How to Make a Language Phrasebook
Traveling somewhere and don't know the local language? Trying to learn a language, or help someone else learn? This guide is for you.
Language is a complex tool. For most people it's hard to add a new one to their toolbox unless they learn it young. Unfortunately, it's impossible to be prepared for everything; this planet has thousands of languages, ranging from those with only one speaker left to those with millions of voices.
So instead of trying to put together a phrasebook for any particular language, I've made this template. When you find yourself or someone else needing some extra help with a new language, just fill in the blanks. There's a lot of material, so you can pick and choose what you need for your phrasebook.
One thing to remember: if you're using the internet to find your phrases, always check with someone fluent in the language. A direct translation may not mean what you think it means if it implies something else, for example.
Table of Contents
- Pronunciation, Alphabet/Writing System
- Everyday Phrases
- Emergency Words and Your Body
- Question Words
- Descriptive Words and Pronouns
- Feelings and Opinions
1. Pronunciation, Alphabet/Writing System
For a spoken language, the building blocks are its phonemes, or sounds. For a written language, the key components are the letters or symbols. Most languages have an alphabet that at least partially corresponds to their sound system. As an example, while it's almost impossible to find a document in Japanese that uses only their phonetic alphabet, hiragana, it's still valuable for someone trying to learn Japanese to know as an aid to pronouncing it. Kanji, the Japanese symbol system where each character stands for a word rather than its sounds, is harder to learn and won't help someone learn how to speak Japanese. If the language you're learning has similar written systems, it's probably best to include the entire phonetic alphabet. It might also be a good idea to also record the symbols for the words in the phrasebook to expand your communication abilities to writing. As with the spoken words, though, make sure to have someone who knows the language check over your work.
Without context, the phonetic alphabet may not help you. So include notes about pronunciation and rules. English is notoriously tricky about making rules and breaking them in the next word; following this, you should also note any particular exceptions. The goal is that, using this reference, you should be able to take any written word in the language and have some idea of its pronunciation even if you don't know its meaning.
Special Note: Numbers
In spoken conversation, numbers are generally less important than number words, or words that imply amount without specifics. Some of these should probably be included in your phrasebook:
However, numbers have their place, either to be specific ("Two of my friends are coming to dinner," is much more useful to a host with limited capacity than, "Some of my friends are coming to dinner.") or to note dates and times. You should write down a minimum of 1-10, but go further depending on your needs.
2. Everyday Phrases
For this section, don't worry so much about whether you know all of the words in the phrase individually. That will come. But in the meantime, the phrases themselves will help you navigate everyday situations. I've broken them down into three sections.
When you can, it's best to be polite. If you're using this phrasebook to help you when traveling, then this is also a good place to note down any customs you're not familiar with, such as a reminder to take your shoes off when entering a residence.
- please (asking for something)
- please (offering something)
- thank you
- you're welcome
- excuse me
- wait, please
Greetings and Small Talk
First, how do you address people in the language? Do you use an equivalent of Mr. or Ms.? Write this down in addition to anything you need from the list below. Add anything else you think is likely to come up, given your situation or reason for learning the language. As an example, a teacher using this for their language class might include questions and answers about homework.
- Good afternoon/day/evening/morning
- How are you?
- I'm fine/okay/bad/sick.
- What's your name?
- My name is...
- This is my friend/parent/child
- That is...
- What is that?
- I'm pleased to meet you.
- I'm ___ years old.
- See you later!
- Good night.
- Bon voyage!
While not fitting well in any other category, these phrases are good to know in any situation where you're less than fluent with the language.
- where is the restroom
- what does ___ mean? (Can be used either to ask what a word in their language means, or what a word in your language is in theirs)
- I understand/I don't understand
3. Emergency Words and Your Body
Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Even if you're going on vacation, it's best to know how to get someone's attention if you need help, and how to tell them what's going on and where you're hurt. This also applies if someone needs your help. If you have any specific health concerns, this is where you should write them down.
- go away!
- be careful.
- watch out!
- I'm hurt!
- I'm sick.
- I'm lost.
- call the police/a doctor/an ambulance!
- can I use your phone/computer/etc.?
The names of body parts are important to know when dealing with injuries, but they can also come in handy when clothing shopping, playing a sport, or asking to hold someone's hand.
- Head- ear, nose, mouth, eye, eyebrow, brain, tooth, hair
- Arm- hand, finger, fingernail, wrist, elbow, shoulder
- Torso- chest, stomach, heart, lungs, organs
- Lower Body- bum, leg, hip, knee, ankle, foot, toe, toenail
- Misc - skin, blood, muscle
4. Question Words
A direct question isn't the only way to collect information, but it's usually one of the simplest. The foundation of a question is the word that identifies what kind of information you're asking about, be it a person, object, time, place, reason, process or number. In the right context, and depending on the language, the word alone can get your question across and give you answers. So it's a good idea to include the following words in your phrasebook.
