You’re going to a place where they speak a language you don’t speak. This might be another country, or it might just be a neighborhood in your city. In my neighborhood, signs are routinely in English, Spanish, Korean, Arabic, and Filipino, to name just a few. You can’t learn everything. So what do you really need to know?
1) The polite words.
This has to be where you start. You’re learning words in another language not just to avoid seeming like an uncultured idiot but also because it’s the polite thing to do. So learn please, thank you, and excuse me. You’re welcome is nice, too, but it comes in handy much less often.
2) Question words.
What, where, when, and how much are the key question words. Who and why don’t come up that often.
3) Number words.
Numbers to ten, if you can manage, plus hundred (for ordering a number of grams of cheese or what-have-you). If not, learn up to the number of people you’ll be traveling with. That way you can try to ask for a room for two people or a table for four or whatever you need. Yes, you could always resort to writing the number down (or, as the most adorable woman in all of Budapest did to me, writing the price of some sunflower seeds on my palm with her finger), but that’s less smooth.
Bonus tip: Learn how they count on their fingers where you’re going. I was with a friend in Paris, and she accidentally bought two tickets to a museum instead of one because she gestured with her index finger instead of her thumb.
4) Words specific to your situation.
If you’re a vegetarian, or a diabetic, or allergic to shellfish, learn how to say those things. If it’s really serious, have it written out on a piece of paper that you can hand to someone so there’s no issue due to your pronunciation. I’ll admit that this doesn’t always solve your problems. I once ordered couscous vegetarianne and found chicken bones in it. But that wasn’t a translation problem; it was a problem with the cook’s definition of the word vegetarianne.
5) “I’m sorry, I don’t speak x. Do you speak y?”
Learn this phrase in the most polite and formal form you can find and say it in your kindest and most apologetic voice. You don’t want to be that person who just repeats an English sentence louder and slower. Americans have a bad enough rep as it is. Please don’t add to it.
6) Coffee and beer.
After the polite words, this is the most important step. I can order coffee in about ten different languages. It’s basically the most crucial life skill I have.
What words did I forget? What do you always make sure to learn?