Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves. — Henry David Thoreau Click To Tweet

learn a language while travelingLearning a second language can seem like a difficult task; especially if, like me, you left school convinced you were simply unable to learn. After five years of German the only phrases I remembered were, “Can I take my jacket off?” and “I love plums!” – useful, perhaps, if you’re attending a formal garden party in a German orchard but otherwise hardly enough to keep up a meaningful conversation. In this post, I will share with you some tips to help you learn a language while traveling.

Eight years ago, at the age of 21, my attitude changed. I spent three months backpacking around South America – my first solo travel experience – and I was determined that I would learn at least the basics of Spanish. I landed in Buenos Aires unable to even ask directions to the bus stop and started a week of intensive classes the next day.

A couple of weeks later I booked a day of paragliding in the Andes, totally unaware that the guide didn’t speak English. At first I was shy and reluctant to speak, scared of making a fool of myself – it was the first time I’d ever been cut adrift from my mother tongue like this. But as he tried to talk me through the mechanics of take off and landing, I began to realize that it wasn’t so bad. Languages weren’t so scary after all – in fact, they could even be fun!

Since then, I’ve lived a pretty nomadic life and I’ve managed to learn fluent Spanish and passable Portuguese and French – without ever taking a lesson inside the UK. I’ve done short immersion courses in both Spanish and Portuguese but otherwise I rarely study – I just stick to a strategy that I’ve honed over the course of my travels.

Learn A Language While Traveling

learn a language while traveling

Before Traveling

The right time to start learning is the day you decide to travel. But be realistic. Don’t buy a book that promises to teach you everything in seven days. Don’t book an evening course that will eat up all your spare time. You may start with the best intentions but you will probably lose interest.

Instead, download some bite-sized audio course from the web. By bite-sized, I mean three to five-minute vocabulary builders that you can load onto your MP3 player and play when you catch a bus or drive to work. Don’t rush through them and don’t cram – play one clip, repeat, then put some music on. Come back to it when you feel ready.

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In the month before I arrived in Brazil I downloaded a course of 80 files but by the time I left I had only made it to number 20. But the ones I listened to had started to become as familiar as the tracks on my favorite albums, embedding themselves in my brain and serving as latent audio cues. I couldn’t speak Portuguese but I was picking up on familiar words and sounds that would have been nonsense four weeks earlier, which helped me much when it came to finding my bearings with a new vocabulary.

For example, every time I pass a “devagar” road sign, I hear the woman from my audio course reciting the related vocab list in the back of my mind. There are eight or nine words on that list that I won’t forget because they play like song lyrics in my head.

learn a language while travelingWhen Traveling

The real learning starts when you arrive at your destination. The first thing you should do when you land is book a one-week intensive course. This is the only point in the process when you need to take lessons, unless you’re interested in further study. Do more than a week if you have time, or less if you don’t – even a couple of days is useful and you’ll almost certainly enjoy the classes more than you expect.

Immersion courses are a million miles away from the kind of lessons you had at school. You’ll be in a class of no more than eight and often as few as two or three, so you’ll get plenty of attention from the teacher. A good school will offer cultural activities and excursions out of hours as good as any tour. It’s not only a great way to learn, but also a great way to meet people and gain an insight into a new culture.

You won’t be fluent after a week and you probably won’t be all that confident. Nevertheless, once you’re finished you should jump in at the deep end as you might surprise yourself. It doesn’t have to be a paragliding course, but if you can push yourself into a situation where you can’t resort to your mother tongue it will do your confidence a world of good.

The most important lesson of all is that it’s not as hard as you think; and that feeling like a fool trying to speak the language is better than feeling like a fool who is too scared to try.

After that, it’s kind of up to you. You’ve got the basic toolkit already. You know the basic grammatical structure from your course; you have a basic vocabulary from your pre-trip audio; and, most importantly, you have the confidence and the belief to know that you can do it if you try.  You can try some further study but I favor a more casual approach – practice and explore.

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It’s hard to pick words up casually when you have no reference for, but once you’ve gained a basic level you’ll be surprised how quickly you can absorb words just by passing through the country and talking to the people. Start conversations and when you get stuck, ask for help. You’ll find your memory is aided because the words you learn will be linked directly to your travel experiences and the people you met along the way.

learn a language while traveling

After Traveling

Languages fade if they’re not used and if you really want to make the most of an opportunity to learn, it’s just as important to have a strategy for after you travel as before. When you return home it’ll be harder to find opportunities to speak, but not impossible.

There are language exchange opportunities in any city of size. You can find meet-ups or language partners on sites like meetup.com or couchsurfing.org (my personal favorite). Or if you make friends when traveling, swap emails and start a written exchange. Face-to-face is great for speaking practice but writing allows you to focus on grammar and vocabulary more, so a mix of both is ideal.

Alternatively, if you’re the antisocial kind (or just plain busy) there are online tools that will allow you to build your vocab and flex your mental muscles. I like memrise.com and I try to spend about 15 minutes on the site 3 or 4 times a week.

And lastly, if you’re of a literary bent, try reading a novel. It’s not as hard as you think. Don’t look up every word you don’t understand, because a lot of them will be words you don’t need to know (yet) and will quickly forget. It’s much better to focus on understanding enough to follow the flow of the book and, if it’s a good book (tip – choosing a book that you would like to read in English) you should soon find yourself swept up in the narrative and it will no longer seem like a chore.

Everybody has their own preferences and your own personal strategy will really come down to you – but whatever the key, remember not to ask too much of yourself, treat it as part of the travel experience and, above all, enjoy it!

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