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It is frequently advised for travelers to learn the basic vocabulary in whatever is the local language in the country they're visiting. The reasons usually given are:

  1. It can help in situations where the other persons knows zero/little English
  2. It helps endear the locals

Is there truth to that piece of advice in the modern times or can everything be solved through Google Translate on a mobile phone?

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“Excuse me, do you know where I could recharge my phone?” –  Gilles Mar 6 at 18:12
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How are you going to make a police report about your stolen mobile phone? –  emory Mar 6 at 20:50
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Consider reading "Shantaram" while you out travelling somewhere. Its a good read also it details as an answer to the above question. –  Byzantine Failure Mar 7 at 11:33
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3 Answers 3

up vote 55 down vote accepted

Absolutely. While you may sometimes have time to look things up, often you won't. I have absent-mindedly arrived overseas without learning "please" and "thank you", and noticed upon fixing that, and using them as appropriate, that everyone was instantly nicer to me, both strangers and the people I was there to interact with. It makes a difference.

I recommend you learn the following things before you go:

  • please, thank you, hello, help, yes, no (and the gestures for yes and no too)
  • what they say in that country to call people forward from a line (eg "Next!" in many English speaking countries)
  • the names of foods you especially like or (more importantly) cannot eat

You should be able to both say and hear these words and react appropriately, which could be as simple as smiling and saying the same thing, or could be getting out your translation device or guidebook and starting the work of communicating.

While you are in the country, you should also know:

  • how to say, hear, and read anything that might be your destination - a city name if you're travelling to it, your hotel name, an attraction you want to visit. If you think Tour Eiffel refers to a guided visit, you will be confused or sorry. It is also good to learn east, west, north, and south for extra confirmation that you're getting on the right train or bus
  • some numbers. You'll need these for times, prices, bus routes, and so on. If the country writes them differently learn that too.

If you have learned absolutely NO WORDS in the local language, carry props. A map on which you point to where you want to go, some paper from the hotel with their name on it you can show to a cab driver, a printout of your train ticket with your destination on it. "Please help" and pushing your paper at someone will probably work. Getting your phone to say "which is the platform for the airport train?" might, but then again it might not.

Imagine yourself at the mall and a stranger comes up to you. They hold their phone out to you and want you to read it, or they push a button and their phone says something ungrammatical in a robot voice. Would you help those people? Would it make a difference if the conversation started "Hello, can you please help me? I am lost." and then the phone-offering or paper-showing started? I think it would. Knowing just a dozen local words will make an enormous difference and it is not hard to do.

One other thing: if you can convincingly say "no thankyou" in a bored voice in the local language you will be pestered far less by the tchotke-sellers and would-be pickpockets or whatever that seem to hang around most tourist attractions. I learned this by accident in France. I was being polite declining in their own language and the one time I slipped and used English I got a frighteningly hard sell and a lot of pressure and aggravation. That never happened with the bored French.

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+10: Kate has already said everything important. I always have a list of words in the local language extending the basic words (numbers, directions, food etc.). It really does not matter how mangled the words come out the first time (you learn easily from the local answers the correct spelling) the reaction is almost always very positive. –  Thorsten S. Mar 6 at 16:13
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"if you can convincingly say "no thankyou" in a bored voice in the local language you will be pestered far less by the tchotke-sellers" - a friend of mine learned in china how to say no thank you to deter people. While in Morocco she reported that the chinese worked very effectively also, possibly as much due to confusion as they couldn't understand what language she was speaking to be able to shift suitably. :) –  Chris Mar 6 at 23:56
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While please, thank you, hello, help is OK... what about the words of love? They're as important... :) PS: Don't forget to sprinkle in some local insults. –  CodeAngry Mar 7 at 4:10
    
Thanks for detailed answer, it's really helpful :) –  Nilesh Thakkar Mar 7 at 13:21
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Pronunciation is very important. Parisians probably know that English-speakers pronounce "Eiffel" as something like eye-full, rather than ee-fell, but farther from the beaten track, it's much less likely that they'll recognize a mangled place name. For example, when I lived in Athens, I told somebody (actually, a native English speaker who now lives there) that I'd been to some particular neighbourhood. She had no idea what I was talking about until I described what was there and she said, "Ohhhh. You mean [similar pronunciation but with the stress completely different]." –  David Richerby Mar 7 at 22:11
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Ah yes, you can totally rely on Google Translate...except when you can't. It's not perfect. It's inaccurate, and it's slower than your brain.

Imagine after every sentence, having to google translate it, and then work out your answer, translate that, and then speak it? You're not going to have satisfying conversations, and will get embarrassed.

I've found that even ~10 words/phrases will get you VERY far (plus hand signals and a friendly smile):

  • hello
  • thank you
  • yes & no
  • "where is ...?"
  • "how much does ... cost?"
  • goodbye
  • help
  • taxi
  • bus station, airport
  • toilet

*bonus - your age, marital status, and country of origin

A couple of those don't sound that important, but when you need them, you'll realise.

In addition, the evidence that you've at least tried to learn some of the local language will often endear your self to the locals. They'll appreciate and be more understanding and willing to help than some loud tourist just repeating it in English slowly and loudly, which then can embarrass them if they don't speak English (or whatever your language is).

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Well, I did manage a lot with Google Translate on a recent trip to Thailand, but I was still kind-of wondering if it was a mistake not to learn a single Thai word while staying in the country. –  JonathanReez Mar 12 at 0:15
    
Yeah I mean, it's probably good enough that you could be followed, but it'd be so slow, and it doesn't take long to learn just a handful of phrases. –  Mark Mayo Mar 12 at 1:43
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It is important to learn some words when traveling so you can be polite and avoid mistakes. My favorites are, in order of importance:-

  • No - so you know what not to do,
  • Thank you - polite people get goodwill,
  • You are welcome - more goodwill,
  • Where is the toilet? - necessity,
  • Hello, my name is... - you are there for adventure; have one,
  • What does this cost? - it could be much more expensive depending on exchange rates,

To Bring:

Bring a small notebook for writing down numbers and drawing things you don't have the word for, like cats or buses. Perhaps a dictionary, if it fits in a handy pocket

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Some unexpected caveats: Some languages such as Chinese don't have a word for "no". In others such as Japanese "no" can come across as a bit rude. In both cases foreigners will be given leeway. In some languages including Armenian and the languages of India it's rare to say "thank you"! In the latter case people actually use the English even in local languages and reserve the native word for special circumstances. –  hippietrail Mar 7 at 13:41
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