Travel Tips: Struggling with Language

rani's picture

Travel Tips: Do make an effort to learn the language of the country that you’re going to. People would appreciate your effort greatly. The locals are easily impressed and amused by your enthusiasm to blend in, and also it’s a sign of humility because you’re trying not to force the locals to speak English. Also there is less likelihood that you’re gonna be tricked because local people became aware that you might understand their language. Sometimes you can bargain better price by only speaking the language.


For this Mexico Cuba trip, we had zero knowledge of Spanish, except for a very very few words. We took an effort to learn the language with a very limited time of three months. We didn’t enrol to a class due to our limited time. Instead, we borrow tapes and books from the library. The Pimsleur method was proven to be very effective to obtain basic knowledge of conversational Spanish. We spend about one hour a day playing Pimsleur tape in our stereo. The good thing about Pimsleur is that you can learn it while doing something else, something that didn’t require much concentration such as while doing housechores, cooking, or commuting. In three months we only manage to get to lesson 15 of level 1, partly because we didn’t spend time to study spanish daily, but rather, only a couple of times a week.

On site

Nevertheless, our rushed effort paid off rather well because we managed to engage in basic conversation with people around Mexico and Cuba. For example, we managed to understand Maribel’s Mayan background from a conversation with her, or note down the roast chicken recipe given to us by the Mayan people in Chichen Itza. That’s why we highly recommend Pimsleur Method due to its proven effectiveness. But the downside is that it is really expensive, therefore, it’s highly recommended to borrow it from libraries instead.

When we arrived in Mexico, communcation turned out to be easier than what we expected even though most people can’t speak english. Why is it so? Because when we’re actually in the country, we could use body language, sign language, gestures, and eye contact to enhance the communication. Those are powerful tools that helped communcation.

Spanish language in Mexico is easier to understand because Mexican pronunciation is clearer. However, Cuba has been a challenge. This is largely because their accent and pronunciation are rather difficult to understand. Cubans would eliminate letter “s” in the words and tend to mash together the words in a sentence. For example, “de donde es usted?” becomes “donde e’uted?”, “buenos dias” becomes “buenodia”, “muchas gracias” becomes “muchagracia” and “nos vamos” becomes “nobamo”. I also think Cubans use the letter W, B, and V interchangeably, while the letter “N” in the end of the word is pronounced as “NG”. And Cubans talk really fast, faster than the Mexicans. So it has been more difficult there. Luckily Eko’s family and friends had been very helpful to us while in Cuba.

Back in the USA our ability to speak basic spanish has also been helpful, particularly in San Diego, where many of the workers in restaurant are hispanic. Once I spoke spanish to them, suddenly the services in those restaurant became significantly better and friendlier.

Tricks to Communicate with Limited Vocabulary

I could recommend three tricks to communicate with limited vocabulary.

First, is to use a lot of body language / sign language. If you don’t know the word for a thing that you want to buy in the shop, just point at the thing. Sign language does help too when your pronounciation is bad, or to emphasis the meaning of particular word. For example, you create a big circle when saying “grande” to indicate big size. You can also draw things, or type numbers into calculator.

Second, choose words cleverly despite not knowing many words. The key is to simplify your thoughts, to strip the sentences into basic words. Therefore, you don’t need to memorize all adjective, for example, because you can indicate a negative adjective by adding “not” in front of it.
For example, rather than saying “ugly” you can say “not beautiful”. Or rather than memorizing the word “hungry” you can replace it with “want to eat”. Or, rather than using the word “buy”, or ordering in restaurant you can just simply say “I want”. Rather than saying “hate”, you can say “don’t like”. Rather than saying “I was born in …” you can simply say “I’m from …”. You can say “a place to eat” and “a place to buy” rather than saying “restaurant” or “shop”. Rather than saying “I want to do a reservation of a room for a week” you can say “I want to stay here for seven days”. Rather than saying “sanitary napkin”, I said to the shopkeeper “towel for women”.

Third, you may try to use the words from other language such as English and French, then change the pronunciation to mimick Spanish, and pray that there is such word in Spanish dictionary. For example, for adverbs, you can try to change the “-ly” in english into “-mente” in Spanish, such as “particularly” into “particularmente”, or “totally” into “totalmente”. Or simply change the pronunciation, such as “information” (informesyen) in english into “informacion” (informasiyon) in spanish.

With this three tips, you can reduce the need to look into phrase books and dictionary. To save time in your trip, use dictionary only as last resort.

List of Essential Words

I try to compile a list of words and phrases that I have considered as essential. It’s rather disorganized, and I appreciate your feedback / comments before compiling it into a more formal list. But basically, I’d like to keep this list totally minimal, as practical guide to people who are travelling. Because, based on my experience, not everything that you’ve learned in language course is totally useful. There are only few words that are more often than the other, hence totally essential, and here, we’re trying to identify those words.

