Pre-travel Guide to Learning a Language

Learn your target language before your next trip

Want to start using the native language, but you haven’t had years of practice? Use this guide to jump into language proficiency quickly!

How many of us are intimidated by the idea of learning a new language? Or maybe I should be asking who else is intimidated by learning a new language? Languages are hard, especially when you start at an older age (disclaimer: it is not true that you are any less capableof learning a language. I do find, however, the intimidation factor is higher in older learners. You actually have many advantages over young learners- I will get more into that later!!). The desire to learn the language may be even smaller if attending short vacation rather than moving. Yet as an ex-reluctant language student, I’ve learned that there are a lot of benefits to learning the native language of where you are visiting. I am going to outline in my article why you should challenge yourself in this way, and how you can get over your fear of sounding silly (because that’s probably what we all are really afraid of).

Let’s start with the why. Why should you learn the native language before your next trip? Well, my answer is that A) You can make new friends on your travels B) You are less likely to get lost/find what you are looking for and C), many local speakers appreciate your effort. By learning the language of where I was visiting, I just found my experience more enjoyable and satisfying. I could understand why foods and things were called what they were, I could make new friends, and I felt more confident exploring the places I went to.

As someone who has taught English, I am going to give you some insider knowledge. Languages are officially ranked by proficiency, 0-5. 0 is no proficiency, and 5 is native. If you are at a 4, you can work on a professional level. In 1-3, you can probably hold some sort of a conversation. In elementary languages classes, we usually learn how to name ourselves, say please and thank you- and that can count as a conversation! When you are learning a language for your own purposes, you can pick and choose some things that you want to learn, you don’t need to reach native level before your next trip to sound impressive. Usually a native level means you have a lot more cultural understanding as well, no need to sweat that just yet. Here is a guide to get you started learning and using your target language in a short amount of time.

HOW TO START USING THE LANGUAGE IN A SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME

1. Focus on listening and speaking. These are the ones that you will probably be using the most, so skip ahead! These two also play into each other. Try to listen for your cues to speak, and if you are having a conversation about something,you will hear repeated words. You probably won’t be writing too much.

2. Although I just said not to focus too much on reading, study up on some signage. This may help you in the long run!

3. Become familiar with the cultural media. Even by just learning the names of popular TV shows, movies, and songs, you will absorb some context of certain words and phrases. For example, the Spanish Netflix showLa Casa de Papeltranslates to paper house. It’s a show about a bank robbery, but the title wouldn’t reallytell you when translated directly.

4. Watch people have conversations. This can be in person or via a screen. This is a good listening exercise, and can help you see how people use inflection, or how common certain phrases really are. It will also help you achieve a subconscious knack for pronunciation.

5. Record yourself speaking. I know we all hate listening to ourselves… but it can really help you practice!

6. Focus on what you need to know. Will you ask for directions? Order off a menu? Buy from a shop? This can intimidate you less, and help you feel more confident.

7. There are special conversation travel guides for tourists in most bookstores and libraries! See if you can find one for your trip.

8. Look up some basic grammar rules. Just a quick google search for the most common issues/ differences between your native language and the one you are learning.

9. Practice when you are there! The reception of where you are staying, a place where you are ordering food- you never know what might happen! A compliment on your language skills (or attempt!) will probably motivate you to keep practicing and try again!

10. Choose some topics that get you excited. Sports? Movies? You are more willing to keep a conversation up (and maybe make a friend) if you choose a topic that you are genuinely interested in.

11. Exchange playlists with a native speaker. While traveling I found that when I met someone new, they liked to exchange music. There are so many different varieties, you can bond with people over the similarities, and provide translation and transcribing practice. I strongly advise trying to translate your songs of choice, so you understand the context.

12. Attending social events, either found on Airbnb, Facebook, consulate websites, can also provide learning opportunities to listen and use the language. Again, if you cater to your interest, your retention may be stronger.

13. Learn a recipe. Recipes are straightforward. There is the preparation, instructions, and vocabulary. Learning how to cook a new recipe in it’s original language is a tangible goal.

14. You can read children’s books to start your lingual journey. If you can find audio to accompany this that is another perk, because these are usually slow paced. Children’s books can cover some very basic topics that you can use on your trip!

15. Approach with the attitude of making genuine connections. My favorite aspect of language practice while traveling is that it is very social. Language practice not only helps you out when you are visiting the place, but can help you connect to people when you return home.

Some more backstory to why I encourage language practice while you are traveling: I moved to a new country last year. This was super scary for me. Yet I had to be determined to learn the language, because English very universally spoken. To be honest, during my study abroad in college I avoided learning the native language, and I regretted it. Learning a foreign language is easily avoidable. I was lucky my second time around, because I found groups and people who were willing to practice with me. I found what was called anintercambio,a language exchangefor English speakers and Spanish speakers. The idea was to break bread and have alternating conversation practice. I loved this concept, because I did not feel that I was bothering someone by practicing the language. Also I felt that I could help others with their English. It was a win-win. A note to readers, this is still available. Many groups have moved online to keep this going!

Another whyit’s a good idea to learn the native language: If you are an avid networker, while you travel you can get active on social media and meet other people. This can help you feel less lonely if you are solo-traveling, or provide actual business connections. You can also find many communal co-working spaces to work with other people in.

COVID PANDEMIC NOTE

Don’t fret if you can’t travel just yet! There are many things you can do to learn about your language learning style, especially while you are unable to travel. You can start trying my tips that I listed above. Watching foreign films and listening to music? So doable! Finding someone to practice with? There are so many online places you can connect with others. You can go on a virtual language exchange via social media groups, reach out to your bilingual friends (or friends of friends). It is definitely possible! As well, there are so many language apps to try. Worried about money? I wrote an article on my blog about all the free ways you can learn a new language!

WHY AGE DOESN’T MATTER

To put my other point about age in perspective, think about how many other late learners there are. There are so many language classes catered to business people and tourists. There are many people out there willing to learn at a later age. This is a huge advantage.

If you have had some life experience under your belt, you will know what you need to get by in life. You have probably shopped, gone to the doctor, a sports game, etc. This will help lead you in your language journey to what vocabulary and grammar you will need. As an older learner, you have learned the importance of words, and with this you can direct your language learning process. As well, studied have shown that the capability of learning a new language when you are older is no different than when you are younger. So get that thought out of your head- it just simply is NOT true that is is harder to learn after a certain age.

I hope you enjoyed these language learning tips, and that they will help you feel more prepared and confident before your next adventure!

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