What if you don’t speak the language? Does the thought of trying to order a meal or find a train in a foreign language give you the heebie jeebies? If so, you’re not alone. One friend recently wrung her hands when she told me, “I seriously failed high school Spanish. I’m pretty sure I have no ability to learn another language.”
But I’m here to tell you that you can really can get by—in all the most important ways—if you give it the smallest effort. (Yes, even you!)
What’s more…travelers who try to communicate (even if they maul the language in their attempt) are so richly rewarded and deeply appreciated by locals. Your effort sets you apart as someone worthy of extra time and attention.
Remember, when you travel you’re essentially acting as an ambassador for your native country. Do you want to be perceived as someone who is peeved that locals don’t speak English? Or as someone eager to learn and understand local foods, customs, and how things work? Remember, there are even approaches that work different learning styles.
Here’s a round-up of top tips to acquiring enough language to get by in a new country from some of my travel blogger friends in the know:
1. Build your confidence by starting small.
“A smile is universal and always starts a conversation on the right foot,” explains travel writer Bethany Bitler who blogs at www.theawaytoday.com. Bitler also tries to complete two lessons a day on Duolingo—a free and useful phone app—a few weeks before a trip. (You’ll be amazed at how just 10 minutes of daily practice makes a huge difference.) In fact, there are many language apps that make learning fun.
“I supplement whatever I’ve learned ahead of time by downloading the language on Google Translate right on my phone so I can use it on signs, menus, or for quick translation when talking to a local,” she adds. “A pocket translation book really comes in handy too.
“In fact, I’ll frequently show a local the book with both the English word and the word in the new language and ask for proper pronunciation. Just remember that most people truly want to be helpful!”
2. Memorize a few basic phrases.
When Amanda Zetah first arrived in Azerbaijan, having just signed a year-long contract to teach English, she knew she was in for a wild ride. Every single person on her flight—from the burly men with bushy moustaches to the babushka grandmothers in their head scarves—spoke not one word of English. In fact, they spoke rapid fire Azeri intermixed with Russian.
“Azerbaijan is a post-Soviet country with strong Turkish roots in the middle of Central Asia,” notes Zetah, who blogs at Health Nut Nomad. “Because of this, the locals speak no English whatsoever. What’s really confusing is that Azeri is based on a Turkic alphabet while Russian is Cyrillic-based.”
The two languages look like this:
Salam, bu gün nə edirsən (Azeri)
привет, как вы поживаете сегодня (Russian)
It’s no wonder Zetah was in over her head. The idea of picking up groceries or directing a taxi to her destination was, quite frankly, anxiety-producing. So she worked to memorize how to say basic phrases fast. When she received a warm response, she proudly spouted all the other words she knew.
“One time I literally said in Russian, ‘Hello, how are you? Take me to this address please!’ she adds. “And the rest of my taxi ride I offered up a crazy stream of words I knew… like ‘apple,’ ‘grandma,’ ‘right,’ ‘left’, and ‘shampoo.’ The more Russian I demonstrated, the happier my taxi driver got!”
3. Take advantage of apps.
“They can help you connect with people from around the world who are looking for a language exchange partner,” she explains. “Just a session or two can be enough to give you a basic grasp of the phrases you’ll need for traveling.”
Preparation aside, Trevor says that the words that really stick with you forever are those you learn on the go, out of sheer desperation in situations where you can’t fall back on your mother tongue. “The word perdu will be always seared in my memory, thanks to an elderly Parisian man who saw that I was lost in the streets of Paris and pointed me to the nearest metro,” she remembers.
4. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
When you get out of your comfort zone, you grow. Learning a new language—even just a few words—is a great way to build new neural connections too.
While your friends are doing crossword or Soduku puzzles to stay sharp, you can reap the same benefits by learning new words (and have way more fun)!
