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How to Learn a Language When You Don't Speak a Word

Even a simple "Bonjour" will break the ice if you're facing a grumpy Parisian. Often, though, you can do a lot more with very little extra effort.

Navajas - seafood in SpainReally?? I was so sure I'd ordered a cheese sandwich...

This isn't about becoming fluent or even proficient: it's just about getting by, and that's much more within your reach than you might think.

True, some people are natural linguists and pick up languages as easily as catching a cold.

Most people struggle with learning a foreign language, and only want to know enough to get their message across... beer, pizza, cramps, noIdon'twanttoseeyourroom...

How will you make yourself understood if something goes wrong? Or even if it goes right?

Knowing just a bit of the language can revolutionize your trip. It can help you meet local people (which is why you're on the road, right?), sample 'real' cuisine in restaurants, feel like you belong, or simply end up in the right place for a change.

Choose your destination wisely

Even before you learn a word of the language, think through your destination.

If language is an issue, it might be a good idea to stick to countries where a single language can get you by. In West and Central Africa, you'll be fine with learning some French. 

If you're headed to South America, you'll get by in Spanish in just about every country (Brazil is the only large country that isn't Spanish-speaking but some Spanish will still help).

China on the other hand is an example of a country with many languages and dialects. So is India, although in India your changes of getting by with English are high.

So, choose wisely if you're intimidated by communicating in another language.

How to learn a language - or at least part of one

The idea isn't to learn a language fluently - but to learn just enough.

how to learn a language - pineappleMy first Thai word was 'pineapple'

These 9 language learning tips will help.

1. Before you go, find someone at home who speaks the language.
Just ask for a few basic pronunciation rules - because the letters you'll read aren't necessarily pronounced the way you think. In Russian, M is pronounced T and U is pronounced I, not to mention the strange squiggles you'll find in French or Turkish or Spanish. Languages are full of these differences - it'll make your life a lot easier if you know what they are.

2. Learn just one phrase.
And that phrase is... "What is the word for...?" Then point. It's a great way to build your vocabulary. You'll probably only point to things that interest you, so there's a good chance the word might stick.

In Thailand my first word was 'pineapple'. Then I learned 'please'. Then 'one'. Before I knew it, I had a sentence! And a lot of smiles from pineapple street vendors. One phrase isn't enough? Learn a few more.

3. Learn some basic words.
If you're a little more ambitious, try a few key words: please and thank you, of course, but also bank, restaurant, right, left, straight, up, down, slower, 1-2-3... These basics will help you with shopping, with directions and with meals. If I'm going somewhere for a week or two these words will be more than enough. 

4. Watch TV or listen to radio.
Lucky you if you have access to global television, often in languages you didn't even know existed. Listen to a few programs just get used to the sound. Don't even try to understand. No world TV in your neighborhood? Then try radio broadcasts online. Half the battle is getting used to the sound so that a language is less 'foreign' and intimidating.

5. Read out loud.
That's right - even if you don't understand a word you're reading! It'll make the language more familiar and less bewildering. Get a celebrity magazine - the pictures will tell you what it's about.

6. Take a free language course.
If you're up to it and a few words just won't do, there are plenty of free online language courses you might dip into. You could join one of the free online learning sites, like busuu.com, Livemocha or My Language Exchange. I used this last one to top up my Brazilian Portuguese and spent an hour each Monday for months chatting to a kindly retired insurance agent in Rio, half an hour in Portuguese and half an hour in English, so he could practice.

how to learn a languageReal Gabinete Português de Leitura in Rio / Mayumi Ishikawa via CC BY-SA 2.0

7. Get a phrasebook or pocket dictionary.
This may seem like a no-brainer but you'd be surprised at the number of travelers who leave home without one! Just look up the word you need, point at it, and then hand over your phrasebook. Do this a few times and you'll actually be having a conversation without even knowing the language.

Any good bookstore travel section will have them and they exist in many languages, even unusual ones. Here's a link to the Lonely Planet Phrasebook series on Amazon.

8. Use your electronic player.
If you're taking your smartphone download one of the 25 easy-to-use languages apps developed by World Nomads. Or search iTunes for language podcasts. Instead of listening to music all the time, replace an hour or two with basic language training. 

9. Carry a pocket translator.
If you find a phrasebook too cumbersome and are really unable to learn a bit of the language, why not try one of the many pocket translation devices? Just type in the word in English, choose your language, press Enter, and presto, there's the translation.

Most times the electronic approach is just fine for basic conversation and brilliant for breaking the ice, especially when you're occasionally faced with a slightly erroneous (and at times hilarious) translation.

How to learn a language in greater (or lesser) depth

  • Do you want to know how to learn a language in under an hour? You could try the approach developed by Tim Ferris, author of the Four-Hour Work WeekHis blog shows you how to 'deconstruct' a language to see how it is built, and how to learn a language (badly of course) in under an hour.
  • If you're willing to spend a bit more time, say three months, there's always Fluent in 3 Months by Benny Lewis and if you want to learn a language but don't know which, have a look at How to Learn Any Language. Here's another a trusted friend just recommended: Fluent Forever (she raves about it).
  • The Rolls-Royce option? There are a zillion methods out there but to really learn a language from home, I always head for Rosetta Stone (here's a link to several Rosetta Stone languages on Amazon). They're not cheap, but I've wasted more money trying cheaper systems that never worked. In the long run, Rosetta actually cost me less. I've been using it to learn German recently and for the first time I feel I'm actually making progress.
  • And finally, yes, you could actually learn the language. This will take more time and effort but is well worth it if you're planning on staying in a country for any length of time. You can always study language abroad, by taking grammar lessons, conversation classes or going for total immersion (which in my opinion is the single best way to learn).

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