What are the most essential travel phrases?
November 30, 2009 7:06 AM   Subscribe

I'm building a basic phrase list that I will learn for countries that I visit. What are your most useful travel phrases? I'm also looking for anything that would be useful specifically for Egyptian Arabic.

I'm traveling to Egypt this winter and I want to be able to speak just a few useful phrases. However, all of my language CDs have been terrible, either giving me much more than I need (most of it useless) or omitting important things. I want to build my own phrase list, kind of a swadesh list for travel.

I want to keep the list short and be able learn it within a few days. I'll be hiring someone to translate the list and record it.

Actually, if you're a speaker of the Egyptian dialect of Arabic and can record yourself, I'll pay good money!

What I have so far:

Important Phrases:
Thank You
Nice to meet you!
Pardon me (for bumping into someone)
Excuse me (for attention)
That's beautiful! (view)
That's beautiful! (object)
No, thank you. (to touts)

How much?
Too expensive.
I'll take it!
How much for a meter? (of fabric)

I'll have ____, please.
Bottled Water
Excuse me, waiter.
Check, please.

Getting around:
Take us to ____, please.
Where is _____?

[Basic Numbers]
[Basic Colors]

Egypt Specific:
God willing
Camel (eating or riding)
posted by Alison to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You're going to want "go away" for more aggressive touts and flirts.

Also, this is a good idea overall, but remember:

1. You'll try to say something in Arabic, and they'll respond in English. This is normal.

2. Your pronunciation will still probably be atrocious to them, but no worries, most of them will appreciate the effort.
posted by HopperFan at 7:22 AM on November 30, 2009

"where is the bathroom"
posted by chasles at 7:26 AM on November 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: That list f&w linked too is a good thread. Since then, my partner and I came back from an 18-country rtw trip. We're pretty idiosyncratic, but our partial word/phrase list is:
(Are you) ready?, (Can you) write it?, (the numbers from) one to ten, a little bit, aisle seat, art/artist, beautiful, beer, bigger, bon appetit, bread, breakfast, bus, cheers, coffee, the days of the week, delicious, do you speak English?, dog, excuse me, foreigner, genocide, good bye, good morning, hello, homesickness, how are you?, How do you pronounce —–?, How do you say —–?, how far, how much, how many, human rights, I don’t speak —-, I don’t understand, I hope not, I hope so, I understand, I’m fine, I’m allergic to milk, I’m full, I’m sorry, left, may I pet your dog?, may I take a (your) photograph?, maybe, memorial, my name is —-, never again, next time, no thanks, please, professor, right, see you, share, can you show me?, slowly, smaller, tea, thank you (very much), theatre, ticket, taxi, today, toilet, tomorrow, torture, tourism, track/platform, train, train station, trauma, vegetables, (bottled) water, we will see, what is your name?, where?, white person, why not?, yarn/ wool, yes, yesterday, you are welcome, you decide.

That's not including food vocabulary, though that’s what we’re best at.

A key phrase there is "you decide." Our rule when we can't make a joint decision is that whoever can remember "you decide" in the local langauge first, wins.
posted by Mngo at 7:47 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

"Emergency" or "police" would be helpful if you find yourself in a pinch.
posted by illenion at 7:53 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: See the phrasebooks at Wikitravel. Check out any of their "complete" phrasebooks or the template for their full list of useful travel phrases. Their Egyptian Arabic phrasebook is in "usable" status, meaning many but not all of the phrases are included.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:07 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

"I'm sorry but my [language] is just horrible."
"I'm an idiot foreigner. Can you help me?"

These go a long way toward inspiring people treat you nicely, especially in Asia.
posted by rokusan at 8:23 AM on November 30, 2009

Best answer: You will be able to get by without much (or any) Arabic - certainly in Cairo, Alex and tourist areas, plenty of people speak English - especially the ones you will be dealing with. And people (random strangers) were generally very helpful (e.g. I had one guy look after me at Alex train station when things were going wrong).

I would suggest learning the names of basic foods (rather than just things like 'rice' and 'lamb'); you probably know kebab and kofte and pita, but knowing words like foul (a kind of bean paste) would be useful. Also names of pastries/breads (bakeries are a cheap and delicious place to find breakfast, but you have to order and pay first, then take your docket to the person who will serve you - so you have to know what you want).

Echoing rokusan, being able to say 'excuse me, I don't speak Arabic, do you speak English?' or similar will no doubt be appreciated.

'La shukran' (no thank you) is something you will get very used to repeating at some places. For over-enthusiastic touts you may find 'la la la la la' while walking away rapidly to be most effective.

I would also suggest learning how to read Arabic numbers: if you're talking to someone, you can always hold up fingers, but if you're reading, you can't, and in much of Egypt, it's Arabic numerals only.

train (and first class/second class - you probably want to be in airconditioned first class).
Service taxi (a kind of minibus/van that drives a fixed route; ubiquitous and cheap; though you can probably afford to ignore it and pay for a proper taxi).
posted by Infinite Jest at 8:42 AM on November 30, 2009

Haraam is also a very useful word for Egypt. It means "forbidden" in Arabic, according to the Quran. Use it to ward off the more aggressive men. (As a non-linguistic tip: I never had to worry about using it when I covered up. The moment I slipped on an abaya and headscarf, it was like I became invisible. This, compared to wearing a long sleeved shirt and jeans, when I was whistled and hollered at once every 20 seconds)
posted by hasna at 9:50 AM on November 30, 2009

You need to learn this 1 phrase in the language of any country you want to visit:

"Excuse me, I don't speak [local language], do you speak [English, French, Spanish, whatever languages you speak]?"

posted by signal at 3:15 PM on November 30, 2009

And, an anecdote: my first time in Germany, I tried really hard to learn some basic phrases, including pronounciation.
So the first time I walk into a bakery and point at some bread and ask "wieviel kostet das", my accent's good enough that they answer in German.
I only knew the numbers from 1 to 10, and, surprise surprise, some things in this world cost more than 10 units of the local currency or it's sub-denominations.
So I had to stammer, in English, "sorry, I don't actually speak german, how much is that bread..." etc.
posted by signal at 3:30 PM on November 30, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions! I'm especially interested in diving into the wikitravel phrasebooks. I don't know how I missed them!

I saw the thread that F&W linked, but it seemed to be more focused on words rather than whole phrases. I'll get along better if everything is already inflected; there will be less room for misunderstanding.

I've done the travel phrases thing before for Thai, Indonesian, and Balinese, but never with a thought-out list. We're planning on spending some time off of the beaten track visiting some of the translators who work with my husband, so we can't count on everyone knowing English. I have phonology and field linguistics training, so I'm not worried about accent (voiceless pharyngeal fricative, ftw!). I'm more concerned with scaling down the volume of information into essentials that can be learned in a few weeks.

Again, thanks for your help.
posted by Alison at 12:51 PM on December 1, 2009

"voiceless pharyngeal fricative"

Ah, yes, so you've got the ﺡ taken care of, that's an easy one. It's the voiced velar fricative that you really have to worry about. Seen here at the beginning of the word:

غرفة= room

Kind of a handy word to know, too.
posted by HopperFan at 3:09 PM on December 1, 2009

Response by poster: Luckily, that's a phoneme in two languages we already speak. I would not want to start from scratch with that one.
posted by Alison at 8:05 PM on December 1, 2009

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