A Crash Course in Foreign Language

How do you communicate when you don’t speak the local language of the country you are visiting?

Here are a few “study tips” for your real life language test.

A simple equation?

Say it with me now:


Thank you.




I want…

I don’t want…

How much?



These are, in my opinion, the most basic words you should learn to say in any language.  Before you jet set off to the exotic-island-off-the-coast-of-the-desert-in-the-middle-of-the-ocean-southwest-of-the-mountainous-regions-of-who-knows-where, do yourself a favor and learn to say these common phrases in the language of your destination country before your departure.

Make noise, make moves, but don’t make volume.

Let’s say you’re a C+/B- student and the dog ate your homework, you misplaced your notebook, you left your notes in the back pocket of your freshly washed pants, you ended up watching your favorite sitcom and/or drama-of-the-moment (or any other excuse you can remember from your grade school days) and you didn’t learn those phrases before leaving. How do you study last-minute?

Grunts, hand gestures, head shakes or nods, “umm’s”, pointing to maps, miming and the like can also help you express what you want to say. (The highest grade for effort I’ll give you for this is a B- at best.)

When you do try and use words, refrain from turning up the volume (unless you’re a naturally soft-spoken person like me). Getting your message across at above-average volumes won’t magically translate your words. I’ve seen many people mistakenly try this when attempting conversation with others, assuming that having a loud voice will somehow help clarify their words.

Reality check: it doesn’t. In fact, it can make the other person feel stupid and insignificant while simultaneously making you seem…how shall I say this…like a culturally inconsiderate tourist. Perhaps you’re not intending to come off that way, but you never know how the other person will interpret your actions. It’s best to play it safe and speak clearly and audibly. Your point is more likely to be understood if you maintain a polite and courteous tone.

Use your face





Facial expressions: the language of the universe. Show a child a photo of someone laughing and they’ll instantly recognize happiness. Cry in front of a stranger and they’ll know you’re sad. If you’re at a complete loss, resort to the tactic of wearing your heart on your sleeve face.

BUT, be warned: if you’re walking around and you LOOK like a tourist, people can sometimes take advantage of your “deer-caught-in-headlights” expression. You don’t need to be blantanly transparent with your feelings; in fact, it might be better to be poker-faced when meandering about. In other words, avoid becoming a target.

Communicating is the key to a successful journey – literally and figuratively. Speak, move, emote, and you should be able to pass even the most challenging language tests with flying colors. Good luck!


3 thoughts on “A Crash Course in Foreign Language

  1. http://www.amazon.com/70-Japanese-Gestures-Language-Communication/dp/1933330015

    I discovered and subsequently purchased this book about 10 years after visiting Japan. It certainly would have helped as the 14 year old version of me did not do his homework (and I was a B+ student at that age, thank you very much!). The evolutionary psychologist in me, being primarily interested in human universals, enjoyed the reference to the universality of facial expressions. You could write an evolutionary psychology informed travel guide chapter called “Travelling? Wear your heart on your face!” I’m not sure who’ll write the other chapters or what they’ll be about, but that’s a winning title for chapter one anyway 😛

    • Oh wow! That definitely would’ve come in handy in Tokyo. Haha I always feel so awkward when people respond to me in their native language if I approach them in English. I get so tongue-tied and I feel bad if I haven’t memorized and phrases beforehand. I’ll have to check that book out. Thanks for the recommendation!

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