Learning languages when you travel is something that comes easy to some, can be challenging for others, and can seem impossible to many. These are our 10 tips for learning languages on the road. Language learning when you’re on the move is not easy, but it’s fun and the rewards make it worth it.
“¿Qué pasa?” As you can see, I’ve been making an effort to practice my Spanish in Buenos Aires, and I’ve been really pleased that I have. Over the years, I’ve found some languages easy to learn (Spanish; and Swahili!), others difficult but with hard work doable (Russian – my grandparents were Russian so I know it should be easier, but it’s not), while other languages 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…
Update August 2020: Since publishing this post almost ten years ago, in November 2010, the world has become a very different place and at this point in time most of us are unable to travel, confined to our countries and homes due to a global pandemic. If you’re currently staying at home and social distancing, self-isolating, in lockdown, or quarantining, you may want to see this post on How to Learn a New Language During Lockdown.
Learning Languages When You Travel – Our 10 Tips for Learning Languages On the Road
Learning languages when you travel can be challenging but it’s easier than learning a language in a classroom. Here are our 10 tips for learning languages on the road.
Learn how you like to learn languages
We all learn differently so it makes sense that we all learn languages differently too. First, I like to learn how to say the very basics and everyday expressions. But then I like learning by reading and writing, improving by basic vocabulary, then learning some verbs and understanding grammar. I like to be able to learn a word and be able to pronounce it properly by seeing it on paper and reading it, not just by listening. Terence, on the other hand, is a great musician and can learn music by ear, so naturally he’s a great listener and is brilliant at mimicking accents. Understanding your learning preferences and learning styles, and focusing on those is a key to learning language when you travel. So 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 and confidence is key.
Use a phrase book and dictionary when you travel
Using a language phrase book and dictionary are essential for learning languages when you travel but buy them before you travel, or, if you’re on a round-the-world trip, as we are, buy them as soon as you arrive in a place. You can always give them away when you leave. Carry your dictionary and phrase book with you wherever you go to translate words and phrases as you need them and try to learn new words each day. There are some fantastic language learning apps and online dictionaries and phrase books out there but I still like to use small printed dictionaries, for a whole lot of reasons. mainly so I still have something to refer to when my iPhone goes dead and I’ve left my phone recharger and power pack at home, but also because the printed phrase books and dictionaries are easier to show locals, especially older people.
Learn some basic vocabulary before you go and focus on those basics when you arrive
A key to learning languages when you travel is to learn some basics before you go and when you arrive focus on those basics when you’re there to improve your confidence. We try to learn around 10-15 words of the language of the place we’re visiting before we arrive – 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 huge difference to how you’re welcomed. They’ll then help you to learn more. Those ‘rude Parisians’ that tourists often complain about, actually become very friendly when you speak a little French.
Do a language course before you travel
Even better than learning some basic vocab is actually doing a language course before you travel. Your success in learning languages when you travel will be so much higher. 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 (he took it well), we learned a lot in that short time and it made our travels around Mexico so much more enjoyable and enriching. Although there was that one time I ordered fried plantains (green bananas, drenched in cream!) instead of fried 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. These days, you can do online language courses and book a package of lessons with a tutor on an online language learning website such as Preply before you travel and keep up the lessons while you’re away.
Sign up for language classes or private lessons as soon as you arrive in a place
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.
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.
Use time in restaurants to learn your food vocabulary and practice ordering
Ask for two menus, one in the local language and the other in English if they have one. If they don’t, use your dictionary and phrase book to translate the menu, highlighting words you see often and that you find yourself using the most, especially the words for your favourite foods and dishes. 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 waiters patient and helpful, especially if we go at the beginning or end of service when things are a little quiet, especially here in Beunos Aires.
Use language learning apps and websites when you travel
We used a fantastic product called Earworms to brush up on our Italian in Puglia as Maria, 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.
Immerse yourself in learning the language
Immersion is crucial to learning languages when you travel. You really need to immerse yourself in the language to take things to another level, especially if you’ve got the language basics down and you can hold a simple conversation but you want to move to that next level of more meaningful interaction. Try to read the local newspaper or magazines, watch some television in the local language, and go to the cinema. 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 local bar or café each day that is frequented by locals rather than travellers.
Be confident and don’t be afraid of making mistakes
As I said above, confidence is key. The biggest impediment to learning languages when you travel is shyness and a fear of embarrassing yourself. But I find most people are patient and helpful with people who are trying to learn. 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.
Do you have any tips for learning languages when you travel? We’d love to hear them.