Aside from the obvious excuse me, please and thank you that it’s essential to learn before you step off a plane, there are three phrases I’d recommend genning up on before you go on holiday. After all, you probably won’t manage to absorb the entire phrase book on the two-hour flight, so it’s wise to pick the important ones.
1. Do you speak English?
This is perhaps the single most important phrase you can learn in a foreign language. It’s a conversation opener – I recommend saying “excuse me” first, too. And it communicates far more than just help, I’m a lost tourist who doesn’t speak your language. It communicates respect for the foreign country and its culture, and by extension its people, including the people you are talking to, whom you may then find more willing to help you.
2. Where is the toilet/beach/other place of interest?
Since it’s unlikely you will understand their response – even with quite a high level of competence, you might panic and not take in all the directions, or maybe that’s just me – take along a map, or a pen and paper, and gesture for them to point out the route or draw a diagram.
3. Please can I have a coffee?
Coffee is different everywhere. Do some research. I like cafe con leche in Spain – it’s strong and delicious – but if what you’re really after is a French café au lait – bigger, milkier – then it will disappoint.
It’s worth taking the few minutes to learn these phrases. For reasons I’ve mentioned before, it’s important that we English speakers in particular make the effort. Besides, the small achievement of asking for and getting something via a foreign language honestly feels good.
— for more hints and tips on language learning, buy Conquering Babel: A Practical Guide to Learning a Language here in the US and here in the UK.