Even a simple Bonjour will break the ice if you're facing a grumpy Parisian. Often, though, you can do a lot more than break the ice with very little extra effort.
If you're keen to understand a culture when you travel, the least you'll have to do is communicate with local people. Often, they'll understand English, but sometimes, you'll be reduced to a multi-cultural game of charades.
Knowing just a bit of the language can revolutionize your trip because language and travel go hand in hand. A few well-placed words can help you meet local people (which is why you're on the road, right?), sample 'real' cuisine in restaurants, feel like you belong, or simply end up in the right place for a change.
Who knows where your quickly learned words related to travel might lead you - a smile, a conversation, an insight?
Let language, travel style, be your friend.
This isn't about becoming fluent or even proficient: it's just about getting by, and that's much more within your reach than you might think.
True, some people are natural linguists and pick up languages as easily as catching a cold.
The truth is, most people struggle with learning a foreign language, and only want to know enough to get their message across, for things like these:
Even before you learn a word of the language, think through your destination.
If language is an issue, it might be a good idea to stick to countries where a single language can get you by. In West and Central Africa, you'll be fine with learning some French.
If you're headed to South America, you'll get by in Spanish in just about every country (Brazil is the only large country that isn't Spanish-speaking but some Spanish will still help).
China on the other hand is an example of a country with many languages and dialects. So is India, although in India your changes of getting by with English are high.
So, choose wisely if you're intimidated by communicating in another language.
The idea isn't to learn a language fluently - but to learn just enough.
Just ask for a few basic pronunciation rules - because the letters you'll read aren't necessarily pronounced the way you think. In Russian, M is pronounced T and U is pronounced I, not to mention the strange squiggles you'll find in French or Turkish or Spanish. Languages are full of these differences - it'll make your life a lot easier if you know what they are.
And that phrase is... "What is the word for...?" Then point. It's a great way to build your vocabulary. You'll probably only point to things that interest you, so there's a good chance the word might stick.
In Thailand my first word was 'pineapple'. Then I learned 'please'. Then 'one'. Before I knew it, I had a sentence! And a lot of smiles from pineapple street vendors.
(Your pet phrase probably won't involve pineapple.)
If you're a little more ambitious, build a mini travel vocabulary list of words you're most likely to use: please and thank you, of course, but also bank, restaurant, right, left, straight, up, down, slower, 1-2-3... And a few crucial travel phrases, like "Do you speak English" and "Where is the bathroom"?
What do you say the most in everyday life? Chances are you may need those same words abroad. These words and phrases will help you with the basics, with shopping, with directions and with meals. If I'm going somewhere for a week or two, a few words and phrases will be more than enough.
Lucky you if you have access to global television, often in languages you didn't even know existed. Listen to a few programs just get used to the sound. Don't even try to understand. No world TV in your neighborhood? Then try radio broadcasts online. Half the battle is getting used to the sound so that a language is less 'foreign' and intimidating.
My mother, who was a language teacher, used this method with her students - and they improved in leaps and bounds! One of the main barriers to learning a language is fear - fear that you'll sound stupid when you speak it or that you'll get it wrong. That fear comes from the unknown, from unfamiliarity. Your tongue simply doesn't know how to twist itself around those strange sounds! But start reading out loud and you'll slide into the language almost unnoticed. That's right - even if you don't understand a word you're reading! It'll make the language more familiar and less bewildering. Get a celebrity magazine - the pictures will tell you what it's about.
If you're up to it and a few words just won't do, there are plenty of free online language courses you might dip into to help you travel in different languages. You could join one of the free online learning sites, like Busuu or My Language Exchange. I used this last one to top up my Brazilian Portuguese and spent an hour each Monday for months chatting to a kindly retired insurance agent in Rio, half an hour in Portuguese and half an hour in English, so he could practice.
This may seem like a no-brainer but you'd be surprised at the number of travelers who leave home without one! Just look up the word you need, point at it, and then hand over your phrasebook. Do this a few times and you'll actually be having a conversation without even knowing the language.
Any good bookstore travel section will have them and they exist in many languages, even unusual ones. I usually alternate between those from Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, but there are plenty out there so just take your pick.
If you're taking your smartphone download one of the 25 easy-to-use languages apps developed by World Nomads. Or search iTunes for language podcasts. Instead of listening to music all the time, replace an hour or two with basic language training.
If you find a phrasebook too cumbersome and are really unable to learn a bit of the language, why not try one of the new pocket translators coming onto the market? You type in the word in English, choose your language, press Enter, and presto, there's the translation.
Most times the electronic approach is just fine for basic conversation and brilliant for breaking the ice, especially when you're occasionally faced with a slightly erroneous (and at times hilarious) translation.