Basic Words / Phrases that You MUST Know

  • Yes
  • No
  • Please
  • Thank you
  • Hello / Good Morning, Afternoon, Night / Greetings
  • Excuse me / Pardon me
  • Sir / Ma’am
  • Mister / Madam
  • How are you?
  • I’m fine
  • Good (to comment on things)
  • Sorry
  • I don’t understand / I understand
  • I don’t speak ____ language
  • Do you speak english?
  • Help!
  • What is this / that?
  • No pork please (if you’re muslim or jewish) / No meat please (if you’re vegetarian)
  • No alcohol please (If you’re non-drinking)
  • I don’t have time / I don’t have money (Staying away from persistent touts)

Very Essential Words / Phrases

  • Numbers
  • Have
  • This / That
  • Something
  • Nothing
  • Want
  • Need
  • Like (preference)
  • Can / Able / Unable
  • Do / To do
  • See / Look
  • Stay
  • Go
  • Here / There
  • Buy
  • Know / Don’t Know
  • Eat / Drink
  • Delicious
  • Too (as in, too much, too expensive)
  • Buy
  • Cheap / Expensive
  • Good / Beautiful / Lovely (to comment on things)
  • I’m from ____ (country)
  • To / From
  • What ___?
  • How ___?
  • How much ___? How many ___?
  • A lot / A little
  • Where ___?
  • Place (general terms that can be used to denote other things, i.e. a place to eat = restaurant, a place to buy = shop)
  • Who ___?
  • Speak slower, please
  • How do you say (insert word) in ___ (language name)?
  • What does (insert word) mean in English?
  • What is the address of ___?
  • Could you write it down please?
  • Fast / Slow
  • Quickly / Now / Later
  • Waiter! / Waitress!
  • Salt / Pepper / Ketchup
  • Drinking water / clean water
  • Soft drink / Soda / Beer / Coffee / Tea / Sugar
  • Hot / Warm / Cold

Essential Words / Phrases

  • Inside / Outside
  • Big / Small
  • Check Please! / To Pay
  • Cash / Credit Card / Debit Card / Traveller’s Check / ATM
  • Directions (N-S-W-E, right, left, straight, front, back, under, above, up, down)
  • To say time and duration (minutes, hours)
  • To say dates
  • When ___?
  • Yesterday / Today / Tomorrow
  • Before / At / After
  • Still / Yet / Not Yet
  • Basic measurements (miles, meters)
  • Near / Far
  • Glass / Cup / Plate / Spoon / Knife / Fork
  • Feel sick / ill
  • Room / Reservation / Available
  • Towel / Soap / Shampoo / Flush / Toilet
  • Cushion / Pillow / Bedsheet
  • Clean / Dirty
  • Wash (general terms for washing, bathing, showering, cleaning after something, and even laundry)
  • Tired
  • Words for streets / roads
  • House / Building / Apartment / Hotel (depending on your destination)
  • Beach / Mountain / Wood / Forest / Lake / Park (depending on your destination)
  • Car / Bus / Train / Airplane
  • Rent

Good-To-Know Words / Phrases

  • Words about yourself (where you’re from, professional background, age): Work / Study / Learn, etc
  • Part of your body and basic words for feeling sick (just in case)
  • Swearwords (to bluff people)

How About You?
And how about your experience in travelling to strange exotic destination? What are your tips to overcome the language barrier? Do share it with us here.


bs di praktekan di mainland china gak ya?

Hm...seandainya saja itu dapat efektif di negara Cina. Tapi gw rasa list yang pertama dan kedua memang ampuh dipake di kota-kota di Cina. Tapi begitu berbicara lebih banyak, atau setidaknya menjelaskan sesuatu, gw rasa gak mudah di Cina. Karena Cina punya banyak bahasa daerah, tapi Mandarin memang menjadi bahasa utama. Dan mandarin di berbagai daerah Cina punya aksen yang berbeda. Dan mandarin mengharuskan kita untuk paham dan fasih mengucapkan intonasi.Beda intonasi, beda arti. Apalagi untuk lidah orang Indonesia yang rada susah melafalkan dan membedakan shi, chi,zhi, xi, si, ji,ci, ...buat gw, semua terdengar sama. Dan org Cina telinganya tajem banget. Gw sering salah pengertian saat awal-awal pindah di Guang Zhou. Dan semakin kita bisa berbahasa mandarin(walau sedikit) semakin mereka memaksakan bahasanya untuk dimengerti, sementara kita kemampuan berbahasanya terbatas. Dan kalau kita mengakui kita bukan orang Cina, bukan respect yang kita dapat, tapi malah kecurigaan. Setidaknya itulah yang gw alami selama tinggal di Cina. hehhee.....kesian de gue...

It's essential to learn the

It's essential to learn the phrase "please don't shoot me" in as many languages as possible :D

sangat berharga

thank atas infonya.ini sangat berharga

How to Learn a Language

Good tips! Note also How to Learn a Language - at Wikibooks. I added your post to the links there.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.

More information about formatting options

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.