You hear it all the time, but it really can’t be stressed enough – speaking even just a few words in the local language will enrich your entire travel experience. It is often easy for English speakers to use their language as a crutch.
Here are some tips that we’ve found to be useful.
1. Memorize essential phrases
You can usually find decent phrasebooks at the airport, in hostels, your local bookstore, or even at the library if you’ll be back in time to return them. If all else fails, ask fellow travelers if they have one you could borrow or make copies of. Jot down phrases from the Internet if you need to. Hard copies are best – make sure it fits comfortably in your pocket or day bag.
Don’t forget to focus on the basics. There’s no reason to study grammar or even individual words when you’re so new to the language. Just pick the most important phrases and memorize them. The plane (or bus… or train) ride is a perfect time to get some studying in. Our favorites to learn before we arrive are:
- please/thank you
- I don’t speak _____
- Do you speak English?
- 1 – 10
- do you have…
- where is…
This is the most important piece of advice you can get when you’re beginning a new language. Your new language isn’t going to be perfect, but people will understand you. I am fully aware that it’s easier said than done, but don’t stare at someone awkwardly when they address you. Just say something, but here’s the key: speak their language (“No hablo español” will do just fine). Which brings me to my next point…
3. Focus on communication
Think about it. The entire purpose of language is to communicate. Even if you just memorized a phrase an hour ago and your pronunciation is off, you will be understood. If you’re in a pinch, pull out your phrase book and muddle your way through it. If that’s still not working out for you, ask the person if they speak English. If it’s important enough and they don’t speak English, they just might bust out their cell phone and call someone who does.
4. Listen and observe
Even if you understand only one word in your new language, try to listen. Don’t freeze up and miss everything else the person is saying. If you don’t understand something, ignore it and move on.
Pay attention to body language and other visual cues. You would be amazed how far this will get you, but don’t rely on it completely. It may not be the exact message you’re expecting. One example that comes to mind is when a waiter came to ask us if we needed a minute. I confidently said, “yes,” just knowing for certain that he was asking if we were ready. This message conflict made for a really awkward getaway on his part.
Every time you have a spare moment, try to remember a few of the phrases. If you’re traveling with someone, quiz each other, “How do you say, ‘Where is the bathroom?’ in Spanish?”
If you can, find a local that can also speak English and practice with them! Attempt your newly memorized phrases with them and they’ll help you refine the pronunciation. Or, better yet, they will give you a more colloquial way of saying the same thing. Learning those little intricacies is the best way to learn about the culture.
If you will be sticking around for a week or more, look at taking lessons or participating in a language exchange. Couchsurfing is a great place to find tutors or partners. We connected with our tutor, Eduardo, after connecting with him on Couchsurfing. He taught us Rioplatense Spanish that’s spoken in Buenos Aires.
If you need some inspiration, check out Fluent in 3 Months by Benny the Irish Polyglot. If you’re interested in learning more of the local language, check out his Language Hacking Guide. It gives brutally honest advice to learn a language effectively.
The link to Language Hacking Guide is an affiliate link. If you choose to purchase, we will receive a commission.