Photo: Shutterstock/goodluz

39 Essential Phrases for Travelers in 13 Different Languages

by Michelle Schusterman Sep 14, 2012
Forget “hello” and “thank you” — learn how to buy a round of beer in Berlin or what to yell when pushing your way through a crowded subway car in Beijing.

(by Ellen Rabiner)

1. güle güle kullanin — “use it smiling”
gewlay gewlay kooLAHnin — /gyleɪgyleɪku:lɑ:nɪn/

Almost any time someone buys something, güle güle kullanin — “use it smiling” — is an appropriate thing to tell them. It reminds me of when my grandparents used to say “wear it in good health” whenever I bought an article of clothing. I never heard anyone else in America use this phrase, so it must have come from somewhere in the “old country.”

2. kolay gelsin — “may it come easy”
KOHLeye GELsin — /kolaɪgɜ:lsɪn/

When approaching someone who’s working, it’s nice to start with kolay gelsin, which means “may it come easy.” When approaching an employee at Turkcell or Turkish Airlines, for example, kolay gelsin sets a much better tone for your conversation than, “Do you speak English?”

3. aferin sana — “good for you”
AHfairin SAHna — /ɑ:fɜ:rɪnsɑ:nɑ:/

As in, I tell people that God willing I will meet a Turkish husband, and the response is aferin sana — “good for you.” Or when someone says, “I’ve just learned 12 extraordinarily useful Turkish phrases,” the correct response is, of course, aferin sana.


(by Ellen Rabiner)

4. Ich besorge das Bier – “I’ll get the beer”
eeh bezorge das beer — /ɨx bɛzɔrgɘ das bir/

Besorgen means “to take care of,” and it’s used informally to mean get something or pay for something. Ich besorge das Bier (“I’ll get the beer”) is useful at Oktoberfest or any gathering with kiosks selling refreshments. After you use this phrase, your friend will probably offer to get the food. And when she asks whether you want Bratwurst or Knackwurst, you can answer, Das ist mir Wurst. You’re now punning in German!

5. das kannst du deiner Oma erzählen – “tell it to your Grandmother”
das kanst doo dayner OHmah airtsaylen — /das kanst du daɪnər oma ertseːlɘn/

Das kannst du deiner Oma erzählen is the response to an unbelievable claim. For example, “I’m studying German three hours a day. I’ll be fluent in a week.” “Oh yeah? Das kannst du deiner Oma erzählen!”

6. nul acht funfzehn (0-8-15) — “standard issue / mediocre”
nool acht FOONFtsayn — /nul ɒxt fʊnftsen/

The standard-issue rifle in WWI was a 0-8-15. The term caught on and is now used as a classy insult. I first heard this phrase from a friend describing a less than memorable sexual encounter. When she pegged it as nul-acht-funfzehn I thought she was talking about some obscure sexual position. What she was actually saying was, “meh.”


(by Agniezka Waluik)

7. 借过一下 Jie guo yixia – “Excuse me, let me through.”
jie gwoh yi hsia

Do I need to stress the usefulness of this phrase in a country with a population of 1.3 billion people, who do not, as a rule, look around or step aside to let you get out of a bus? The last word is a softener, so you may skip it if need be.

8. 干吗 Ganma?! — “What the heck?!”
gan mah

Enough of politeness. Sometimes you just run out of patience and you want to be able to express it. Ganma is your friend. A cabbie is taking you for a ride? A street vendor is obviously trying to fleece you? A scooter driver is honking at you even though you really can’t move aside? Ganma! This phrase will incur shock and awe — show them you’re not just another helpless tourist and you know what’s what.

9. 哪里 Nali — “Where?”
nah lee

It’s a polite protestation when someone praises you; and you will be praised, whether for your exotic looks or great Chinese skills. Simply saying hello may earn you a good deal of admiration. Again: not a basic necessity phrase, but it will definitely bring out some smiles.

It’s one of those very local words that Chinese people — being brought up in a self-effacing culture — use all the time, but don’t really expect foreigners to know. Say it and you’re gaining a lot of credibility as a linguist, as well as a person who knows their manners.

Chinese (Mandarin)

(by Jocelyn Eikenburg)

10. Méi bànfǎ, rén tàiduō. – “There’s nothing you can do, too many people.”

In a country of 1.3 billion people, it only takes a small percentage of them to wreck your trip. When my Chinese husband and I traveled to Beijing during the national holiday in October, we spent half the day slogging through a mob that stretched across Tian’anmen Square just to get into the Forbidden City. I’ve also had to stand on crowded trains because I couldn’t get a seat and, while living in Shanghai, experienced my share of being sandwiched between anonymous butts and groins on rush-hour subway cars.

