¿Qué pasa? Tips to Learning Languages on the Road
Learning languages comes easy to some, can be challenging for others, and can seem impossible to many. But persevere and you’ll be gifted with an ability to engage with people when you travel in truly wonderful ways. I’ve been making an effort to practice my Spanish in Buenos Aires, and I’ve been really glad I have.
I have found some languages easy to learn (Spanish; and Swahili – see this post!), others difficult but with hard work doable (Russian – I’m half Russian so I know it should be easier, but it’s not), while others seem next to impossible (Portuguese – and yes, it’s similar to Spanish, but have you heard it spoken?!).
Of Russian-Australian heritage I grew up with Russian continually spoken around me. Yet as the grandchild of immigrants eager to assimilate, my grandparents and mother didn’t expect me to speak Russian. Instead I learned to understand the language – and later to read and write it (at little more than kindergarten level!) – but I was never really encouraged to speak it. It’s my biggest regret. Handily however, as they got older, my grandparents would forget and speak to me in Russian and I’d answer in English.
My mother, who was a baby when she, my grandparents and great-grandmother arrived in Australia, is fluent in Russian. When Terence and I took her to Russia after my father died, I would get her to buy our tickets for the trains, the ballet, museums, etc. Every time she did so, the ticket sales staff would say “X rubles for you and XXX dollars for the two foreigners!”
She was amazing! I actually understood most of the conversations on the streets around me, but I just wasn’t in the habit of speaking the language. I could hear in my head what I should be saying but I couldn’t quite get the words out of my mouth. It was a weird feeling.
And I’ve found it to be the same for Spanish, French and Italian. My comprehension as well as my reading skills are far better than my spoken skills. Sometimes it’s simply the case that people are stronger in certain language skills – whether it’s listening, speaking, reading, or writing – over others.
Some people simply don’t have the talent, patience or time for learning languages. Others find it harder to learn a new language the older they get. Whatever your reason, if you’re eager to learn a new language, learning how you like to learn is one of the first steps. Here are some other tips.
10 tips from our language lessons learnt on the road
1. Learn how you like to learn languages
We all learn differently. I love learning firstly by reading and writing, learning the verbs and understanding the grammar, I like to see a word to be able to pronounce it properly. Terence, on the other hand, is a great listener and is brilliant at mimicking accents. Understand your learning preferences and styles, and focus on those. If you like talking but hate reading and writing, focus on speaking – as those particular skills improve, you’ll develop the confidence to learn the other skills.
2. Buy a phrase book and dictionary
Buy these before you travel or, if you’re on a round-the-world trip, as soon as you arrive in a place. Carry them with you wherever you go to translate words and phrases as you need them and try to learn new words each day.
3. Learn some basic vocabulary before you arrive
At the very minimum, we try to learn around 10-15 words of the language of the place we’re visiting – hello, good morning, how are you?, good thanks, yes, no, please, excuse me, thank you, you’re welcome, how much?, sorry, I don’t understand, I don’t speak (much) xxxx, no problem, and goodbye. And we try (but don’t always succeed) in using those basic words every day. If we’re staying in a place for a while, we’ll then move onto directions, food, shopping, and so on. Locals appreciate it and it makes a difference. Those ‘rude Parisians’ that tourists often complain about, actually become very friendly when you speak a little French.
4. Do a language course before you go
We first learnt Spanish in an 8-week course, one night a week, at an evening college in Australia before our first trip to Mexico many years ago. It was great fun. Aside from the fact that I challenged our Spanish teacher to a gazpacho and sangria cook-off and won, we learned a lot in that short time and it made our travels around Mexico so much more fun. Although there was that one time I ordered fried plantains (green bananas, drenched in cream!) instead of patatas (potatoes). I had a hangover and was already queasy. Forcing myself to eat them as the excited old lady who cooked them eagerly watched me, waiting for my reaction (I was probably the first stupid turista to have ordered them) wasn’t so much fun…
5. Sign up for language classes or private lessons as soon as you arrive
You don’t think you have time? While you’ll learn a language faster by doing a lesson every day, or at the minimum a few times a week, some schools offer short courses, such as the 3-hour Crash Course for Busy Travellers offered by Vamos Spanish Academy in Buenos Aires, which I tested out. The instructor can either run through the basics with the group if they’re learning the language for the first time, or, if they know Spanish but are out of the habit of speaking it, she tests students to see how much they remember, then helps them brush up on what they’ve forgotten. It was excellent and just what I needed. Some schools, such as Vamos, also organize other activities and tours that you can do with other students so you have some buddies to practice with.
6. Go beyond the basics and pick up some commonly used local expressions or colloquialisms
Learn how to say the equivalent of something you might use often in your own language. I start my sentences with ‘Okay, …’ a lot, so I find myself saying ‘Alora,…” in Italy and ‘Bueno,…’ in Spanish speaking countries. Terence likes Que Pasa?! What’s up? What’s happening? It’s one of our favourites phrases in Spanish and one that handily crosses most borders – important considering that Spanish in Spain is different to Spanish in Argentina which is different to Spanish in Mexico and so on.
7. Use time in restaurants to learn your food vocabulary and practice ordering
Ask for two menus, one in the local language and English if they have one, or simply use your dictionary and phrase book to translate, highlighting your favourite foods. We tend to find that many local foods aren’t in the dictionary or menu reader of most phrase books so we ask the waiters to help us translate. We always find them patient and helpful, especially so in Beunos Aires.
8. Use language learning CDs, websites or applications to learn more
We used a fantastic product called Earworms to brush up on our Italian in Puglia as the manager of our holiday rental in Alberobello only spoke Italian, and we mainly had contact with Italian speakers during our stay. That in itself helped us improve our Italian. But Earworms is brilliant. Vocabulary, phrases and conversations are set to a cool soundtrack with a great beat and are repeated several times each so they stick in your head and are impossible to forget. We’d listen to it while cooking or pottering around. It was a blast and it worked a treat.
9. Immerse yourself in the language
Try to read the local newspaper or magazines, watch some television in the local language, go to the cinema, and put yourself in situations where you have no choice but to speak that language – go shopping at the local supermarket, head to a football game, or drop into a favourite bar or café each day that is frequented by locals rather than travellers.
10. Be confident and don’t be afraid of making mistakes
The biggest impediment to language learning is shyness and a fear of embarrassing yourself, but I find most people are patient and helpful, especially taxi drivers. I think I learned more Spanish from the back of a taxi than I did anywhere else. Think how you react and behave when you meet a foreigner attempting to speak English. You probably listen carefully and patiently wait as you to attempt to understand what they’re trying to communicate, and then you respond slowly and clearly, using basic English. I find most people (although not all!) will do the same.