How do you say...
December 13, 2010 10:44 PM   Subscribe

If you wanted to learn 100 words in a foreign (i.e. non-english) language, which words would you choose?

You're doing this for fun with no serious intent in fluency. I'm guessing greetings, yes/no, and thank you would be popular. What else? Is there an objective way of doing this, maybe starting with a frequency list of english words?

Ideally these words would be useful without extensive conjugation or inflection, I'm thinking no verbs.
posted by mnemonic to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Split them into those topics, and list a few important words for each.

(Other) Hobbies
Food & Restaurant
posted by easilyconfused at 11:02 PM on December 13, 2010

Are you doing this "for fun" or to be "useful"? If really just for fun and interest, I would want to learn words that sound funny or interesting, such as the French word for grapefruit or the multiple meanings/pronunciations of the Chinese ma.
posted by acidic at 11:08 PM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would learn daily "ritual" words and phrases first.

Thank you
Excuse me
I'm sorry
Good morning/afternoon/evening
Where is....
I'll have...
I'm looking for...

Maybe a few interjections as well.

That's wonderful!
That's terrible.
I'm sorry to hear that.

The problem with the frequency list is that there may not be a 1-to-1 translation available. For example, Japanese doesn't use articles, so the, a, and an have no counterparts. Or, like in many European languages, there will be more than one way to say "you" depending on your relationship to the person. And while you want to shy away from verbs, in a language like Japanese (again), a single verb can be all you need to communicate a complete thought.

Even where there seems to be a concordance, there will still be nuances that will lead you into error. You can say a building is "high" or "tall" in English, for example, but calling a person "high" will get you in trouble, no matter that the two words are synonyms. Every language has these landmines, and I've stepped on more than a few in Japanese.

tl;dr version - don't use frequency lists. Look for what people actually say and why they say it.
posted by MShades at 11:11 PM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

A frequency list isn't really going to be useful--you're going to be stuck with articles and prepositions largely for most languages. And most of them won't be ones you'd use if you needed to use the language. I would go for a survivalist vocabulary, mostly nouns.

Water, Toilet, Hotel, Hospital, restaurant etc etc. Possibly "now" and some time-telling words. Question words (what where how when--why and who aren't as necessary, I think) Definitely greetings and pleasantries--Hello, goodbye, sorry, excuse me, thanks

If it were entirely for fun and in no way for actual use, I would learn proverbs or other pithy sayings, and tongue twisters. In Japanese there are Yojijukugo--the idiomatic ones are the ones I'd go for. I learned some tongue twisters in my one semester of Russian, and they are about all I remember now.
posted by that girl at 11:12 PM on December 13, 2010

I think basic verbs could be good. For instance, my boss can communicate well in Spanish knowing simple pronouns and verbs. If your conversation partner understands that you are not speaking precisely, if you say in Spanish, "El lavar platos." Literally, it comes to "he to wash plates", but it's easy to understand the intent.

That said, basic prepositions, basic verbs, etc. Let's see.

Basics: yes, no, hello, goodbye, thank you, sorry, please, where, what, who, when, and

Verbs (all infinitive forms or "I" forms): can (as in to be able to), do, be, go, eat, sleep, like, want, need, help, give, look, hear, make, have, know, say/tell

Prepositions: on, under, near, around, to, at, in, above, below, up, down, left, right, of, from, with

Pronouns: he, she, it, they, you, I, we

Numbers: zero, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, hundred, thousand, all, many

Descriptors: black, white, blue, red, yellow, green, purple, orange, brown, bad, good, big, small, happy, sad, sick, hurt, afraid, slow, fast, dirty, clean

Nouns: friend, man, woman, child, water, food, animal, house, sky, ground/floor, clothing
posted by Night_owl at 11:18 PM on December 13, 2010

Profanity, of course. First thing you learn in any new language is how to swear in it, and how to insult people. (The first word in Japanese that I learned was "baka".)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:20 PM on December 13, 2010

It's not 100, but if you get the Oxford Edition of most English-Insert Foreign Language Here dictionary, you'll see that the 3000 most important words are actually marked with a small key beside the word.
posted by dougrayrankin at 11:24 PM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Good answers so far. Sorry, I was a little unclear about the usefulness vs. fun aspect. Let's say 90% useful, 10% fun. Where the "fun" part was to come in was words like "love" (noun). A person might wonder idly how to say it in various languages, but on a vacation might never need to use it. But nothing like tongue twisters, so let's stick with useful words.
posted by mnemonic at 11:25 PM on December 13, 2010

Allait au lit, maintenant?
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:29 PM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the Swadesh List fits the bill.
posted by knile at 11:51 PM on December 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think some of it depends on the language. Some languages have a many-to-one relationship between English and a few core words (meaning that many English words essentially map to a single word in another language). For usefulness' sake, I think you would want those power words.

In Italian, I was absolutely shocked at how many ways the word "prego" was used. It seemed like half of the words in the damn English language mapped to "prego".

Making note of these types of words in other languages would be good. I remember that there was a verb in latin that depending on context could take the place of almost every other verb. I think it started with an 'e'...
posted by milqman at 12:16 AM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Go with the ones most relevant to you. If you have any sort of medical condition, you should probably figure that one out. Yes/no/please/thank you/this/that/here/there. Wh- question words (who/what/when etc.) Some verbs would be good (drink/eat/buy/go).

