Restaurant menus. Buenos Aires, Argentina. ¿Qué pasa? Tips to

¿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 visitinghello, 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.

There are 19 comments

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  1. Keith

    I am so with every word!

    I’m presently learing Spanish, with some CDs I got from the library & listen to one most days on my portable CD player when I go for a walk … I used to call it ‘walking the virtual dog’; now I call it ‘going for my Spanish lesson’.

    BTW, I was amused when a Dutch ATM instructed me (I forgot to switch to the English dialogue) to ‘Steek Kaarte Een’ … dead easy, this Dutch! 😀

  2. Agnes

    How funny when you want to say something in a language you have learn and can only utter the words in your mind. I agree it is such a strange feeling which makes one stammer or become mute.

  3. Andrea

    This is great advice for those looking to learn a bit of the local language. I think it’s a great way to go as it’s so much more fun when you can chat to the locals, or at least have fun trying, when you are in a new place.

  4. Christine

    This article really resonated with me. As half Mexican, half American, I also grew up with parents fluent in the language, but with no Spanish skills. I felt like you that learning Spanish should be easier for me since I’ve been exposed to it a bit through my family, but learned that’s not the case! Great tips, great article…I’m stumbling it now!

  5. Kieron

    Some good advice. We’ve got about 8 months before we travel and I’m hoping to learn a little Spanish to help me through Central/South America if we make it there.

    Did you learn enough to hold extended conversations with others or is basic comprehension the bar I should aim for?

  6. Priyank

    Hi Lara!
    You are half Russian and you are not finding it easy? noo!! I am not Russian at all but I learnt conversational Russian quite quickly (its structurally similar to Sanskrit, maybe that’s why). Its the Spanish I am struggling with right now. Loved your post and the tips!

  7. lara dunston

    That’s hilarious about the Dutch ATM!

    I’ve always found CDs to be great. Right through my Masters degree I used CDs constantly – when I was in the shower, doing the dishes, pottering around the houses. Sometimes I’d be consciously learning, other times I reckon things sub-consciously seep in.

    How’s your Spanish now?

  8. lara dunston

    Agree! I guess it’s kind of like when you sing in your head too, isn’t it? When you sing a song in your head somehow you miraculously know all the words and it’s all in tune, open your mouth and… (if it’s me singing:) ugh!

  9. lara dunston

    We have a Mexican-American friend who said exactly the same thing, so I’m guessing you’re not alone and that’s the experience for many of you/us. She’s now living in Mexico City and her Spanish is coming along nicely now. Thanks so much for visiting and commenting. And for stumbling!

  10. lara dunston

    Kieron, when I first went to South America years ago after studying Spanish intensively for one year at uni, my Spanish was basic conversational in the beginning and then improved to having extended conversations at an intermediate level I guess. Meaning, I couldn’t interview the filmmakers/academics in Spanish, because I just didn’t have the vocabulary and my tenses weren’t as sophisticated as I wish they’d been. So those interviews took place in English. But by the end of that year away, I could chat away to waiters, taxi drivers, people in markets, hotel staff, young people I met (although then there was a whole lot of slang to learn!). My reading and writing was far superior.

    Every time I return to a Spanish-speaking country, I can quickly pick up the basic greetings and start speaking straight away, but it takes me a while to dig deep into the recesses of my memory to have proper conversations. What I want to do – and what I’ve never done before – is to go to a Spanish-speaking country and have intensive lessons from the time I arrive on a daily basis. I think that would make all the difference.

    Good luck with your lessons! Do return and let us know how you go.

  11. lara dunston

    Hi Priyank – As far as Russian goes, I only spent a couple of weeks there and relied on my mother to translate a lot. I could understand a lot but didn’t have the language fundamentals to converse. Returning there to study Russian is a dream of mine and definitely something I’ll do one day. Best of luck with your Spanish and thanks for the nice comments!

  12. Brian @ Wanderings

    I’m one of those people who find learning languages nearly impossible. I do make an effort to learn a couple of words and phrases wherever I go. Thus far, that hasn’t been a problem because I’ve only ever needed to tackle one language at any given time. But how do you manage a trip that has multiple destinations with multiple languages? How did you manage to keep it all straight on your recent round the world trip? I think after a few stops I’d be talking in tongues.

  13. Andrea

    Such a great post! I love languages and really enjoy the process of learning them. My husband and I are working on Spanish in South America at the moment. I really relate to what you said about not knowing your family language growing up. My father is Italian and we have Polish, Austrian and Russian on my mother’s side but no one ever taught me a second language. Growing up I studied French in school, which I never got to practice until I lived in France. My husband is Macedonian and we plan to teach teach our kids at least a little of the language even though it probably won’t be “useful” for them. I think language is the key to relating to your heritage, whatever that may be.

  14. Kay Funk

    I love to buy “women’s” magazines, cooking, decorating, crafts etc in the language of the country we are in. Really helped with my Czech but it needs to be used to be retained! I have magazines in Spanish, Czech, Hungarian, French, Italian. They bring back lots of good memories!

  15. Ross

    Good post, it’s all very true. I think number 10 is the most important and it ties in a little with your Russian experience. If you don’t talk then it makes it much harder to learn and makes a lot of the other redundant. I learnt Spanish in Ecuador for 2 months where nobody spoke English so it made me talk and I got to intermediate fairly quickly. On the otherhand I learned Arabic and everybody always spoke English and the few times I did pluck up the courage to talk they didn’t understand me so made it much harder (extremely hard) to learn. I’m still no good.

  16. Lara Dunston

    Thanks again, Ross! Glad to hear your experiences are similar.

    Yes, very hard to learn the local lingo in places where they speak English. On the one hand, I appreciate it when I’m exhausted and trying to get things done. And it really is the universal language now – we’re reminded of that every day when we see Chinese, Koreans and Japanese speaking to Cambodians in English here in Siem Reap. I also helped a Japanese family with directions in Bangkok the other day – they had been so frustrated when they approached me after leaving two young Thai women who couldn’t help me. They complained to me the difficulty they’d had cause Thais didn’t speak English! It was very amusing.

    But, yes, I hear you. On the other hand, I wish the Cambodians would speak more Khmer to me, so I could learn faster. Ditto with Thai and Vietnamese when we’re in those countries. But when we do say a few words, those giggles can be discouraging.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  17. Tyler Muse

    Interesting perspective on how you yourself like to learn language. Although you say you like to learn the written way first, do you find that you have trouble when it comes to speaking? I think one-on-one conversation with a native speaker is what really gets you to speak, but I wonder if you’re way get you there too? Great article!

  18. Lara Dunston

    Agree absolutely that conversation with native speakers are essential to language learning – I’m not saying I don’t agree with that. But we all learn differently – whether it’s languages or history or art or whatever, and people need to identify how they like to learn and learn most effectively to speed up the learning process. Some people learn better/faster by focusing on conversation, and some, like me – more visual rather than aural learners – like to learn the alphabet, some vocabulary, and understand the grammar etc first on paper before or during conversation. When I learnt Spanish at university the course mixed up the methods of learning, so in any one class we’d be doing a combination of reading, writing, listening, speaking etc.

    After a year of classes, when I arrived in Buenos Aires I immediately started chatting in Spanish, so it didn’t hinder my speaking, rather it gave me more confidence. But I definitely read at a much higher level than I speak. And even though I’ve forgotten how to have a conversation now (it’s been a few years since I’ve been to a Spanish speaking country) I can still read text in Spanish.

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