Adventures in War Zones and Disaster Areas for Journalists and Relief Workers

The 20 Most Needed Foreign Words in a War Zone

What Words Do You Need in a War Zone or Humanitarian Disaster Area?

One thing you should have done on the plane ride into your latest hell-hole of a disaster area or war zone is learn the handful of words in the local language that may save your life.

You only need a handful. You do not need grammar. And unless you are very lazy you should be able to master these in just half an hour.

Being able to speak any of the local languages will earn you a huge return. People who would normally shun you as a foreigner, or a threat, will invariably open up when they hear you trying to respect their culture.

The words can also keep you alive.

Don’t dismiss that point. I still break out in a sweat when I recall being stopped at the point of two AK-47’s in Mogadishu during the civil war by two teenagers high on the local drug, Khat. The drug acts as a mild amphetamine and it is not something that should be in the body of a hyper alert and dead scared 17 year old with a weapon he does not know how to use properly.

Over and over I shouted, “Don’t shoot! I am Canadian” in Somali.

For added good measure I kept throwing in “BBC! BBC!”. The British Broadcasting Corporation news service had, and probably still has, a very high reputation among ordinary Somalis who never failed to listen to the Word News on shortwave.

Just learn the individual nouns and verbs. Don’t bother trying to learn tenses or pronouns or anything grammatical. Aim to talk like a three year old child. It is enough. It is a waste of time to bother with learning phrases or trying to use them coherently in a sentence unless you have had enough time in the previous weeks to work on it.

These words are your Basic Linguistic Toolkit.

Left, Right, Straight, Stop! Backup. (useful for drivers)

Hotel, Toilet, Food, Water, Beer

I am (insert nationality)

Help! (Screamed loudly in public at the first sign of things going wrong, it can be a magic get-out-of-trouble token)

Don’t Shoot! (insert an innocuous nationality here.) Canadian, Dutch, Norwegian, etc are good. (Unless you are being confronted by U-S troops it is best in most trouble areas to not claim to be American)

“May I have . . .”

Please, Thank you. (These are very important to know)

“Where is . . .” Toilet, airport, beerstore, etc

The numbers from 1 to 10 although you should be able to get by without them just by using your fingers.

“How much is it?”

Yes, No


You can and should add in others as you see fit. The point is that just a handful of words can be extremely useful if you bother to spend a few minutes learning them ahead of time.

Keep your words as a written list on paper. By all means have it on your phone, tablet, computer as well, but remember that in war zones and disaster areas you can find yourself a long way from electrical recharging stations. And if you get robbed, no one will bother to take your slip of paper.

I don’t recommend language books unless you really have a strong commitment to learning the language and you have a stable location you can work from. It is always best to travel as lightly as possible in danger areas.

Audio tapes are good to work from. I particularly like the Pimsleur series of language lessons.

But the best way to learn, not just the words, but also the pronunciation is to work with your drivers, translators and fixers. Don’t forget the people at your guesthouse or lodgings either. They usually really like helping foreigners learn more about their country.

Making use of the people around you is an excellent way of building relationships and they can help you if the local crazies show up with guns out to get you. It is really helpful to have one of your local colleagues step forward and say something along the lines of, “Hey you bastards. He’s a good guy. Get out of here!”

I’d still recommend shoving your hands high in the air and screaming . . .

“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”