage!




The most common spoken languages


Business Inside (for only 11 phrases you need to travel)

Linguese (for how many languages there are)

ESL Stories (for the differences between similar languages)

Ilene Springer is a longtime English tutor and writer for italki. She has taught English abroad, and has written for publications, such as Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post and the Boston Globe. She is the author of The Diary of An American Expatriate. Ilene lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico (US)--home of Breaking Bad!


Hero image by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash