With maps on our smart phones, GPS and satnav, many people think that asking for directions is a thing of the past. However, cell phones run out of battery and satnav isn’t always reliable overseas so it’s important to know how to ask for and understand directions when you visit an English-speaking country – it could make the difference between getting lost and having a great vacation! Use these simple tips to ask directions in English and you will never get lost in an English speaking country again.
How to start
Choose someone who looks like they will give you a reliable answer. People in uniforms are usually a good bet! Before you ask your question, it’s always best to open with a phrase like “Excuse me” or “Could you help me?”. The person you’re asking will appreciate the courtesy and often be more helpful. You could also ask “Do you know this area well?” to make sure the person you are asking will give you an accurate answer.
Use a polite question form
Polite questions usually start with ‘could’ or ‘would’. In this case, we usually use “Could you tell me…” to ask for information. “Could you tell me how to get to _____?” is the standard way to ask how to get to a specific place, like a museum, hotel, or street.
If you’re not looking for a specific place, but just need to find a nearby bank, subway stop, bathroom, and so on, then it’s best to use a phrase like “Could you tell me where the closest _____ is?”
Understanding the answer
Now, if the person is able to answer your question, it’s important to understand the answer. As well as standard directions like ‘straight on’ or ‘turn left/right’ you might hear expressions like these.
In the US, people often use the term ‘blocks’ to give directions. A block is the section of street between two intersections. So ‘the next block’ means the section of street after the next intersection, while three blocks ahead means to stay on the same street and keep going past the next three intersections.
When someone wants to tell you where to turn onto a different street, they might use phrases like ‘the third right’ or ‘the next left’. So if someone says “Take the third street on the left” it means you should walk past two intersections and then turn left at the third one.
There are several different ways to tell someone to make a right or left turn. ‘Take a left’, ‘go left’, ‘turn left’ and ‘make a left’ all mean the same thing: turn left. “Go around the corner” means turn into the next street without crossing it.
Other directions refer to other buildings or landmarks. “It’s just past the bank” means if you go past the bank, the place you’re looking for will be one of the next few buildings. ‘Opposite’, ‘across from’, and ‘facing’ all mean the same thing – on the same street, but on the other side.
Remember, when you are asking for directions, don’t be shy. Be confident and don’t be scared to ask people to repeat the directions if you are not sure. As long as you stay safe, asking for directions is a great way to interact in English and practise speaking to native-speakers when you are overseas.