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

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

If you're keen to understand a culture when you travel, the least you'll have to do is communicate with local people. Often, they'll understand English, but sometimes, you'll be reduced to a multi-cultural game of charades. 

Knowing just a bit of the language can revolutionize your trip because language and travel go hand in hand. A few well-placed words 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.

Who knows where your quickly learned words related to travel might lead you - a smile, a conversation, an insight?

Let language, travel style, be your friend.

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

how some common travel phrases can help your trip

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.

The truth is, most people struggle with learning a foreign language, and only want to know enough to get their message across, for things like these:

  • how to order food or drink
  • how to ask about ingredients (especially if you have food allergies or special food requirements)
  • how to read signs (I taught myself to read Cyrillic before my first Moscow trip just to be able to ride the subway)
  • how to ask for directions 
  • how to get yourself out of trouble (with a cancelled tour or an insistent policeman)
  • how to explain a pain or accident to a health professional
  • how to stay safe (no thank you, go away, noIdon'twanttoseeyourroom!)
  • how to shop and how to bargain (although bargaining is an art and sign language is often enough)
  • how to look like you're actually interested in your destination, rather than just glossing through

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'

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.

Learn this 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.

(Your pet phrase probably won't involve pineapple.)

Learn some basic travel words and phrases

If you're a little more ambitious, build a mini travel vocabulary list of words you're most likely to use: please and thank you, of course, but also bank, restaurant, right, left, straight, up, down, slower, 1-2-3... And a few crucial travel phrases, like "Do you speak English" and "Where is the bathroom"?

What do you say the most in everyday life? Chances are you may need those same words abroad. These words and phrases will help you with the basics, with shopping, with directions and with meals. If I'm going somewhere for a week or two, a few words and phrases will be more than enough. 

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.

Read out loud

My mother, who was a language teacher, used this method with her students - and they improved in leaps and bounds! One of the main barriers to learning a language is fear - fear that you'll sound stupid when you speak it or that you'll get it wrong. That fear comes from the unknown, from unfamiliarity. Your tongue simply doesn't know how to twist itself around those strange sounds! But start reading out loud and you'll slide into the language almost unnoticed. 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.

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 to help you travel in different languages. You could join one of the free online learning sites, like Busuu 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

Get a travel phrasebook or other travel products like a 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. I usually alternate between those from Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, but there are plenty out there so just take your pick.

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. 


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 new pocket translators coming onto the market? You 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 boost your language travel skills 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 a couple of months, you'll have enough time to set the actual foundations for a new language. Here's my roundup of the best language courses you take online. Recently I tried Rosetta Stone, which worked well for my German. It's expensive (though effective) but there are plenty of cheaper language alternatives on the market.
  • Another popular program is Fluent in 3 Months by Benny Lewis, which doesn't teach you a specific language - it teaches you HOW to learn a language and can be applied to any foreign language for travelers.
  • Want to learn a language but can't decide which? Here's a language breakdown to help you decide.
  • 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 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 go abroad to learn a language, by taking grammar lessons, conversation classes or going for total immersion (which in my opinion is the single best way to learn).
  • Don't try to learn more than one language at a time. If you're going to both Spain AND France, choose one. The other will just have to wait until a future trip. Where do you think you might need it the most? Where do people speak English the least?

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