“I think it’s easy for us to focus on wishing for a ‘seamless, no hiccups’ kind of journey,” muses Patrick McKeering who blogs at The Glocal Life. “But honestly, where is the fun in that? What stories will you have to tell?”
When McKeering lived for nearly a year in Vietnam, he worked hard to embrace the shift from a western culture to a South Asian culture. “The Vietnamese are a high context culture…In other words, the message is embedded within the context of a situation,” he explains. “It’s important to look for subtle cues in body language, eye contact, and facial expressions to communicate well.”
5. Drill baby drill!
Ten years ago, Claire Elizabeth, who blogs at Direct from the District, accepted a two-year job contract in Bosnia…and of course spoke zero Bosnian when she accepted the position.
Fueled by desperation, she started with the basics and worked her way up. “I began with numbers and greetings. And soon I could enter a shop and say Zdravo! (Hello!) and point to the display of oranges, Pet, hvala! (Five, thanks!),” she grins.
Emboldened by her progress, she began taking cues for lesson plans from her daily encounters. (Today my car broke down, and the transaction at the mechanic was disastrous. Tonight, I will learn 50 words about vehicles and transportation!)
“Near the end of my contract, I was asked to make arrangements for our office party at a local restaurant,” she remembers. “After meeting with the restaurant manager to plan an event, a woman who’d tagged along with me commented, ‘I wish I could do that. I’m just so bad at languages!’ Really? Me too.”
6. Learn from locals
“In China, even the road signs look like random squiggles,” observes Will Wain-Williams, who blogs at www.monkeystealspeach.com. In 2007, Wain-Williams moved to China to follow his dream of learning martial arts at its birthplace.
Speaking no Chinese, he started before his trip with basics courtesy of a free Mandarin CD he found. Then, on the flight over, he added a few useful phrases—like How much is this? What’s this? and Can you go cheaper?—from a young Beijinger who sat next to him.
Upon arriving, he put those words to work immediately at a local souvenir market and added a few new nouns to his vocabulary. Since restaurants in China often include pictures, he used the opportunity to point to what he wanted and ask the names of dishes and ingredients.
Today, ten years later, Wain-Williams is fluent in Chinese—even studying formally at university there—but credits his success to the foundation he built with those simple conversations at a market, in a restaurant or in a taxi.
7. Use a map and pictures.
While backpacking in Cambodia with her husband, Sara, travel blogger at Bag Under the Bed, noticed quickly that few people spoke English. While basic words were helpful for greeting or thanking locals, asking for specific directions was a whole other story.
“We had a paper map with all the marked places where we wanted to go,” she explains. “We even had a picture of our hostel, some restaurants, and the bus station.” Of course, the method wasn’t foolproof. The couple ended up in some unintended locations from time to time.
But getting lost can be part of the charm, right? It’s all in your attitude. (As Rick Steve suggests, “Be militantly optimistic when you travel. And if you find something not to your liking, change your liking!”)
8. You do you.
What works for one person in learning a language may not work for another. Are you a language lover that likes to dive in? Or more of a “I-might-find-10-minutes-to-play-with-a-language-app” kind of person? The best way to learn a language is what you will actually commit to doing every day to get up to speed.
Personally, I’m intrigued by the rapid language learning approach of Benny Lewis, a globetrotting Irishman who is fluent in seven languages (otherwise known as a polyglot). You can read an interview with Benny here.
As a former college exchange student to France who ended up fairly fluent, what Benny suggests resonates with me. You have to just get started…even if you make lots of mistakes! (This is also how I managed to tell my two host brothers during a summer exchange in Brazil at age 16 that I was “pregnant” when I really meant that I was “full,” having overeaten. They were a little alarmed.)
Practice, immersion, and conversation with native speakers will all speed you along in your quest towards mastery. I’m going to try Benny’s approach for learning Spanish before my fall trip to Spain.
Looking for more travel hacks? Check out my round-up of top tips on how to afford more travel by top travel bloggers.