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8 Unexpected Phrases To Learn Before Traveling to a Foreign Country

By Michael Nordine
Read time: 4 minutes

If you have an international trip coming up, there’s a good chance you’ve already learned how to say basic phrases such as “hello,” “thank you,” and “my name is…” in a new language. Those are essential, of course, but they’re also just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other, perhaps unexpected phrases you should learn before traveling to another country — not only to make things easier for yourself, but also to impress a few locals along the way. Here are eight highly useful phrases to learn in the local language before your next trip abroad.

Can You Please Repeat That?

Person on a gondola cruise in Venice, Italy
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To avoid saying “what?” with a blank expression every time you don’t understand what’s just been said (which could be often!), consider a more polite response that might pleasantly surprise the person you’re speaking to. For example, in Spanish you could say, “¿Puede repetirlo, por favor?”

How Do You Say That in English?

Mother and child on boat looking out to sea
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Some languages are particularly difficult to learn — often not because of their grammar or sentence structure but because their native speakers are so fluent in English that they instantly switch to it every time you try speaking to them. This is especially common in countries such as Denmark and Sweden, where everyone begins learning English at a young age (and can spot an American traveler from several blocks away). Should you find yourself in such a situation but still want to put in the effort of starting a conversation in the local tongue, simply ask how to say something in English, and the rest of the interaction should be easy to follow.

What Do You Recommend?

Person rolling suitcase down pedestrian street while looking at phone
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If you want to eat like a local, don’t just struggle with the menu in a language you don’t understand — ask your waiter or waitress what they think you should try. It’s a great way to try lesser-known dishes that other travelers might not be lucky (or bold) enough to sample.

How Long Have You Lived Here?

Couple conversing on street
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Lifelong residents of Buenos Aires, Tokyo, or Brussels will have a different perspective of their hometown than more recent transplants. In either case, they’ll likely appreciate being asked about their own experience and offer unique insights that can enrich your time in their country.

Can I Drink the Tap Water?

Two people sitting and eating on city sidewalk
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The answer won’t always be what you expect, but it’s always vital knowledge. If your itinerary includes multiple countries and you didn’t look into this in advance, ask the hotel front desk or the host of your accommodation to be sure.

Where Do the Locals Hang Out?

Group of travelers in city huddled around map
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Many travelers pride themselves on going beyond the usual tourist attractions and experiencing new places in a deeper way. Rather than relying on internet research, go straight to the source and ask someone who actually lives there. You’ll likely get a different answer from every person you ask, as everyone has their own favorite spots they think visitors should see for the most authentic experience possible.

Your City (or Country) Is Beautiful

Traveler using binoculars next to companion from viewpoint in hillside city
Credit: Catherine Falls Commercial/ Moment via Getty Images 

Even if we don’t realize it, most of us can’t help taking a little pride in where we’re from. That’s as true in Geneva as it is in Montevideo, and there’s no reason not to tell people you love their city or country while visiting — there’s a good chance they’ll love hearing it and come away from the conversation with a smile.

A Local Idiom

Family rolling luggage on pathway
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To really impress the locals, consider picking up a local idiom. For example, while visiting Stockholm, don’t just order the pickled herring with a perfect accent. Go one step further by slipping “det är ingen ko på isen” into the conversation — an idiom that translates to “there’s no cow on the ice.” It essentially means there’s no need to worry. Or, if you’re in Germany, try saying, “tomaten auf den Augen haben.” Its literal translation is “you have tomatoes on your eyes,” which means you can’t see something everyone else can. These phrases might not be as conventionally useful as asking where the restroom is, but they’re sure to get you brownie points with locals.

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