Ten key words to learn in every language

“Don’t shoot, I’m a pencil!”

Apparently there are more than 6,000 spoken languages in the world, as catalogued and described in the book “Languages of the World”, according to Wikipedia. So it turns out that to be outrageously multilingual, you’d have to learn a new language about every five days, given that you live until the ripe old age of 80 years. However, I would like to inform you of two possibilities you have in this regard:

First, language extinction may work in your favor. If you wait until 2050, about 90 percent of languages that are currently alive will have become extinct.

Assuming that you can’t wait for option one, we’ll proceed with the second option: a list of ten words to provide you with a smattering of any local lingo. Now, if you wish to delve into the space-time dynamics of origami intricacies with local folk, this list of ten words may somewhat limit your conversational bandwidth. Nonetheless, with ten factorial permutations, I can guarantee substantial scope for nonsensical combinations. In any case, here goes:

1. “Hello”: This word is absolutely crucial if you’re carrying something in each hand and can’t manage to wave your paw. In many countries, the word for hello is the exact same as for goodbye, so learning how to greet someone is a double whammy. Don’t be too liberal in employing this assumption, as saying hello to someone when you’re leaving will leave them with a rather confused impression of your nationality.

2. “Please”: This is an absolute beauty of a word. Combined with any object or service of your choice the world becomes your oyster (cold, closed and unresponsive). Water please, tiramisu please, Tibetan-hot-stone-massage please — the list is infinite.

3. “Thanks”: This one is pretty vital if you don’t want to be going around nodding to people after they’ve done you a favor. Having said that, if you’re not going back to the country any time soon, you probably should just focus on learning “please.”

4. “Toilets”: The truth is, you can definitely get away without knowing the word for the jacks/loo/lavatory/potty. However, after a few weeks of performing charades every time you need relief, this word does come in handy.

5. “Cheers”: Cheers is also a beauty of a word that can often be the difference between socializing and standing in the corner. In fact, “cheers” garners wide international acclaim as both the shortest and most effective chat-up line when approaching a gender compatible with your sexuality.

6. “Irish”: Basically, you should recognise the word for your own nationality; mainly so you know when people are talking about you.

7. “Excuse me”: This is, of course, two words, but as you shall find in many languages, “excuse me” has been compacted into one. Before you waste any time learning this one you should first check whether repeating “please” with a slightly more apologetic tone will do the job. Financial compensation is another form of apologies, although in some countries this may be a little excessive when it comes to excusing your gentle sneeze.

8. “When?”: This question word is of particular use in areas where pointing to your pristine 12-carat gold watch is best avoided. However, for those with antiquated analogue wristbands, a useful trick is to point your index figure at it whilst making small circles; clockwise for future and anti-clockwise for past.

9. “Water”: Without the word to describe the first element of human sustenance, you are likely to drink beer for the entirety of your vacation. You could also ask if the water is safe to drink. Just because the locals are standing there alive doesn’t imply the water is safe. They have probably gained immunity.

10. “Who English?”: At first, this minimal two-word-combo may appear quite futile. However, if armed with a look of absolute confusion, locals immediately realise you’re looking for an English speaker. When you’ve been lost for four months, have exhausted your granola bars but survived on wild honey, you’ll find that grammatical accuracy is pretty far up the pyramid of human necessities.

And finally, to wrap things up, I loosely quote a friend of J. Miller, a lab mate of mine. If in doubt, learn how to say “Don’t shoot, I’m a pencil!”. “Don’t shoot” explains you don’t want them to shoot and “I’m a pencil” explains that you clearly cannot speak the language.

1 Comment
Mulleflupp over 12 years ago

How about starting a multilingual list, I'm sure your readers would be very happy to contribute ;-)

I can start with the following:


1. Hallo (doesn't work for "bye")

2. Bitte

3. Danke

4. Toilette

5. Prosit/Zum Wohl

6. to be filled out according to nationality

7. Entschuldigen Sie

8. Wann?

9. Wasser

10. Wer Englisch/Franzsisch/Spanisch/Italienisch...?


1. Salut (works for "bye" too)

2. S'il vous plat

3. Merci

4. Toilette

5. Sant

6. to be filled out according to nationality

7. Excusez-moi

8. Quand?

9. Eau

10. Qui anglais/allemand/espagnol/italien...?


1. Zdraveite () (doesn't work for "bye")

2. Molya ()

3. Blagodarya ()

4. Toaletna ()

5. Nazdrave ()

6. to be filled out according to nationality

7. Izvinete ()

8. Koga? (?)

9. Voda ()

10. Koi angliyski/nemski/frenski/ispanski/italyanski? ( ////?)