Life doesn’t come with subtitles

Languages are a beautiful thing. I was born and raised in Singapore where everyone is effectively bilingual, resulting from well thought-out education policies. For those who are curious, everyone in Singapore speaks English + one, where the one is of your native heritage. The three primary races in Singapore are the Chinese, the Malay and the Indians. Since my great grandfather sailed across the ocean from China to settle in Singapore, I was lucky enough to win the birth lottery for Singapore, and learned Mandarin as my “+ one”. Over the course of my life, I was also extremely fortunate to have picked up Spanish through Middlebury’s language school, which is hands-down one of the world’s best language programs. So armed with the top three most widely spoken languages globally (English, Mandarin and Spanish), I could finally conquer the world!


When I was informed that I would be placed in Tajikistan for my Kiva fellowship, I had to first verify if this was a real country. Eventually, I found out that the main languages used are Russian and Tajik (similar to Persian-Farsi). Great, because I speak none of them… It is one thing to travel to a place for a few days and not speak the language, and another to live there for a few months under a similar circumstance. Time was short, and after a few weeks of general preparation and some Russian transit hoo-hah later, I found myself living in Dushanbe.

Time-travel back to the Soviet era, in Dushanbe

Time-travel back to the Soviet era, in Dushanbe

I have to explain that I had translators who worked with me throughout my Fellowship, and so initially there was little impetus to learn the language. However, through the course of my time in Tajikistan, I was forced to pick up certain words that became really helpful in my everyday life in a foreign land.

Foreign lands, absolutely stunning

Foreign lands, absolutely stunning

I have gathered a tried-and-tested list of 50 words (grouped into 5 categories) over the past few months that is guaranteed to come in useful when you are in a completely foreign country!

1. The 6Ws and 1H: who, what, where, when, why, which, how (much)

2. Time/location: now, later/then/after, tomorrow, this, that, here, there

3. Food: delicious, half (referring to size), chicken, cow, pig, fish, sheep (vegetarians could have a different list)

4. Articles/numbers: I, you, my, your, one-to-ten

5. The most useful misc. words: name, friend, family, home, work/school, thank you, please, bus-station, water, toilet, beautiful, hello, goodbye

Based on my experience in Tajikistan, with these 50 words above, combined with your endless vocabulary of charades, you will be surprised as to how much information you can actually relate and receive. You will also be amazed by the kind of connections you can build with just these 50 words. Having a “semi-conversation” with locals in their language completely changes the dynamics of interaction, and builds a fleeting but intense bond that I hope you will be able to experience in your travels!

This covers about 75% of the requirements for daily communication. The remaining 25%? Well, that’s the fun of travel!

P.s. Based on your experience, what other key words would you add to the list?

Running into a herd of biblical proportions.

Running into a herd of biblical proportions.


If you are living or travelling through Singapore, do check out one of Singapore’s underground social communitiesTête-à-Tête, a bi-monthly pop-up language cafe where polyglots gather!

One Comment

  1. Don’t forget “No problem”, “sorry”, and “I don’t understand”, those are useful one to know! Also, bonus points for learning some slang


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