11. Zhēnde! Wǒ yìdiǎn dōu búkèqile! – “Really! I’m not being polite at all!”

Perfect for when people keep piling kung pao chicken into your bowl long after you’re full, or pouring you glass after drunken glass of baijiu — and think you’re just saying búyào (“I don’t want it”) to be polite.

Once, when a Chinese friend insisted I drink another round of Tsingdao, I had to repeat this phrase over and over while shielding my glass from his swinging beer bottle. Be ready to battle for your stomach and sobriety.

12. Fēi xià kǔgōngfū bùkě. – “It requires painstaking efforts.”

Some 5,000 tumultuous years of history have taught the Chinese that nothing comes easy. People usually say this when faced with any challenge, such as taking the national college entrance exams or pounding the pavement for a job.

It’s useful for climbing China’s mountains, squeezing into crowded transport, or walking into one of the noxious bathrooms at the train stations.


(by Tom Bartel)

13. Tonto(a) de remate – “stupid to an extreme degree”

Remate literally means a “rekilling” and is the word used when a soccer scoring shot bangs hard into the back of the net instead of just trickling over the goal line. I first heard it used by my friend Miguel to characterize his boss, Pedro.

14. Mas cara que espalda – “more face than back”

In English it means you have a lot of “cheek,” or perhaps “you’re a little big for your britches.” It takes a lot of cara, for example, to call your boss tonto de remate to his face.

15. Coger – “to take hold of”

When you hand someone something, you’ll say to them, coge, which just means “here, take it.” You use coger, for example, to say Esta mañana cogi el autobús (“This morning I caught the bus”).

In many countries other than Spain, however, coger means something entirely different. If you said that last sentence in Mexico City, you would have just said, “This morning I fucked a bus,” which would be confusing at best. Be careful.


(by Ellen Rabiner)

16. ricevuto come un cane in chiesa – “to be unwelcome”
reechayVOOtoh kohmay oon KAHnay een KYAYza – /ri:ʧevu:tɔ:kɔ:meu:nkɑ:nei:nkjezɑ:/

This is a colorful phrase meaning “received like a dog in church.” It’s similar to the English “like a whore in church,” but the alliteration in the “k” sounds of come, cane, and chiesa seem to give it more punch.

Example: What did your parents think of your Italian boyfriend arriving on his Vespa? L’hanno ricevuto come un cane in chiesa.

17. ogni morte di papa – “hardly ever”
OHNyee MORtay di PApa – /ɔ:ŋi:mɔ:rtedi:pɑ:pɑ:/

Literally “every death of a pope,” ogni morte di papa is the equivalent of the English “once in a blue moon.” It seems so much more colorful to me because it conjures up visions of crowds mobbing St. Peter’s when a new pope is being chosen. How often do I go to Italy? Ogni morte di papa. Not nearly often enough.

18. non c’entra – “that’s irrelevant”
non CHENtra – /non ʧɜ:ntrɑ:/

Entrarci is an extraordinarily useful verb, especially in the negative, when it means “that has nothing to do with it,” or, “this has nothing to do with you” (i.e., mind your own business). It’s also used in the interrogative: che c’entra? Or che c’entri? (what’s it to you?). If you disagree with the sentiment you simply counter with c’entra! (does so!) or c’entro! (it certainly does concern me!).

Example: È troppo caro. (It’s too expensive.) Che c’entrano I soldi? Pago io! (Forget money. I’m paying!)


(by Tim Patterson)

19. Mo da-meh. Yoh-para-chatta. Go-men. “No more, I’m already drunk, sorry.”

At some point during your stay, Japanese people will probably try to make you drink past your limit. That’s when this phrase comes in handy.

20. Ee-show ni kah-rah-o-keh ni ee-koh ka? – “Shall we go to karaoke together?”

This is a good line to use if trying to pick someone up from the bar. Think of karaoke as a transition point between the bar and the love hotel.

Note: Please don’t pronounce karaoke with lots of “EEE” sounds. It should sound like “kah-rah-o-keh,” not “carry-oh-key”.

21. Ara! Onara suru tsu-mori datta keh-do, un-chi ga de-chatta. – “Oops! I meant to fart but poop came out.”

Saying this useful phrase never gets old, especially in public places, especially on a first date, and most especially if it’s clearly one of only 10 Japanese phrases you’ve memorized.

When in Southeast Asia, I especially enjoy muttering in Japanese about crapping my pants while walking past Japanese tourists. The reactions are priceless.


(by Baxter Jackson)

22. Ana saeed Bush halas / Ana aheb Obama – “I’m glad Bush is gone / I like/love Obama.”

Both phrases will help you win the hearts and minds of Arab friends, but be warned — they still high five in the Middle East so get ready for some hand jiving.

