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The Smartest World Travelers Always Learn These Two Words

As someone who is conversational in Spanish, French, and Russian and can get by in Italian and German, with a smattering of Hebrew and Arabic, trust me when I say, if you’re going to travel outside your native country learn two words.

From the time I started traveling, I started learning languages because I wanted to dispel the stupid American stereotype. Spanish was first, mi abuelo fue de Espana. Then I added French and had a distinct Spanish accent for a bit, then Russian. Now as I live in different countries I pick up the basics and sometimes more. And I slip foreign words into my everyday speech. Gracias, bon jour, yalla, (one of my favorite words!) bokur tov, spasiba and more.

My first trip to Jordan I only knew two words of Arabic. La and Shukran. No and Thank you. Alone or in combination they got me through a three-day trip.

I’ve found you’ll get much more assistance if you make even this small effort. Speaking English loudly won’t get you far.

Some might argue you need to learn yes, please, help, I don’t speak the language. I don’t disagree. But you can get by with just no and thank you. Nodding and smiling will cover yes. A pleading/desperate look covers please and help me. Shaking your head covers I don’t speak the language and works well with an apologetic smile.

No thank you is a very polite phrase and can indicate a regret or simple courtesy. Outside of English it is much more common to repeat no, no, no. Tone and inflection can convey additional meaning. Softly spoken no, no, no could also indicate regret. No, no I couldn’t possibly take your car. As opposed to NO, NO, NO don’t bother me street beggar. I laugh inside every time I see a child with their fingers in their ears and shouting LA, LA, LA. Because they’re simply saying, no, no, no. (I bet you’ll laugh inside now too!)

If you don’t know the local language try something close. You might be surprised. La is no in Arabic and lo is no in Hebrew. Nyet is no in Russian and nie (pronounced nee) is no in Polish. Not to mention many people know the word no.

If you really want to learn language(s) there are so many resources available. About 18 months ago, I was reading about Russian hockey players and realized my Russian was плохо, очень плохо (bad, very bad). I found >Duolingo and set it on the easiest setting (one lesson per day). If you don’t already know Cyrillic I think it would be very difficult. It’s dramatically improved my spelling! Best of all it’s free, the paid app does allow you to study offline. There are lots of other apps and services to help you.

I do NOT recommend watching telenoticias to learn Spanish. The stories are almost completely dialog driven with little action to fill in the words you may have missed. Conversely, watching cartoons in another language can really help. The dialog is simpler and the action can carry much of the story. Scooby Doo and Bob Eponga (SpongeBob) are my go-to cartoons to brush up on my Spanish. (Subtitles is another post.)

Bottom Line: Learning will reward you in many ways in travel and in life.


I have visited 7 continents and 80 countries. I have lived in 9 different countries. I speak English, Spanish, French, and Russian. I like to hike, ski, dive, eat, drink, and wander the wonders of the world.

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