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6 Foolproof Tricks for NOT Embarrassing Yourself in a Foreign Language

By Melody Warnick
updated February 21, 2017
Illustration by Erin McLaughlin
You think you asked where the bus stops. What you actually said was that you'd like to shag the bus. Oops! Here, six expert tips to navigate a vacation without becoming the laughingstock of the bus station.

If you've ever traveled abroad, you've done it. The improvised sign language and Hokey Pokey-esque gyrations in an attempt to buy a souvenir at a market or find a bathroom. Becoming fluent in a foreign language isn't really feasible for a one-week vacation, but what can you do to avoid embarrassing yourself? We spoke to language expert Benny Lewis, who runs the website Fluentin3Months.com, and asked him for his top advice for navigating a foreign language. Making mistakes is inevitable, but it's easier than you think to navigate a vacation without getting lost in translation. Even Lewis (who, by the way, is fluent in eight languages, including Portuguese, French, German, and Italian) has had some doozies, including accidentally announcing to a German friend that he was horny and telling a Mexican that he liked to shag the bus every day. (On that note, did you know that embarazada means "pregnant," not "embarrassed" en español?) Do something similar and you'll want to zip yourself into your own suitcase and never come out. Follow his easy tips and you'll never be embarrassed again.

Etiquette Goes a Long Way

Good manners are universal. If you're quick with basics like "hello," "thank you," and "you're welcome," people tend to be more gracious as you flub the rest of their native tongue. One of the best things you can do is to research etiquette expectations before you travel. In Paris, for example, call out "bonjour!" when you enter a shop; in the Middle East, don't admire an object in Arabic unless you want its owner to feel obligated to give it to you. For a primer on local politesse, look up the BBC's fabulous language-learning website with its quick guides to 40 different languages, including lists and audio clips of what not to say in French, Spanish, and Italian.

Learn These Five Phrases

The first thing Lewis does when he hits a foreign country is to learn these key phrases: "Where's the bathroom?"; "How much does that cost?"; "Excuse me"; "The food is delicious!"; and "Do you speak English?" "When you're starting off, grammar is not going to help you," Lewis says. "You need to set phrases so you can communicate the basics to people." Tuck a phrasebook into your bag so you can whip it out on the fly, or download a digital version with audio that tells you just how to pronounce "Where's the bullfight?"

Listen to Pronunciation Before You Go

Nothing gets you the "huh?" expression faster than mispronouncing a foreign word. To get a better sense of how things should sound, check in at Forvo.com, an online dictionary with audio pronunciation. Lewis also likes RhinoSpike.com, where you can upload text and a native speaker will read it out loud and submit a recording for you. How long it takes to get a response depends on how many requests there are for the language you are trying to hear (you can move your request up the queue by recording text for other users).  

Two Proven Tricks for Remembering Words

Visualize words. "I'm a very forgetful person," Lewis confesses, so he relies on old-school memory tricks like creating mental images to match words he's learning. For instance, the word playa, Spanish for "beach," reminded him of "player," so he envisioned a guy using cheesy pick-up lines on the beach. To remember prvni, the Czech word for "first," he broke it down into the sounds "pro van," then visualized winning first place at the Van Olympics. The mental images are bizarre, but you will never forget them! You can also try setting phrases to music. You know how you can still sing all the words to that Depeche Mode song from sixth grade? Music is a world-class memory aid, so put it to use while you nail a few foreign language phrases. To cram "Where is the bathroom?" in Italian, Lewis sang "Dov'è il bagno?" to the ding-dong ditty of the Big Ben chimes. "After a couple times it stuck," he says.

How Technology Can Help

Technology is a godsend for those trying to get by in a new language. Word Lens allows you to hover your phone over text to get an instant translation, even when it's offline. Google Goggles allow for point-and-shoot translation with your camera phone: Just snap a photo from a baffling menu and the app provides on-the-spot translation. Use the Jibbigo app to get a rough voice translation for whatever phrase a waiter or a shop owner says into your phone. The concept of old-school flashcards has also gone digital. "I'm a very big fan of Anki, a spaced-repetition flashcard system you can download onto your smartphone," says Lewis. Anki's algorithm figures out which words are hardest for you-and shows you those more often. You can download premade flashcards decks with the most common words in a language, or make your own with words you see around town. (No worries if you're a tech-phobe: paper index cards do the trick, too.)

The One Expert You Can Always Rely On

When the DIY approach to getting by in a foreign language fails, consult the concierge or desk clerk at your hotel for translations and phonetic pronunciations of stuff you'll need to say that day, such as, "Can I get a ticket to the 7 o'clock performance?" The staff at hotels usually speak multiple languages—and are happy to help.

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