Going overseas involves a lot of new things: new food, new people, new culture, new climates, new sites to see, and new languages. It can be an exciting adventure of first-time experiences. A lot of the experiences are hard to prepare for (and that’s half the fun, being put in new situations), but doing some homework can come in really handy. Especially when it comes to knowing the language!
You don’t have to have a clear grasp on the language of the country you will be visiting, but knowing a few phrases is helpful and can get you out of some sticky situations. We asked some of our staff to weigh in with phrases they find indispensable. Check them out:
Learning how to say hello in the native language of wherever you happen to be is SO important. It communicates a desire for relationship, and shows that you’re putting forth effort. Sometimes in other countries, Americans are viewed as rude and disrespectful. When you take the time to learn how to say “hello” in their language, it conveys humility. You’re there to be immersed in their culture, not to immerse them in your culture!
2. “Can We Drink This Water?”
One day while out on ministry in Southeast Asia, we entered the home of a christian family. Like any other home in this culture, we were served a nice steaming cup of chai and a plate full of spicy snacks. Our hostess also tried to give each of us a glass of “fresh” water. We all knew it was unsafe to drink, so everyone politely declined: everyone, that is, except Edgardo. Before we were able to stop him, he downed a whole glass of water like his life depended on it. After he drank it, and heard our shouts of warning, his eyes grew large. He knew exactly what he did wrong. “Oh my gosh!” He cried, “I’m going to die!” Thankfully, he did not die and, in fact, he didn’t even get sick. The moral of this story: always ask if the water is safe to drink.
3. The Address and Name of the Place You Are Staying
You should always know the name and address of the place you are staying in the local language. Sometimes on outreaches we can get excited as we go out to minister, only to discover that we don’t know how to get back to our housing at the end of the day. There is nothing worse than wandering around a city in a taxi after dark trying to give the taxi driver directions to a place in a language you don’t know.
4. “Jesus Loves You”
In Southeast Asia, my team and I really didn’t know how to say “Jesus loves you” in Mandarin, but we were praying for a girl and we really felt like we were supposed to tell her that “Jesus loves you.” One of the team members thought that she remembered hearing/reading somewhere that “Yesu ai ni” was how you said this. So, we went for it and shared the phrase with the girl. We think the girl understood, but we had to laugh at ourselves because we knew that Mandarin is an extremely tonal language, so being off even with one tone can completely change the meaning! So, when you are going to share about Jesus, it’s probably helpful to know how to say “Jesus loves you” in the language of the nation you head off to.
5. Know Your Numbers!
Once, on an outreach in the Czech Republic, one of our students woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t sleep. She had severe pain in her side. It didn’t go away, so that morning another staff member and I were trying to get a taxi to the hospital. The only problem was they didn’t speak English, we didn’t speak Czech, and the taxi service wanted to know when to come to pick us up. We didn’t really come to a resolution. We told them “8 o’clock” in English, and the call ended with us thinking they might have understood. In the end, we had to find a different taxi. So whether you’re trying to have a taxi come pick you up, or you want to buy something from a local market or store, it’s a good idea to know how to say basic numbers in that language.
6. “Where’s the Bathroom?”
Where is the bathroom? Whenever I’m going to a new country, that is the single most important phrase I can learn. I can survive without food for a few days. I can be okay with not saying hello and being friendly. But I CANNOT survive if I can’t find the bathroom. Also, pro-tip: Most foreigners won’t understand the term “bathroom“, even if they speak English. Say “toilet” instead!
7. “My Name Is _____”
I was in Nicaragua one time, and the group I was with was going house to house sharing Jesus with people. We started by introducing ourselves and telling the people we met our names. The only problem was, I wasn’t very clear on how to say “My name is” in Spanish. Really the Spanish for “My name is” is “Me llamo es” but instead I said “Mi amor es Robert”. Which means “My love is Robert.” So when you introduce yourself in another language, it’s probably a good idea to know what your saying.
We hope you found these stories insightful and humorous. Next time you are about to go overseas, brush up on a few phrases to engage and connect with the local people. Hopefully it will keep you out of scenarios like these! What are some phrases that you find invaluable when traveling cross-culturally?