Survival language learning

What is the minimum amount of language you should learn for a trip abroad, or a relocation?  Is it the most common 100 or 500 words in a language?  Is it a set number of phrases, or is there a set list?  Reaching a ‘survival level’ of language skill will mean different things to different people.

Of course, your requirements will depend on a lot of things.  If you are going to a place where it is common for locals to have at least an elementary English speaking skill, you may only need to learn pleasantries in order to show respect and enthusiasm for their local culture and language.  Many people are more than happy to hear a traveller say hello, please, thank you, and goodbye in the local language.

To go a little bit further than this, I would recommend learning basic numbers (1-10, 10s to 100, 1000, etc), excuse me/sorry, yes and no, this and that, the phrases how much and I want/don’t want [something], and words for basic food and drink (e.g. beef, chicken, rice, water, beer).

A very important question is, of course, Do you speak English? You could always ask in English, but, you’d be surprised at how much people are more likely to help you if you ask in their language.  Also, it’s less confusing for them if the answer is no.  You could also learn direction words such as left, right, straight ahead.  The problem with knowing how to ask for directions is that you have to be able to understand the response!  Although most people gesture with their hands, so it’s not quite so difficult.  Oh, and don’t forget to learn the word for toilet!

If you have any special needs (e.g. dietary or medical), it might pay to learn some phrases associated with these (e.g. I don’t eat meat.).  Because sometimes these things can be complicated, I would really recommend having a phrase book or a printed copy of the details in the local language as well.  The same goes for emergency phrases like help and I need a doctor.  Even if you never need them, it’s always safer to have a backup if people can’t understand you.

If you are short on time, don’t worry too much about small talk.  Probably the best sentence to know is I’m from [home country]. Then wait for the inevitable ‘ah, kangaroos!’ or ‘Lord of the Rings!’

What are your must know phrases when you go abroad?

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