Man and woman laughing with heads together as they sit at a small outdoor table with latte mugs and a baked good.
If you want to learn the language of the place you're traveling, there are a few ways you can overcome the learning curve.
Photo Credit: iStockPhoto / geber86

Essential Tips for Picking up a New Language While Traveling

Enrich Your Experience By Learning to Speak the Local Language

When my boyfriend Lee and I went traveling in South America we did our best to learn as much Spanish as we could — but it wasn’t easy.

One day, Lee went into a supermarket in Argentina looking for ingredients to cook dinner for us at the hostel that night. He was looking for the onions, so he asked the supermarket employee: “Donde están los caballos?”

The young man looked at him with a bewildered expression and laughed out loud.

“No tenemos caballos!”

Lee thought that was strange — what kind of supermarket didn’t have onions? Then, he saw them — a pile of onions with a sign next to them that said “cebollas.”

So, if cebollas were onions, then what were caballos?

Caballo means horse in Spanish. No wonder the supermarket employee was so confused.

But don’t worry — if you are traveling to a country where you are learning to speak the language, there is a good chance you will come away with an embarrassing story of your own. It’s all part of the struggle of learning a new language.

So what’s the best way to learn a new language while you are traveling? Follow these tips to help make the process easier!

Don’t Be Shy, Say Something!

When exploring somewhere new, one of the things you should definitely do is talk to a local. To get the most of this experience, you’re going to need to speak in their language! This is just one of the many reasons why picking up as much of the local language as you can will greatly enrich your trip.

So put those language skills to the test, even if it might result in some embarrassing experiences.

The truth is that if you don’t end up with at least one cringe-worthy story where you use the wrong word or pronounce something incorrectly, you probably aren’t trying out your language skills as much as you should be.

This is a common mistake that many people are guilty of when they are learning a new language — myself included. It can be intimidating to communicate in a foreign language when you only know a small vocabulary, so you might find yourself avoiding situations where you have to push your language skills beyond your comfort zone.

Have you ever looked something up online in order to avoid asking the hotel staff a question, or clung to the small pocket of English speakers at the hostel rather than chatting to new people? It’s okay to do this sometimes, but if you do it all the time you are missing out on potentially great travel experiences and a chance to practice your language skills.

I know it’s hard, but the key is not to expect yourself to be perfect. You’re new to the language and people will be forgiving if your sentences are clumsy or you forget the right word.

At this point, learning to express yourself is more important than using the language perfectly. It might feel awkward at first, but talking to people is the very best way to learn a new language more quickly and improve your skills.

So, try to use the language any chance you get. Our brains like to take the easy route and choose the decision that is simplest and requires less effort, so if you give yourself the option of using your language skills you likely won’t use them.

Start a conversation with someone who speaks no English and force yourself to practice your skills!

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More Tips for Learning Languages as You Travel

Here are a few more tips and tools you can use to improve your language skills:

  • Duolingo is my favorite app for learning languages. It is so fun and addictive because it is designed like a game in which you gain points and level up by correctly spelling, speaking, identifying and using vocabulary words. The challenges get progressively harder but you are having so much fun playing it, you don’t notice how quickly you are learning.
  • Start by learning the most common, concrete words you will use most often. For example, you will probably use words like hotel, food, drink, street, man, woman, car, etc. more often than more obscure words like librarian, antique and nephew.
  • As you walk around your destination, look at the signs and advertisements. They usually contain simple, direct copy so with your basic language skills you can probably read them and understand what they mean. This is great practice and you can do it throughout the day to keep your mind focused on the language.
  • Watch TV shows or movies in the language, especially ones you are already familiar with. Don’t rely on the subtitles, try to listen to what is going on.
  • Find a conversation buddy, a local person you can hang around with and practice talking to. Here is a great blog with tips for finding a language exchange partner.

Learning a new language is hard, but the rewards are incredible. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, ask questions, talk to strangers and make new friends. You’ll not only learn faster, but the people who you talk to will make your visit more interesting and meaningful.

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