The time has come and you’re gearing up for an adventure, but wait, will you need your trusty language learning guide with you? Have no fear, the Smart Language Learning Academy is here.
One can manage their schedule when at home, but it becomes a lot harder to stick to your language learning routine once you’ve booked your tickets for a trip abroad. No worries, in this article we’ll break down five ways you can prepare and ensure that you’ll get the most out of your foreign language as a traveler.
Before we leap into language learning “on the road,” allow me to put my advice in context.
If you want to use your travels to expand your language skills in a serious way, I recommend attaining at least an A2 (or high beginner) level in that language first.
Though it is possible to apply the tips I'm about to share to a brand new language, it's not something I would advise; In fact, the lower your skill level, the more difficult it is to learn the language while also using it to navigate your day-to-day life at the same time. So try to learn as much as you can before going to the country—you won't regret it!
Let’s begin with the first part of your language learning guide.
1. Cultivate Your Curiosity
It all starts with mindset and one of the most important aspects of traveling is to always remain as curious as possible - especially when it comes to language learning!
You're about to venture to a place where the written and spoken language you're learning is everywhere. Think about it: it’ll be on signs and buildings, in books, newspapers, on product labels, and a whole lot more. Heck, when you're around native speakers, the literal air you're breathing will be filled with tiny particles of your target language!
Because of that, it's quite literally in your best interests to act like a sponge and try to absorb as much of that natural, authentic language as you can! Even if you’re only learning a language for travel purposes, it helps immensely to remain curious.
Don’t worry about the “best app to learn a language for travel”. Focus on your surroundings and immerse yourself fully.
Make it a habit to read nearly every bit of text you see: road signs, restaurant menus, brochures, books, and so on. Take particular advantage of bilingual resources (affiliate) for tourists, which typically come in English (or another language commonly spoken by tourists) and the local language.
Similarly, build the habit of constantly listening, even to people who are not speaking directly to you. Sure, that’s technically eavesdropping, but you’re only there for a limited time so make the most of it.
If you're in a well-populated area like a city, you're likely surrounded by dozens of people speaking the local language at any one time. If they're speaking audibly enough that you can hear them - listen! Even if you can only catch a few words here or there, think of it as a fun little game you can play to challenge yourself (and your ears).
Just remember to use common sense as you don’t want to be caught breathing down someone’s neck or standing so close to them that they call the police on you. If you’re sitting down at a restaurant or standing in line at a train station and you happen to understand what someone’s saying near you, job well done. If not, no worries at all.
Spy on, language learner!
2. Carry a Language Learning Notebook
The next part of your language learning guide involves the assistance of a handy dandy notebook. With all the reading and listening you're going to be doing after following my last bit of advice, you'll need to know what to do when you hear or read something in your target language that you might want to use yourself.
That is where you reach into your pocket and pull out your very own language learning notebook!
Don’t go crazy with this, keep it simple and portable by getting a pocket-sized notebook that you can carry around with you in your back pocket. If you ever have the misfortune of being pickpocketed, at least the thief will learn something about languages!
Try not to spend too much time finding “the right notebook.” Pick something that’s sturdy and affordable. I’d recommend buying a bundle of cheap pens or pencils to accompany your notebook. You never know when your pen or pencil might go missing, so it’s best to have a healthy supply.
Whatever portable notebook you choose, its purpose will be to hold all of the most useful and relevant words, phrases, expressions, and other information you encounter during your travels.
As I said earlier, you should be reading and listening A LOT as you travel. You certainly don't have to use your language learning notebook to write down all (or even most) of what you hear, but you should use it to get the benefits of language learning for traveling and while traveling. Safeguard any bit of information that you feel motivated to incorporate into your own language use.
By writing down notes and regularly reviewing them, you will be able to gradually memorize these words and expressions. As a result, you can begin using them consistently in your speaking and writing. But none of that happens if you don't start by writing in your notebook, so remember to carry it with you, no matter where you go!
3. Practice Common and Expected Situations in Advance
As you travel, you´re bound to encounter familiar situations again and again.
