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 than break the ice with very little extra effort.

These days, many of us are stuck at home or unable to travel abroad: could there ever be a better time to learn a new language? 

Possibly not.

Taking the time to learn a foreign language now will make us ready for when we start traveling again.

“But why can’t I just speak English,” you ask.

Because if you’re keen to understand new cultures when you travel, knowing a bit of the language will open doors with local people. They may understand English, but communicating in their own language, even haltingly, builds an emotional bond: it shows you care. (And it helps avoid those multi-cultural charades games!)

Knowing even 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? A dish not listed on the menu? An invitation?

Razor clams - one of the most popular Mediterranean foods
Really?? 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 is easier than you might think.

True, some people are natural linguists and pick up languages as easily as picking up the phone.

The truth is, most people struggle with learning a foreign language, and only want to know enough to get their message across.

Here are some of the things that might be useful in another language:

  • 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 pain or an 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

These are all practical reasons, but you also have the more ephemeral ones, the emotional ones that help you get closer to people, understand their cultures better, or simply satisfy your own curiosity.


Where are you going?

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

If language is an issue for you, 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. Keep it simple.


The idea isn’t to learn a language fluently — but to learn just enough. Here are some useful shortcuts to learning the basics of a language even before you decide to take a course or get a teacher.

Pineapple tree
My first Thai word was ‘pineapple’

Find someone at home who speaks the language

We live in a diverse world and we can easily find someone locally who speaks the language we want. Your local grocer might just do the trick!

Even in my tiny French town in eastern France, I can easily find people who speak Italian and Portuguese, but there is also a large Turkish community, quite a few Eastern Europeans, some Arabic-speaking residents, and plenty of Romanians.

I don’t suggest they teach you how to speak a language, but you can ask them about pronunciation, because in a foreign language, the letters you’ll read aren’t necessarily pronounced the way you think.

In Russian, M is pronounced T and U is pronounced I. In French, C can be pronounced S or K, and other languages have accents or cedillas that transform the way you would usually pronounce a letter.

Languages are full of these differences and 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 words might stick.

When I moved to Thailand for a few years 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

A great way to learn any language fast is to start small.

The goal is to 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.

This isn’t about learning to have an in-depth discussion about existentialism, but about 1) getting by and 2) showing people you care enough to make the effort.

Watch TV or listen to radio

Sound is a perfect way to learn another language.

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 what they’re saying.

No world TV in your neighborhood? Then try radio broadcasts online. Half the battle is getting used to the sound of a language so that it sounds 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.

If you’re serious about learning a second language, start reading out loud and you’ll slide into it 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.

Buy a foreign celebrity or news magazine — the pictures will tell you what the story is about.

Join a free language conversation group

If you’re up to it and a few words just won’t do, there are plenty of free online language courses you can dip into to help you with your language skills.

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: we discussed life in general for half an hour in Portuguese followed by half an hour in English. He practiced, and I practiced.

Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading
Real Gabinete Português de Leitura in Rio Mayumi Ishikawa via CC BY-SA 2.0

Get a travel phrasebook or 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 to 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 phone

If you’re taking your phone with you, download one of these easy-to-use languages apps. I tried this system on two recent trips.

The first one was to Korea, where I could not say a single word but entire conversations just by using my phone app. The other was in Eastern Europe where I could at least read signs and sentences — I just didn’t know what they meant! So again, a language app was hugely helpful.

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, it repeats your sentence in the target language. Some of the easier-to-use ones include PocketTalk and similar products, including Google.

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) translations. These machines tend to be about 95% accurate.

Learn from a podcast

Search iTunes for podcasts on learning another language. Instead of listening to music all the time, replace an hour or two with basic language training. 

You’ll find these in the strangest of places. I once found a superlative Portuguese language course for free, in a regular podcast from the University of Texas. Go figure.


  • 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.
  • 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. When the time comes to travel again 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?

— Originally published on 31 July 2011

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