The Secret To Rapid Language Learning: Learn The 20 Most Common Words In Any Language First

If you’re planning to travel outside of your home country and in a place where they don’t speak your native language, consider learning as much of that language as you can before you leave home. Not only will it make your time on the road that much easier, but you might just have some fun in the process.

But you don’t need to memorize hundreds of words in order to converse with the locals in a foreign language. In fact, you can usually get by with as few as 20 words in your vocabulary.

Last year I traveled to 24 different countries in Europe and Africa and was forced to converse in more than 17 different languages. This year I’ll be traveling to 13 or more countries and speaking 9 or more languages. I am not a master at any of these foreign languages, but I have learned basic conversation skills by first mastering the most common words in any language.

That’s right! The secret to rapid language learning is to focus on the 20 most commonly used words… and then only after you have mastered those words or phrases, to move on to other words and phrases by increasing your vocabulary.

To help you on your travels, I have put together the following list of the 20 words and phrases I tend to use most often when traveling in foreign countries. I suggest you learn the following words and phrases first, as these few words/phrases will get you through almost any basic interaction.

The Most Commonly Used Words & Phrases In Any Language

  • Hello
  • Thank you
  • You’re Welcome
  • I understand
  • I don’t understand
  • I’m sorry
  • Excuse me
  • I don’t speak ________
  • I am from ________
  • Please
  • Goodbye
  • Yes
  • No
  • How are you?
  • Good
  • Bad
  • Good morning
  • Good afternoon
  • Good evening
  • Good night

Only after mastering these few basic words and phrases should you consider moving on and learning more of the local language. I suggest you begin your expanded learning by memorizing the numbers (which are commonly used when buying and selling just about anything during your travels):

  • The numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)
  • The numbers (11-100)

What additional words of phrases do you think would come in handy when traveling in a foreign country? Leave a comment below and let me know what you have to say!

12 thoughts on “The Secret To Rapid Language Learning: Learn The 20 Most Common Words In Any Language First

  1. Kathie Webb says:

    Hi Darren,
    I’m 61 and am currently on my third year in a row doing a cycle tour in Europe for just over 8 weeks. I’m traveling with my folding Dahon speed TR. I have a few phrases translated into German, Italian and Croatian & stored in photos on my iPhone in case of problems. Haven’t had to use them yet but one I might need for the train conductors is ” The bicycle folds up and goes in a bag.” This allows me to travel with the bike on the train at no cost for the bike but have the advantage of wheeling it on fully loaded & then folding it. Kathie

  2. John says:

    I would also learn ” may I have “. When shopping I would say, ‘Please may I have ….’ and then point to the item.

  3. Flatlander says:

    Where is a toilet?

    Through most of Europe, the English word “toilet” is usually understood and often used in preference for the local word for bathroom or restroom.

    Where is the train station?

    This is useful for locating the tourist information office (esp. for finding lodging), which is often in or near by the train station. Also, in a small to medium size city, directions to the train station will usually take you toward the center of town. Much easier to be understood than, “How do I get downtown?”

    • Bicycle Touring Pro says:

      I always find it a little funny when people say you should learn, “Where is a toilet?” because this is not only a phrase I have never said while traveling… it isn’t something I ever said in English in my normal life.

      Seriously, when was the last time you asked a complete stranger where the toilet was? I’ve not only never asked this question, but I’ve never had a stranger come up to me and ask where the toilet was.

      Is this seriously something people say that often? ha ha 🙂

  4. peter de visser says:

    Good idea.

    Our policy however is using a “point-it” booklet.
    That’s a small, lightweight booklet with only pictures, photo’s of all you need in a foreign country for camping, eating, drinking, money,sleeping, doctors, urgent matters, police,whatever.
    (Available in campingstores here.I assume in USA too).
    Even in China,or Russia, where words are very hard to pronounce and remember,EVERYBODY recognizes immediately what you mean.
    No words needed.

  5. John Tuohey says:

    I have also found the following useful: restaurant, toilet, bike shop, hotel, what, where, when, bus, train. That seems to get me most of what I need.
    I enjoy your posts.

  6. Patti Maguire says:

    I always learn how to say “I would like…” rather than “I want…” It is less demanding and a politer way to ask for something.

  7. Kevin says:

    Your top 20 are perfect. Maybe I’d also learn: “How much?” (as in “How much does this/that cost?”), “How do I get to ________.” and, as someone already noted, some variation of “Where’s the bathroom?”

  8. Holt Pierce says:

    I recently purchased Pimsleur’s Italian language CD @ $9.95 in which once mastered a traveler can carry on a basic conversation. It has helped me and I look forward to my future bicycle tour of Italy. Thanks for your fantastic website Darren.

    • Bicycle Touring Pro says:

      Yes, I used Pimsleur’s Polish CDs and found them very useful for the basics. But once they start teaching me words I know I’m never going to use, that’s where my interest (and learning) starts to wane.

  9. Jim Beam says:

    “How much?” is always useful to find the price of something…
    lots of market stall holders have a calculator to show you the price when you don’t know numbers well or will write the price on a piece of paper. This lends itself to haggling for a better price – you can say “no” and enter a lower number into calculator or written onto paper.
    In many countries haggling is even expected (see Monty Python the life of Brian =)

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