For example, you'll probably have to get used to ordering food at a restaurant, purchasing a train ticket at a ticket counter, or talking to a taxi driver so you make it to the appropriate destination.
Practicing a few key phrases and rehearsing them ahead of time will save you a lot of hassle later on. Think short term pain for long term gain, if that helps. Plus, the bonus from doing this is that you're getting to practice your target language in a focused and direct manner.
So as you travel, take note of the scenarios you repeatedly find yourself in, or you expect that you will find yourself in more than once. If you expect to do something a lot, it pays to practice and refine your language around that situation. For example, if you go to the same coffee shop in Rome every morning to grab an espresso and a quick snack, write down the questions the barista asks to take your order.
Then, write down your answers, and refine them according to what you hear when other people give their orders, too. Then, the next time you order, practice your refined version; you'll find that you'll be a lot more prepared, comfortable, and your interactions will be much more authentic.
4. Hang Out With Locals
One of the best ways to learn a language while abroad is perhaps the most obvious—by spending as much time as possible with native speakers!
There's quite simply no better and more authentic source of language than a person who speaks that language as his or her mother tongue. Everyone you meet is a potential treasure trove of language knowledge. Pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, slang, culture—you name it, you can learn about it from a native speaker.
Even if the person you're interacting with has no desire or ability to teach you their language, you can still learn a near-infinite amount, just by observing what they say, how they speak, and the limitless ways in which they use their language to express themselves.
That sounds ideal, but how does one break the ice and get to know some natives? Don’t fret, your language learning guide is your best bet!
Nowadays, there are a wide range of apps and online platforms that anyone can use to easily meet people and make new friends, even when abroad.
The best, and probably most convenient, place to start is with language learning mobile apps like iTalki (affiliate), HelloTalk, and Tandem. In some ways these might be the best apps to learn a language for travel, as you’ll get practical advice from locals. Furthermore, these apps are community platforms where native speakers and learners can easily find each other, interact, and even meet in person.
But you're not just limited to language learning apps, either. Online platforms like Meetup and Eventbrite are great ways to discover groups, clubs, meetings, and other in-person events that are happening nearly anywhere in the world. You'll have more options in big cities, of course, but no matter where you're traveling, these sites are worth a look.
Last but not least, you can also use dating apps as an effective way to connect with others as you travel. I'm talking about apps like Tinder, Plenty of Fish, and Bumble, just to name a few. Proceed with caution as most people use these apps to find romance, but if that's not what you're looking for, you'll find that there's usually an option to look for friendships. If the other options I've shared don't appeal to you, definitely give dating apps a try. And who knows, you may end up meeting the love of your life? I mean, that’s what your language learning guide is here for, am I right?
Once you've found a native speaker to hang out with, the rest is relatively easy: grab some coffee, visit a museum, or attend a local event. The sky's the limit, really. Just spend time with the person, do your best to use the language, and then also try to absorb as much language as you can from them. Doing that has helped me make huge strides in many of my best languages, so I highly recommend it!
5. Hope for the Best, but Prepare for the Worst
This last tip here is primarily about managing expectations. While we often hope that our travels and language learning experiences will go as pleasantly as possible, the reality is that things often go wrong:
- You might not understand someone speaking to you, or they might not understand you
- You might stutter, or get flustered when it comes time to speak
- People might be rude towards you or even switch to speaking in your native language
You get the idea: not everything will go smoothly all the time. And you have to be at peace with that. Set your mind, so that no matter what happens, you focus on the bigger picture.
Things will go wrong. You will make mistakes. But you will be okay.
As I always say, mistakes are an inevitable and unavoidable part of the language learning process, so the best thing to do is embrace them, and see them as stepping stones on the path of growth and language mastery.
To recap, these tips are as follows:
- Cultivate your curiosity
- Carry a language learning notebook
- Practice common and expected situations in advance
- Hang out with locals
- Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst
If you do these things while traveling abroad in a country where your target language is spoken, then I can guarantee that you'll learn a lot—a ton more than you ever could learn from staying at home!
Thanks for reading and I hope that this language learning guide will help you on your next adventure around the globe!