Of course, you should always be able to ask for a beer, or two.

nama biru onegashimasu.

After that, well, you'll need to drink more, since fluency is hard work.

piccha mo hitotsu kudasai (one more pitcher, please)

I leave you on your own from there.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:17 AM on December 14, 2010

"Does this food contain [allergen]? I am allergic to [allergen], and if I eat [allergen], I will die."
posted by spinifex23 at 12:20 AM on December 14, 2010

I was just going to come in here and say "the Swadesh list" but knile beat me to it! So yes, seconding that.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:38 AM on December 14, 2010

I'm not sure whether I buy the theory or not, but the Natural Semantic Metalanguage proposal is that there is a small set of words whose meanings are not susceptible to paraphrase or non-circular definition, and if you can work those out for a given language, you can build up definitions for everything else. There are versions for English, Russian, and Chinese on site, with a dozen other languages explored in the print literature.

Anyway, even if you don't buy the theory that everything can be said in terms of those words, certainly many things can.
posted by eritain at 1:01 AM on December 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

I usually concentrate on food words in my first 100 words of a foreign language. Useful even without any other words or grammar, and interesting to see how food, language and culture are a bit connected.
posted by AnnaRat at 1:09 AM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

On a trip to Morocco many years ago I learned that they have an interesting way of learning a foreign language and giving you the impression of decent fluency:

Learn phraces and complete sentences.

Even 50 sentences would do wonder.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 2:47 AM on December 14, 2010


Anyway, here you go.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:21 AM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I found "ham sandwich, no mayo" a terrifically useful phrase in a variety of languages.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:55 AM on December 14, 2010

posted by Confess, Fletch at 5:55 AM on December 14, 2010

A really handy word to know in any language is "but".

If you can't remember how to say "Where is the museum?" but you can remember how to say "Looking for museum but..." people will get the idea. There's so much implied by a "but", it's helped me numerous times.

Other than that, after you've learned about 50 words, try having a few conversations with yourself (in the car, in the shower etc) and make notes of the words you're missing most often.

And as yoyo_nyc said, if you could actually learn 50 phrases you'd be set.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 7:29 AM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

If your goal is to be able to make sense of a sentence in the language, with the help of a dictionary perhaps, you should concentrate on the language's function words (aka lexical words). In my experience, learning several European languages and giving language examinations in them to grad students, if you can read a sentence and you know the function words, you can figure out what the sentence means. If you don't know the function words, you're lost.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:35 AM on December 14, 2010

My sympathy is with HopStopDon'tShop on learning "but", because it's a word you can do a lot of things with, unlike a word like "toilet" which has a limited, albeit excellent, usage.

After "yes", "no", "thank you", "excuse me", and maybe "how are you" I learn the word for "problem", because if you know that and point at stuff, you can communicate a lot of other things. I've likewise communicated whole philosophies with the word for "possible" (and its negation), because with that one word you can communicate the varied subtleties of the world not contained in the words "yes" and "no".

I'd go on to "I like", "you like", because with that you can have hilarious mimed conversations about sexual preferences as well as quite useful ones where you point and say what you prefer eating. And then some I/you/he/she/they and some adjectives like "stupid", "clever", "sexy", (and the way you say "he's clever / you're clever" if you're feeling fancy)

I don't like memorizing vocabulary, and when I travel I lean heavily on people knowing in English, or me being able to write down, things like numbers. Whether this would work depends on where you go.

I once read that there are only two phrases you need to know in a foreign language: "How much does it cost?" and "My friend will pay."
posted by squishles at 8:48 AM on December 14, 2010

My top 8 words/phrases, roughly in order:
Thank you.
Hello / Goodbye.
Yes / No.
I'm sorry.

Numbers are important. 1-10 for counting (and check to make sure they use the same digits we do; in Arabic they use Eastern Arabic numerals, which aren't what we call 'Arabic numerals'.) Higher numbers (50, 100, 200, 500) are useful for asking for things in grams. Also consider the currency in use; when I visited Syria, I was great at the ol' 1-10, but a Syrian pound is worth 2 cents, so I suddenly had to learn to count to 1000 by 10s. The same consideration applies if you're learning Japanese or Ndebele, for instance.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:01 AM on December 14, 2010

Based on trying to help people read subway maps, I think direction words are very important: Right/left/straight, next to, past, away from/toward, up/down, stairs, doors, exit, stop (as in station), (street) sign. These seem like words that you cannot necessarily understand by context since they are often opposites.

For fun? I think it depends on what kind of fun. Personally, I'd like to learn some funny sounding words. Oh! And words that one might *think* mean something, but are in fact another thing entirely, esp. if a little dirty. Example: You might guess that the French word for jam or jelly is "préservatif" because it sounds like the English word, preservative. In fact, it means condom, not something to ask for with your croissant.
posted by maryr at 11:23 AM on December 14, 2010

"Please don't touch me" might come in handy. Unless you'd like to be touched, which is also possible, so perhaps "Go ahead and touch me" might also be useful.
posted by analog at 12:14 PM on December 14, 2010

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