- how much/many
5. Descriptive Words and Pronouns
It's usually a good idea to learn some basic adjectives. That way, you can tell someone if a package is heavy, or tell your host the food is good, or understand when someone warns you that the ride is fast. I've included some basic opposites, but add any others you think will suit your purpose.
- light (weight)
- light (brightness)
Depending on the language (some barely use pronouns, making them less useful to bother with for a beginner), descriptive words can also be a good tool to help learn the possessive form of pronouns, possibly along with a few select nouns. If pronouns have an important place in the language you're making the phrasebook for, write all of them down. Then, for the possessive forms, create a list like the following. You can fill in the blanks with nouns you want to learn ("my big house") or leave them blank to focus on the pronouns and adjectives.
- my big ___
- your small ___
- their slow ___
- their fast ___
- his light (weight) ___
- her heavy ___
Finally, it's a good idea to write down the major colors (black, white, and everything on the rainbow). Be careful- languages have differing definitions of colors. As an example, in English, blue and green are different colors. But in Vietnamese, they're different shades of the same color.
6. Feelings and Opinions
While the basic phrases above can get you through small talk, these will help you have a basic way to express yourself and ask the opinions of others. Add anything you think you'll need.
- Are you...
- I'm cold/hot
- I'm disappointed
- I'm embarrassed
- I'm happy/sad
- I'm in a hurry/feeling rushed
- I'm tired/sleepy
- I'm worried
- I'm religious/not religious
- Did/do you...
- I liked/didn't like that
- I thought it was okay/awful/awesome/boring/exciting
- I thought it was cheap/expensive/reasonable
- I agree/don't agree
- I have a problem/don't have a problem with that
Supposedly, love makes the world go 'round, but some days it definitely seems like the motor is money. This may not matter if you're learning a new language as a personal hobby, but if you expect to be doing any business in it, a grasp of monetary terms is essential. If you travel to a country that uses a different currency than your own, it's also a good idea to know their money and the exchange rate. So write it down, along with the names and denominations of the currency. Then add any of the following words you might need.
- cash, debit, credit
- traveler's check
- bank account
- ATM (or the equivalent)
Food is one of the main sources of culture. It's also a necessity for life. While many restaurants have pictures on their menu, if you're traveling it's probably a good idea to note down any particular foods you like- or don't like!- as well as anything you're allergic to.
- I want...
- I like...
- I'm allergic to...
- Does this dish have ___ in it?
- breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack
- I'm hungry/thirsty/full
- food- burgers, pizza, health food, vegetables, rice, noodles, etc
- drinks- lemonade, soda, water, tea, coffee, etc
What are some words you need to say in order to travel? Depending on your situation and method, it can be a short list ("what's the bus fare?") or a long one ("where do I buy tickets, how much, what is the weight limit, can I get assistance?"). Here's a start, but be sure to think through your plans carefully in order to determine what you're likely to need.
- taxi, airplane, rental car, bus, train, boat/ship, car
- road, path, highway, rail
- airport, train station, bus station, harbor
- right, left, east, west, north, south, up, down
- street, road, city, town
- ticket, pass, fare, payment
- cash, credit, debit, traveler's checks
- where is...
- how far is...
- can you give me directions to...
- how much (for bus fare and the like)?
- does (the bus, etc.) take (cash or credit, etc.)?
- when is (the next bus, etc)?
- does the (vehicle) have (certain) accommodations?
- how much luggage can I take?
- is there a weight limit?
- can I get assistance?
- what floor is ___ on?
- what is the room number?
- what is the address?
Hobbies are an important part of our lives. Whether it's making spreadsheets for video game items or the more mundane skydiving, most people like having fun. So write down some recreation words, or words relating to things you're interested in. Maybe you'll meet a speaker of your new language who likes them too. Some examples:
Billiards, calligraphy, chess, computer games, cooking, dancing, drawings, films, gardening, hiking, music, painting, photography, reading, shopping, socializing, sports, surfing the internet, traveling, watching TV, bird watching, writing, gaming, hunting, swimming, star gazing, traveling, playing cards, running, exercising... and even more I can't think of. But this part should be pretty easy, since it'll be unique to you.
Special Note: Jargon
Jargon words are the kind of words people don't necessarily understand in their own language. They're the specialized terms of particular fields. If you've ever read a medical article or an engineering document and had to grab a dictionary, you've encountered jargon. Especially if you're learning a language for business, you should note down any words specific to your field.
Does this language have any unusual rules (grammar, spelling, politeness, etc.) that are hard to remember? Any phrases that you get confused by? Write them down. Every language has odd foibles that first speakers almost never notice, but can trip up anyone trying to learn it later. This will also vary depending on what your first language is. English speakers tend to have trouble with tonal languages like Chinese; by contrast, someone who already speaks a tonal language probably won't have as much of a problem.
Languages are hard to learn once you're older. But they're certainly not impossible, and whatever your purpose, I hope this little guide has been useful. If you think there's anything I should add, just drop a note in the comments below. Any other feedback is also welcome.