Oliver Lynch

Oliver Lynch

Content writer, language nerd and aspiring screenwriter. Usually found wandering old European towns or trying to snowboard.

How To Learn Language To Help You Travel

Our tips to help you learn the local language when travelling.

Travel is more than just sightseeing, it is interacting with different cultures. And nothing helps you do this more than being able to speak some of the local language.

Don’t worry, we’re not going to lecture you on getting up to a certain level in Mandarin Chinese or Swahili before you touch down. But a little bit of swatting up, even while you’re in the airport on your way can make the world of difference to your travel experiences.

I’m rubbish with languages, why should I bother?

Many of us have had a fairly bad experience learning language at school. Perhaps you’ve then tried to use your school level French or Spanish on a holiday and been slightly put off by the fact that no one understood. Or if they did, they responded at 200mph and you missed the response.

Put that behind you. That is what is commonly called a knock back and your test of character is if you can overcome that knock back to be more confident at getting it right this time.

Another factor is, if people come to your town/country and start talking to you in their native language how does that feel to you? But if they try and converse with you, even in broken English you will try and work with it, wouldn’t you? Well I hope so. So don’t assume that when you are heading abroad that everyone will speak English. In tourist areas they may well do, but this will likely be the exception rather than the norm.

So the short answer is, yes you should definitely bother. But – keep it simple to start.

You’re not going to be filling people in on your plans for the future or explaining that you have a dog called snuffles and your favourite sport is volleyball.

Start with. Hello. Thank you. Good bye.

That’s it.

On arrival at the airport as you hand over your passport drop in ‘hello’. Then ‘thank you’ as you leave. Easy.

It doesn’t sound like much but you can build on these foundations. As you become confident using simple words you progress naturally. Phrases such as ‘the bill please’ or ‘where is the bathroom’ are the logical next steps.

But the key piece of advice, at least to start, is keep it simple.

Je ne comprends pas / pic: Oli Lynch

What shall I use to learn a language?

There is so much material online that learning any language now is super easy. If you’re travelling to any destination for a couple of weeks or expecting to go into the hinterlands then it is a good idea to get a decent phrase book or dictionary. There are some amazing apps, but don’t rely 100% on your smartphone as some apps don’t work offline.

But before you go or when you have a data connection you can definitely use online resources to start learning any language..

  • LanguagePod

There is a phenomenal amount of learning information on the YouTube LanguagePod series. With languages from Korean to Polish, each of them has an introduction and the ‘basic phrases’.

  • DuoLingo

You can also download DuoLingo for you phone but the way it teaches you take a bit longer. You’ll need to be swatting for at least a week to see the benefits there. See also Memrise.

  • Babbel

Another popular online/app experience, Babbel has a free trial followed by a paid subscription. It is very good if you put the time in and has a broad selection of languages.

  • BBC/Fodors

Fodors have basic phrases in several of the major languages and the BBC has a good language section.

  • ThoughtCo

Formerly About.com, ThoughtCo has excellent resources for the more popular languages. There is plenty on basic stuff amongst all the complicated grammar usage articles.

  • WordReference

The WordReference app has become indispensable for serious language learners and is more useful for specific vocabulary. There are a lot of languages including stuff like Czech, Swedish and Turkish.

  • Google Translate

It’s come a long way over the years and now has support for a phenomenal amount of languages including a lot of obscure ones. However bear in mind that Translate often doesn’t recognise context or idiomatic expressions. This means that if you try to put in a long or complex sentence it can come out sounding too literal or at worse nonsensical. It is great, but don’t be a cheat… Put some effort in!

Cuanto es..? Er.. Combien? Hmm, Nice price? / pic: Iyad

How do you learn language?

The simple way to explain how to learn a language is two fold.

  • Repetition
  • Active usage

This means listen and repeat and then when you have the opportunity, use it. As often as possible.

You might use the same phrases all the way through a holiday but at least you are reinforcing them. By default you will pick up other phrases and expressions and by the end of even a 2 week holiday you could have a fairly impressive range. This will often be limited to simple questions, numbers and greetings but better that than saying it loudly in English.

Don’t worry about your accent or getting pronunciation wrong. People will often interact with you and even correct your phrasing so long as you have a go. Many times I have spent a week saying something wrong (even though the phrase has worked but with strange looks) and then some one corrects you. This in itself can be a great fun cultural exchange which can result in learning more.

If you are vegetarian or gluten intolerant it will pay to cram those phrases early on. The same if you are pregnant or have any other health issues. As my girlfriend is vegetarian we have learnt various phrases in Thai, Polish and Vietnamese to ask if food is meat free or to say ‘I am vegetarian’.

Language learning is relatively easy. Think about it, you already speak one language at least. And I’ll bet you know a few phrases in ‘foreign’ too. Not sure?

How about ‘Deja Vu’ (French for ‘already seen’)? Or ‘Mi casa su casa’ (Spanish for ‘my house is your house’)? OK, so how about ‘bon voyage’, ‘bon appetit’, ‘film noir’, ‘prima donna’, ‘al fresco’, ‘cosa nostra’ or ‘hakuna matata’?

Building on what you already know can make it even more straightforward. Just remember, start simple and build on that.

To read more about language learning you can read an in-depth article I wrote on my personal site. See also Benny Lewis and his Fluent in 3 Months blog.

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