Learning a language for a trip is different from learning it on a large scale; Duolingo is way too comprehensive, as is anything that tries to build up from fundamentals of grammar. You need a few phrases, like “please” and “thank you,” “What does this mean?” and “Where is the bathroom?”
But most of the time, I needed just one word to feel less like an ugly tourist. I needed to say I’m sorry. Which is more complicated than it sounds.
Think about the little apologies you give in English: “sorry,” “pardon,” “excuse me,” “thank you.” Each has a different connotation, which also depends on how you say it. “Excuse me” can mean “Sorry for bumping you,” or “Actually you should be apologizing to me,” or “Please ignore me,” or “May I have your attention?”
I didn’t realise how much I depend on these little inflections to get through my day until I was there, constantly bumping into people, getting in the way, or asking for help. I didn’t want to come across as a cringing creep, but I didn’t want to look like an entitled tourist.
These tiny apologetic phrases are the verbal lubricant that lets millions of people carry on their lives in close proximity without constant emotional friction. If you can deploy them well, you can be more assertive and friendly without fear of offence.
The best apologies come from a place of true self-reflection and understanding. You did something wrong, you get why it was wrong, and you want to make a change for the better. That doesn’t mean the person hearing it is going to accept your conciliatory gesture.
When you’re an obvious foreigner, you can get away easier with apologetic bows and smiles. As I bumbled my way through Tokyo’s streets and subways, I don’t think I left anyone with a horribly wrong impression. (But who knows? The locals are too polite to let on.)
In somewhere like Germany or Finland, where I couldn’t be immediately spotted as a foreigner, I would want to be a little more careful.
If you can, talk to someone who speaks both languages about the key phrases and their shades of meaning. If no one’s available, get a phrasebook app that includes audio clips of pronunciations. There are tons of cheap and free ones available for iOS and Android. My favourite is Codegent’s Learn to Speak series.
Their app Learn Japanese includes definitions for “Excuse me,” “I’m sorry (Apologise),” “I’m sorry (Sympathy),” versions of “please” for asking and offering, and versions of “It’s OK” and “no problem.”
I tried to learn a few during my trip, but the only one I could consistently remember was “sumimasen,” for “excuse me.” And honestly I usually just said “sorry” and made a polite face. Every time, I wished I’d practiced more beforehand. I’d wasted a lot of time memorising various forms of “good morning” and “good evening,” and “Hajime mashite, Nicku-des” — “Nice to meet you, I’m Nick,” which I didn’t have nearly as much use for. Now I had to cram on the go.
A phrasebook still might mislead you into awkward usage — maybe you’ll step on someone’s toe and give your deepest condolences — so pay attention to how people react, and when you bump into an English speaker, ask them for tips.
And remember to thank them — which in Japanese can be “domo,” “arigato,” or as you’ll hear whenever you buy something, “arigato gozaimashita” — brightly mumbled but repeated two or three times. Hope you pick the right one!