How Can I Learn a Language for Travel?
How Can I Learn a Language for Travel?

How Can I Learn a Language for Travel?

Learning a language for travel is no easy feat. But with some guidance from someone who has done it, you will find it easier. In this blog post, I share my advice for learning a foreign language for travel.

In another blog post, I detailed the benefits I’ve experienced from learning a foreign language for traveling. Check that out for the backstory behind why I wanted to learn Spanish and the travel benefits it’s brought me. 

How did I learn Spanish?

When I say ‘how did I learn Spanish?’, what I mean is: how did I get my Spanish to a level of general fluency. That is, being able to hold everyday conversations fluently and grammatically correct.

Getting to that level took me about a year. This year included time in Central America and Wales, some classes with a private tutor in Guatemala and a lot of time teaching myself the grammar and memorising vocabulary.

How can you learn a language for travel?

The best way for you to get ahead is to start learning before you begin your trip so that you have a base already in place. But the following tips are for if you’re still at home or on the road already. Let’s get into my advice for how to learn a language for travel. 

Have a strong why

I detailed my why for learning Spanish in my post on the benefits of learning a language for travel. Yours doesn’t have to be anything like mine, but having a strong reason why you want to learn a language for your travels will give you the motivation to follow through. Learning a language is a journey that never truly ends and just getting to a level of general fluency takes time and a lot of effort.

Listen to music

Music is a great resource for working on your listening skills. At first, actually undertesting what’s being said is really tough, but with time it gets better. If you don’t understand the lyrics, then you can always look them up online. This will help you build your vocabulary.

Resources like YouTube and Spotify are full of ‘Latino music’ and ‘best Spanish music (year)’ playlists, for example.

Watch series

Watching series really helped me to learn the meaning behind vocabulary along with learning new words. At first, I would watch with subtitles in English. Then, as my listening comprehension improved, I switched to watching with Spanish subtitles. This also helped with my pronunciation. I could listen to what was being said while seeing the spelling at the same time and then repeat the words out loud.

Listen to podcasts/watch YouTube videos

YouTube and Spotify, for example, have plenty of podcast and channels that produce content in foreign languages including content specifically for foreign language learning.

One of my favourite YouTube channels is Easy Languages. It’s a great channel because they have real conversations in the streets with people and put subtitles in English and the target language. I especially recommend this kind of content for beginners.

But in general, just find a channel with content that interests you in the target language and you’re good to go.

Don’t rely on language learning apps

I’ve used a bunch of apps over the years and found them all to be pretty much the same. Duolingo is the best known and, for me, also the most comprehensive. However, in my opinion language learning apps will only get you so far, and it’s not that far either.

I completed the Spanish path on Duolingo and it took me around six months. Repetition is a key element of the method used by such platforms and so it was great for increasing my general vocabulary.

However, Duolingo nor any other app gave me any sort of grammatical understanding of Spanish nor how to form complete sentences. And these are fundamentals of being able to speak a language.

I do recommend these sorts of apps, but in my experience, they should form a small part of your learning.

Learn the grammar

Grammar is like marmite for a lot of people and understandably so. But what really helped me to love and continue enjoy studying it is keeping in mind its benefit. Grammar is the theory that underpins all the components of speaking a language. So, once you understand it, then you know exactly how to use the language. This greatly reduces the number of errors you make. 

Of course, it takes a while to internalise grammatical rules and use them without having to think too much. But from experience, once you’ve got a grasp of the grammar, your language learning takes off. I’m still learning and re-learning Spanish grammar, and I doubt that’ll ever change.

Build your vocabulary with list

This is an old school way of learning and potentially a boring one for some people. But for me, writing side-by-side English/Spanish language word lists really boosted my vocabulary. Covering one side of the list with my hand and trying to recall the word while looking at its equivalent in the other language helped internalise the word and its translation.

I did this a lot. It’s my tried-and-tested method of boosting vocabulary quickly — especially verbs.

Join a conversational online platform

Nowadays there’s a big market for online conversational platforms. With these you can take conversational-based classes that focus on pronunciation and vocabulary with native tutors.

There are many platforms, each with their pros, cons and pricing. Among the most common are Cambly and italki, but there are loads more. Just do an internet search for ‘language learning platforms’ and you’ll find loads.

I haven’t used one of these platforms as a student, but I have taught on one. In my opinion they are great for building confidence to speak the target language and increasing your vocabulary. But you’ll need to put work in outside of the platform for wider learning. Also, these platforms usually work best for people who already have a base in the language.

Consider staying in places for longer

Slowing down your travels and sticking around in a place for longer can really help to learn a language. You’ll find more time to study and get used to the local accent. Getting used to an accent will boost your listening abilities and help you to give better responses.

If you do decide to stay in a place longer, then you’ll have more opportunities to meet people who can help you with your language learning

Make local friends who don’t speak English

Stay in a place long enough and you can also make friends there. While in Guatemala, I made a couple of friends who didn’t speak English and this gave me lots of Spanish speaking practice. It was also nice to be able to help them with their English.

You could even set up an English/target language exchange with local friends. This would be a free and fun way of practising.

Find a tutor

Having a personal tutor is extremely helpful. In Guatemala I had a few hours a week with a private tutor for a couple of months. She helped me lots with my pronunciation and vocabulary, and also taught me some grammar. Taking these classes was extremely beneficial and by the end my tutor had become a friend too.

If you don’t want to stay in a place long enough to have sessions with a tutor in person, then you can always look for one online.

Challenge yourself to speak with strangers

This takes courage at first and was something I found intimidating initially. However, with time, striking up a conversation with a stranger feels more natural and it really builds your confidence. I started simple with things like asking directions — even if I knew where I was going.

As my confidence grew, I was able to talk to different kinds of people in different settings. I became comfortable hitchhiking and speaking Spanish with the people who picked me up. I also came to enjoy having conversations with people sat next to me on the bus or on a park bench, for example.

Keep studying

This tip is really aimed at people who want to go beyond a basic conversational level in the target language when traveling. Regularly studying the language will help you to continually build your vocabulary and grammatical understanding. It will also reinforce what you’ve already learnt and keep it fresh.

Take things slowly and gradually look into new topics to learn new vocabulary and grammar rules. Having a handy travel-sized grammar book and a story book written in the target language can be invaluable. You’re likely to be without internet a lot of the time you’re traveling and so having these guarantees you’ll be able to study on the go.

Find a native-speaking travel partner

Not only is this a tip to learn your target language, but it’s also a benefit of learning a foreign language for traveling. Finding a native speaking travel partner means you’ll have both a travel buddy and someone to practise speaking with. And if they don’t speak English, then even better.

Admittedly, I never did this with a Spanish-only speaking person. It will probably be harder to find someone who speaks the local language and who is also traveling the region than a foreigner who doesn’t. But if your target language is a commonly spoken one such as Spanish, French or Mandarin, for example, then you’re at least in with a shot.

More travel content on A World Over

Make sure to check out my article on the benefits of learning a foreign language for travel to find out why doing so is so helpful. And for more travel content and inspiration, head to the A World Over blog.

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