How to Learn Languages and Helpful Phrases for Traveling
We’ve gotten creative in learning languages. We’ll listen to foreign language music. We’ll hold up Google Translate to learn new words on a food label. There’s a lot you can do to learn languages for travel.
Traveling becomes a lot easier when you know a few phrases in the language of the country you’ll be traveling to. People tend to joke that if you can say, “Yes,” “No,” “Where’s the restroom?” and “I’ll have another beer, please,” then you’re set, but it’s not really true.
What about when you need to haggle over prices in a market, so that you don’t get charged the ‘foreigner price?’ What about when you have to talk about some foods you’re allergic to? What about when you want to read a bus schedule, and none of it’s in a language you can read?
I listed out a few helpful tips and tricks that have helped me learn a new language when I travel to a new place.
How I learned Spanish
First, I’ll start out with how I learned several languages. In short, I studied Spanish since the age of 12, from the sixth grade all the way until my last year of college. I thought this might make me near-fluent, but that’s very wrong.
For ages, I couldn’t have regular conversations with friends I met in Asia who were from Spain, Chile and Uruguay, and it’s because my training was in writing composition, research, translation and business Spanish. I could pull some words about banking and the art of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi from memory, but I didn’t even know how to say “awesome” to my new friends.
This changed when I spent a bunch of time walking around Shanghai with my friend John, who’s from Venezuela, and he started teaching me some slang. In fact, my colloquialisms got sort of Venezuelan, and when I used them in Argentina, people thought it was funny. Latin America is huge and the regionalisms are incredibly varied.
The take away here is that talking with friends and people that I am close to is a great way to get comfortable talking in a new language. But I know, not everyone was able to learn a new language in school. I give some beginner tips below.
How I learned Chinese
Then there’s Chinese. I started studying Mandarin Chinese when I was 16, in high school, and continued through college, but by the end of classes, I could get an 80% on an exam, but my accent was not good!
I had the tones down, but I hadn’t been drilled hard enough in making new sounds that are required for Chinese to sound like Chinese. I didn’t even know this until I got to Shanghai, where I lived for two years, and realized I couldn’t understand anyone, and they couldn’t understand me, either.
After the first year and trial-and-error vocabulary, studying flashcards in the metro and arguing with taxi drivers, I knew how to ask for office supplies, use trendy words and text with colloquial phrases. This is likely nothing I could have done if I had stayed in the US!
Aside from these, I took Japanese for five months in Hong Kong, Russian for 20 weeks and Arabic for 10 weeks with Fluent City, Hebrew starting at age five with eventual practice by meeting Israeli backpackers in Southeast Asia and there was this one time I taught myself the Korean alphabet from an app throughout several bus rides in New Jersey.
There are a few ways to get ready for a trip to another country where the language spoken is not your own. It’s possible, and you can learn useful phrases that might make your travel experience more seamless.
Take a class in your home city.
Companies like Fluent City offer language classes for professionals at convenient hours like 7-9pm on weekdays, once a week. Check out local language schools in your area. There are also programs online that you can use to talk with a native speaker over Skype or Google Hangouts.
Both Dan and I completed 10-week courses with Fluent City: Arabic 1 for me and Spanish 2 for Dan. The teachers are awesome and the settings are intimate, so you always get attention. Their staff and customer support is also great when you have questions about rescheduling a class, textbooks or anything else.
A class is a good way to keep yourself accountable for having a dedicated time to learn. But, classes might not be for everyone!
My favorite language apps for picking up helpful local phrases
If you think about all the mindless and useless things you do on your phone during your commute or any time spent waiting (for someone to show up, for something to start, for something to end…), you could very well use this time to learn a language or its basics with an app.
For my and Dan’s trip to Israel, I brushed up on some cool words like the Hebrew for ‘kilogram,’ ‘meter,’ and ‘black pepper’ with an app I found for free on the app store. If you search with keywords like, “Hebrew easy free,” or “Learn Hebrew easy,” you’ll get a choice of several apps that may not be available with all sets of vocabulary in the free version, but enough to start with.
I once started Level 1 German with Duolingo to see where it would get me (I remember how to say bread and water) and I also learned a bunch of Hindi numbers past 20, by the tens, for my eight days spent on an India trip a few years ago.
You will never know when learning the Hindi for ‘sixty’ can get you the local price when shopping for jewelry - guess what, it worked!
Another favorite app that I used for learning Vietnamese is the app Drops, which has an impressively cute interface that’s friendly to the user and feels like playing a game. I was able to retain some basic words that made reading menus much more fun!
Find a language exchange or language meetup
Use your social network to determine if any friends know a native Spanish or Russian speaker, for example, or if anyone is in touch with an expat who is new to your city.
Sometimes these types of people may be looking for a native English (or other) speaker with whom to practice on the regular. This is a free way to make a new friend and to also learn about the culture of another country from a person who is from that place.
These days, when we head to a new city, I immediately join Facebook groups for expats, travelers and language exchange meetups. I first run a simple search for, “Taipei expats,” for example, and then I browse groups and see if there are any pertinent tangential groups available.
Watch TV in try to read in another language
While I do love music and would love to recommend music, it happens that TV (or YouTube) is more visual and can get you subtitles.
Go on YouTube for videos in another language in some basic topics. You have no idea what’s out there until you try. Did you know loads of people have made videos about the Arabic alphabet? You can keep clicking and clicking until you’ve gotten through 10 different flavors and styles of learning the letters in Arabic.
You can also try watching versions of sitcoms (the show Friends is always a prime example) subtitled or dubbed in Spanish, French, Portuguese… the list never ends. Sometimes when I’m at the gym I watch telenovelas, news in Spanish or Caso Cerrado, a form of Judge Judy for Spanish-speaking audiences.
Using magazines can be useful and fun, as conversation-starters. When I tutored English privately in Shanghai, I would often leaf through Time Out Shanghai magazine to talk about popular words and ideas.
Glossaries in your travel book
If you like to travel with a good old-fashioned soft-cover guidebook like I do (Lonely Planet is the best!), these types of books often will have a glossary in the back.
This can be helpful prep for reading menus and picking up some basic words like left and right, north and south, yes and no.
Try to think in the language you’re trying to learn
This is more of an advanced technique, for sure. But, if try and switch your internal dialog to the language that you’re trying to learn, it will help you identify gaps in your vocabulary. You can write down or look up those words to help familiarize yourself with those words.
Create notes around your house
If you’re struggling to remember common things, like couch, kitchen, bedroom, mirror, knife, fork, etc… then label those things! We often have post-it notes laying around (usually on the floor because they fall down) all over our house to try and learn unfamiliar languages. Try it!