Many of us who travel have the deep desire to learn languages…especially native English speakers. Where in most places English is widely spoken, we’re not widely encouraged to learn other languages. I find myself in this situation in Berlin – although most people do speak English, I’m keenly aware of the fact that I’m surrounded by Germans and I don’t know a lick of German (other than “Ein Bier, bitte!”). And although I’ve spent 20 years learning French, my skills are elementary at best.
It takes guts to get out there and fumble your way through the language – guts I don’t really have. But I’ve done my homework, and I know there are some tips for dealing with the language barrier.
I have been using the free Duolingo phone app for about half a year now in preparation for Germany, and it’s done wonders for my vocabulary. There are many different languages available (including Esperanto!), and the setup is kind of like a big educational game: you go through lessons, complete skills and tests, and you’re rewarded with “prizes” along the way.
Duolingo has really helped my vocabulary. I find myself wandering around Berlin being surprised about how many words I do know. But I still find it hard to string together a sentence, and although Duolingo does teach this, it doesn’t offer any real grammatical explanations for why such sentences work they way they do. You have to rely on memory, which is great, but if you’re someone like me who has to know how things work, well…it gets challenging.
There’s a plethora of free language learning websites and apps out there. Dig around see what you can find. Even to prep for an upcoming trip, such tools are incredibly valuable.
Well duh, that’s an obvious one. And a concept that keeps getting reiterated again and again. But it’s true. Learning a language in an educational setting is a whole different experience than actually being in that language’s setting. People just don’t talk like a monotone computer voice – get my drift?
But often immersing yourself in the local culture is hard when you’re a tourist. Tourists tend to stick together; they tend to visit all the same touristy hot spots without ever getting to know the locals. And getting to know the locals is also difficult when there’s a language barrier. You can try staying with a local through Couchsurfing, or renting a room via Airbnb. Last year when I was in Greece, I hired a private local guide to show me around Athens. She became a good friend of mine and a stepping-stone into Greek culture.
This April, I was having a chat with a hostel owner in Antigua, Guatemala, who spoke fluent English. Central America was one of the hardest places I’ve come by for not knowing any English at all. Fortunately for me, my fellow travellers at least knew some passable Spanish. But still, there were obstacles.
I asked the hostel owner how he managed to learn such perfect English. He told me he watched a lot of American television! I had never thought of that option before – subtitled entertainment drives me nutty. But it makes sense. Most popular television/movies cover the universal topics: romance, greed, sex, you name it. Inevitably, you’ll pick up on some things. Start by finding out what movies and television shows are popular in the language you’re learning, and then start watching. Good excuse to be a couch potato, right?
Most places around the world – especially in areas with large expat communities – have large language learning schools/facilities. In Central America, you can opt for a home-stay to supplement your time learning Spanish at a nearby school…and it’s cheap! In Berlin, the number of language learning schools is almost overwhelming. Most are reasonably priced, and you can easily shop around to see what’s best for you.
The great thing about language classes is that you’re forced to get over your anxiety and speak the language. Even better, you’ll be stumbling your way through conversation with like-minded individuals who are just as nervous as you are. You can make fools of yourself together! On that note…
We tend to shy away from speaking the local language because we’re worried about being embarrassed. I remember trying to speak a few German words to my friend from Berlin, who openly laughed at me. (On the other hand, that’s kind of the German way. They’re very straightforward!) But you really can’t learn the language if you’re too afraid to try.
Think of it this way: when someone who isn’t a native English speaker talks to you with a heavy accent, or with imperfect grammar, do you judge or mock them? It’s unlikely that you do. (And if you do, you’re a terrible person.) So why do you fear people will do the same to you?
3. Practice Every Single Day, at Every Opportunity
Once you’ve committed to the language you want to learn, make it a part of your daily routine – even if it’s just 30 minutes a day. The more time you spend working at it, the better you’ll be. Try to write and speak in that language as time goes on, even if it means talking to yourself. If you can find a language learning partner to practice with, even better.
Some people like to get creative with learning a new language. They’ll write songs in that language, or poetry, or something that will have them start thinking about the language in a different way. But there really is no better way to master a language than actually speaking it and using it. I mean, what’s the point otherwise?
This is something few people consider: when you’re learning a new language, it’s better to put in four hours of learning a day over a period of two weeks than one hour a day over the span of two months. Why? Well, you’re essentially immersing yourself. It’s like French Immersion in Canada – one full day of speaking French, one day of English, etc.
If you’re only studying a language for an hour per day, chances are you’ll know less of that language than a person who’s been studying it for more hours per day but over a shorter amount of time. With all that intense studying, you’re likely to KEEP thinking in that language, and less likely to let your native language filter in over the hours. Consistency is key!
1. Read Children’s Books
This might seem like an odd one, but think about it. If you pick up a children’s book in a foreign language, especially a famous one (anything by Robert Munsch!), chances are you already know the story. And since the word choice is basic and on a beginner level, you’ll be able to pick up on the bare bones of the language.
Try it out. Enjoy the excuse to read a children’s story.
Above all, hang in there! Nothing worth doing is ever easy. There are going to moments in your language life when you want to burst into tears and give up entirely. Your brain will ache with the effort of wrapping your mind around a language that’s a million miles off from your own.
BUT when you do have a breakthrough moment – when you’re bewildered after realizing you’ve spent the past 10 minutes talking in German to a new friend – it’ll all be worth it. I guarantee it.
What are your go-to language tools? Help a fellow traveler out.