23. Ana mohtam bil Islam – “I’m interested in Islam.”

If you’re interested in Islam (and I’m assuming you probably are if you’re traveling to the Middle East) saying Ana mohtam bil Islam will get you invites into Muslim homes faster than you can say apostasy.

24. Wahead sheesha nana/eyeneb/tufeh/zaloo min fadlak – “One mint/grape/apple/jasmine hooka please.”

Mutter this sentence in its entirety and your head will be soon be swimming in a mint, grape, apple, and jasmine cloud of tobacco.


(by Sarah Vazquez)

25. Umaleko paani / filter-ko paani – “boiled water / filter water”

Tap water is not safe to drink in Nepal. Simply ask Umaleko paani? or Filter-ko paani? It’s worth asking at least twice, because you need clean water to be a steadfast rule of your eating habits.

26. Pugyo – “full”

This is possibly the most useful phrase you will need to know. It’s very rude for a Nepali host to leave their guest with an empty stomach. When she comes around to give you a second helping and you’re already full (you will be full), hold your plate back and say with a big smile: Pugyo, Diddi. To be safe, hold a hand over your plate so she doesn’t dump food on it anyway.

27. Parchha / pardina – “I need / I don’t need.”

This a very useful phrase. Put a noun in front of parchha and you almost have a full sentence! For example:Ma umaleko paani parchha (I need boiled water).


(by Kelly Lalonde)

28. Hatari – “Danger!”

This could be a snake in the road or a warning about an endemic in the area. Take note and proceed with caution.

29. Shikamo – literally “I hold your feet.”

This greeting is for your elders. Young children will often mutter shikamo under their breath when you walk by. It may sound like “Sh…ooo.”

30. Pole – “I am sorry for your misfortune.”

This applies to everything from getting chalk dust on your clothes, to tripping, dropping an item, or sneezing.

Nigerian Pidgin English

(by Lola Akinmade)

31. Abeg – “please” (but usually not a repentant plea)

Example: Abeg! No waste my time! Which means, “Please! Don’t waste my time!”

32. K-leg – “questionable”

Example: Your story get k-leg! Which means, “Your story or gist sounds suspect or exaggerated.”

33. Wayo – “trickery”

Example: That man be wayo. Which means, “That man is a fraud!”


(by Chris Miller)

34. Ты сегодня выглядишь как огурец / огурчик – “You look like a cucumber / gherkin today.”
Ty sevodnya vyglyadishʹ kak ogurets / ogurchik

Cucumber or gherkin, take your pick. It’s an old colloquial compliment. Saying to someone they look like either is to tell them they look fresh. Older women especially will appreciate this one.

35. Где туалет? Можно туалетную бумагу? – “Where’s the toilet? And may I have toilet paper?”
Gde tualet? Mozhno tualetnuyu bumagu?

Get used to paying to use the toilet. And get used to asking for toilet paper. Restaurants and cafes in larger cities won’t charge to use the facilities, and they’ll have TP in the stalls. But a lot of places in suburban and rural areas — especially summertime cafes, train stations, and bus depots — have attendants working a window who will take your money and dispense TP to you upon entering the john.

Also, don’t try asking for a “bathroom.” If you’re understood they’ll think you’d like to have a shower.

36. Помогите пожалуйста! Я потерялся! – “Help please! I’m lost!”
Pomogite pozhaluĭsta! Ya poteryalsya!

Traveling in Eastern Europe, you’re going to get lost. The streets are poorly marked, if marked at all. Some street signs haven’t even been updated since the fall of communism. Luckily, people are very helpful when it comes to giving directions.

Approach someone on the street and say Pomogite pozhaluĭsta! Ya poteryalsya! You probably won’t understand their answer, so be sure to have a map handy. But they’ll make sure you get where you’re going, even if they have to take you there themselves.

Portuguese (Brazilian)

(by Adam Roy)

37. Legal – “cool”

One of the most useful slang words in the Portuguese language, you can use legal to describe a whole host of things. People can be legal, as can clothes, places, and, ironically, gangster rap.

38. É o jeitinho brasileiro. – “It’s the Brazilian way.”

How can Brazil be the world’s largest Catholic country, the world’s party capital, and an industrial giant to boot?
Why did Brazil lay out its capital in the shape of an airplane and stick it in the middle of nowhere?
The answer is simple: É o jeitinho brasileiro.

39. Como vai, gatinha? – “How’s it going, baby?” (literally “kitten”)

A pretty simple pickup line. I take no responsibility for what happens if you actually try to use it.

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