Most of us head off to Europe speaking little if any of our destination’s native language (aside from Ireland and the UK, of course). It works because English is so widely spoken and understood in Europe. Lucky us!
Still, it is very worthwhile to learn a few polite phrases ahead of time. Among the most important and useful is “thank you.” Gratitude of any kind, even expressed in English, goes a long way, but speaking it in the native language is even better. Here’s a quick primer.
Spain is a mix of regions and cultures, some with their own language, like the Basque and Catalonians. Still, simple Spanish works everywhere. Try gracias (with the C pronounced with a “th” sound, different from the way it is said in the Americas) or muchas gracias, thanks a lot. In Barcelona, try a little Catalan: gràcies or the much more formal mercès.
In the Netherlands you will find English widely spoken, and sometimes spoken so well that it is idiomatic and spot on. Nonetheless, the practical Dutch will appreciate your efforts to thank them in their native tongue. Dank je wel is the informal, though the formal dank u wel may be easier to pronounce. Bedankt is another simple way to say thanks. The reply of alstublieft is common, a sort of a please/you’re welcome amalgamation.
The French are a warm and welcoming bunch, and not the language snobs you might fear. However, they have done a lot to preserve the French language, and most locals appreciate the added thoughtfulness of your using their language to thank them, no matter how good their English is. Use merci or merci beaucoup to say thank you very much.
Remember studying German in high school? Yeah, neither do I. But you can manage a simple danke to show your gratitude for all things German. You’ll encounter many English speakers throughout the country, with most young people studying it in school. Still, a heartfelt vielen dank (thank you very much) will go a long way, especially in small towns.
What to do about a country with four official languages? Yes, beautiful Alpine Switzerland encompasses cantons that speak French, Italian, a variation of German, and the obscure Romansh language. The Swiss are polyglots and will appreciate your efforts to speak their local language, be it a French merci, an Italian grazie, or especially a Romansch grazia.
Our Swiss Untours are set in the German speaking part of the country, and Swiss German has its own idiosyncrasies. Try merci vielmal or danke vielmals. The “High German” vielen dank also works.
Ah, Italy, an enchanting country full of things to be grateful for, including art, wine, food, and people so warm, they hardly notice visitors’ lack of effort at speaking Italian. Very few of us were offered this language as an option in school. Here the expectation is so low, your simple efforts will light up a smile. Grazie is a good start, or even grazie mille (thanks a million). Ti ringrazio is the way to say thank you to a familiar person, and ringrazio lei is the formal version.
Much as in Italy, the Portuguese expect little of the multilingual foreign guests who visit their shores and fill their city sidewalks and charming squares. Any effort goes a very long way. Try obrigado or use muito obrigado to thank someone very much. You’ll be greeted with warmth if you do.
In Budapest you will find some English speakers, and almost no one who travels here from abroad speaks Hungarian. So just imagine the smiles you’ll get when you say köszönöm to thank a shopkeeper or waiter. Simply charming!
It gets harder still in Greece, where again the language expectation of foreigners is low to nonexistent. Still, with all these ruins, excellent taverna meals, charming shops, and helpful locals, there are a lot of reasons to say Σ’ ευχαριστώ! Didn’t get that? It’s pronounced s’ efharistó.
The British Isles
Ah, our blessed mother tongue. This one is easy, right? Sure, of course. But just for fun, try the traditional languages. Go raibh maith agat is Irish, and the Dingle Peninsula is a great place to use it, where the traditional language can still be heard and signage is in both languages. In Scotland, use Gaelic and say tapadh leat to show your gratitude.
Of course it should go without saying, but even if you don’t know the language, always say thank you! Don’t be shy. Even if you are talking to a non-English speaker, they will understand your English gratitude, and that American smile goes a long way too.