Dr. Paul Nation & Survival Travel Vocabulary

Anyone who has done research on vocabulary acquisition has come across Dr. Paul Nation’s articles and books. His 1990 book, Teaching & Learning Vocabulary, as well as his 2001 book, Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, are the basis of most vocabulary acquisition classes at universities today.  He favors frequency lists, extensive reading, and the lexical approach to language teaching in addition to the need to teach students strategies so they can become autonomous learners. In case you haven’t read my previous posts on vocabulary in language learning, I completely agree with his methods.

Currently, Dr. Nation teaches at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and his homepage offers useful resources to download for those interested in vocabulary acquisition. The ZIP file Vocabulary Resource Booklet includes survival vocabulary in 19 languages, based on Nation and Crabbe’s 1991 article “A Survival Language Learning Syllabus for Foreign Travel” (which is also included), ideally for tourists who will be in a foreign country for only a few weeks or months. This survival vocabulary should take no more than 60 hours to learn.

Survival Travel Vocabulary

Here is the syllabus in English, from the article. Numbers in parentheses simply mean that the item occurs in more than one section.

1. Greetings and being polite

Hello/Good morning etc. + reply [there are many cultural variants of these, including Where are you going?, Have you eaten?]

How are you? + reply e.g. Fine, thank you.


Thank you + reply  e.g. It’s nothing, You’re welcome.


Excuse me [sorry]

It doesn’t matter

Delicious (6)

Can I take your photo?

2. Buying and bargaining

I want … (4, 6)

Do you have …?/Is there …?

Yes (8)

No (8)

This (one), That (one) [to use when pointing at goods]

There isn’t any

How much (cost)? (5, 6)

A cheaper one (5)

NUMBERS (5, 7) (These need to be learned to a high degree of fluency)



How much (quantity)?


all of it

(one) more

(one) less

Excuse me [to get attention] (4)

Too expensive

Can you lower the price? + reply  (Some countries do not use bargaining. In others it is essential.)

NAMES OF IMPORTANT THINGS TO BUY  (These may include stamps, a newspaper, a map.)

3. Reading signs






4. Getting to places

Excuse me (to get attention) (2)

Can you help me?

Where is …? (5)

Where is … street?

What is the name of this place/street/station/town?



Department store



Train station


Bus station







I want … (2, 5, 6)

How far?/Is it near?

How long (to get to …)?



Straight ahead

Slow down (Directions for a taxi.)

Stop here




5. Finding accommodation

Where is … (4)


How much (cost)? (2, 6)

A cheaper one (2)

I want … (2,4,6)

Leave at what time?

NUMBERS (2, 7)



6. Ordering food

How much (cost)? (2, 5)

The bill, please

I want … (2, 5, 9)



Delicious (1)

7. Talking about yourself and talking to children

I am (name)

Where do you come from?

I am (a New Zealander)/I come from (New Zealand)

What do you do?

I am a (teacher)/tourist

You speak (Chinese)!

A little/very little

What is your name? (Especially for talking to children.)

How old are you? + reply

NUMBERS (2, 5)

I have been here … days/weeks/months

I am sick

8. Controlling and learning language

Do you understand?

I (don’t) understand

Do you speak English? (7)

Yes (2)

No (2)


Please speak slowly

I speak only a little (Thai)

What do you call this in (Japanese)?


Do you agree with this list? Anything missing? Anything not that necessary for survival as a tourist?

  • Anna

    Great list. This may just be the paranoid New Yorker in me, but going further than the “talking about yourself” category, I would add an “emergency” category with words/phrases like “help!” “stop, thief!” and illness words like “nausea,” “dizziness,” “headache,” etc. in case you get sick and have to explain what’s wrong to a doctor who doesn’t speak English.

    • Good point! I had missed that the first time reading through it. Yeah I would definitely add those too. You never know what could happen.

  • Yay, New Zealand! Now that the obligatory acknowledgement of my inconsequential nation is out of the way ;), I would think most people would use ‘Can you take my/our photo’ about a zillion times more than ‘Can I take your photo’!

    In general, I am strongly in favour of learning at least the basics (even the very basics, depending on your aptitude/how long you will be there etc.) before going to a foreign country. However, I think the main flaw with any ‘quick fix’ vocab list, podcast, whatever, is that there’s a very good chance that you won’t understand the response to a question such as “how do I get to…”, even if you remember how to ask it. (Words like ‘left’ and ‘right’ are a good start of course, but not much help with ‘take the third road on the left, you’ll go past a green house, then…) I’m not just trying to be picky, I really think a lot of language-learning tools don’t deal with this problem well at all.

    Also, it covers numbers but not times, which can be notoriously difficult. Heck, it still often takes me a few seconds to remember what time quinze o’clock is…

    BUT, nitpicking aside, it sounds like a good start, I will keep it in mind the next time I’m travelling somewhere where I don’t know the language at all.

    • I completely agree with the inability of books to teach responses to the common things tourists need to say. There are just so many ways to respond that it would be impossible to include them all. And yeah, Can I take your photo seems bizarre to me too! Can you take my/our photo is definitely better.

  • I like the idea of this list, but I’d say that if you’re planning on being there for more than a few days you should probably learn more than this, depending on what kind of help you’ll have once in-country (from native friends/interpreters).


    • Serwan Husen

      can you make a list of the steps followed in the curriculum design process of Nation and Crabbe?

  • Takayuki

    I think this list makes more sense once you read the article – Nation and Crabbe outline their justifications for their choices. It’s a useful read and also has some great information on how to go about learning this vocabulary in an efficient and effective manner. I learned about 50 words in around two hours (spread over a week or so) using vocabulary cards. That’s a great cost/benefit ratio, in my opinion. 😀