Ever come across a sign like this? They’re hilarious – people trying to put what they want to say into Google Translate and expecting the literal translation to mean what they intend. This one should translate to “Pay attention to your safety” to convey the actual meaning of the Chinese words. Obviously it doesn’t come through.
If you’ve ever tried to learn a language and found that you can read all the words – but you still don’t understand the meaning, you know that it’s not easy to get the nuances of a new method of communication right without lots of exposure and practice. Once you realize that things like figures of speech and double meanings are common, you start thinking about all the challenges of learning a new language. AHHH!
This is tough because one of my biggest obstacles to traveling to non-English speaking countries is a fear of not being to communicate. It’s probably yours, too! English can get you pretty far, but you can never really know if you’re in a place where you really need the help of someone who doesn’t speak a word of English.
On my first solo trip, not knowing Spanish scared me out of my wits. I had very, very basic knowledge of greetings and numbers, but that was about it. Thankfully my wanderlust overpowered this debilitating fear but I remember frantically trying to think of all the phrases I could possibly use my first day in Peru and storing them in my phone in case I couldn’t access the internet. The experience is never easy, especially if I’m by myself trying to figure out how to take the right bus or whether to pick one tour over another. It is, however, almost always worth the effort. Some things to keep in mind:
You Don’t Need to Know the Local Language
The world is getting increasingly global. When many companies get together, they use English to communicate because it’s convenient for everyone. Luckily, it works the same way for tourism. You will almost always find English where you need it – on signs, in restaurants, in hotels and hostels. In tourist attractions, including museums, there will often be locals who speak English well, even in countries that have lower standards of living. In fact, the number of people who speak various languages may surprise you. However, there are always lots of English speakers because travelers are often willing to pay a premium for English guides. In Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, tours with English guides are TWICE the price. Most people who speak other languages are happy to work in tourism for better wages and more flexibility. More popular attractions will almost always have the local language and English.
Just Be Prepared
On your end, it helps to be prepared if you anticipate communication challenges. If you can’t speak the local language, download a translation app on your phone and familiarize yourself with it. I would recommend the Google Translate app if you’re going anywhere except China (which blocks all Google products, though you can download the offline translation and still use it). Google Translate lets you input English and immediately translate it to the other language, and vice versa, and even use your camera to translate directly for some languages. You can download “packets” of specific languages that allow you to translate when you’re not connected to the internet; if you are online, you can also ask the app to read the words to you.
Before you set off each day, have at least a vague idea of where you want to go and how to get there. Don’t try to rely on your memory alone; write down what you need to know! If you get a guidebook, do what you can to check its accuracy. When you know what to look for, you’re much more likely to find it.
Learn to Start Speaking
Enrich your travels by learning the language. Even if you don’t understand everything, having a basic understanding really goes a long way in being able to connect with locals. Most people will nod along if you can’t understand a word they say, but many others will change their attitude towards you if you show some interest in their culture by just saying hello or goodbye in the local language. Languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet (Chinese, Russian, etc.) are definitely more challenging than those that do (Spanish, Italian, etc.), but with time you should be able to understand at least the main idea of what the other person is trying to say.
If you didn’t grow up bilingual, it may be hard for you to get used to the idea of thinking in another language. Even if you know another language, you may not realize how different it is from your native language. I grew up speaking conversational Chinese, good enough that I could get by in Taiwan or China pretty well as a tourist, but it wasn’t until I moved to Beijing and started working and trying to read materials that I started really thinking about the differences between Chinese and English. I can’t imagine the incredible effort that goes into learning Chinese as an English speaker.
DANGER: THE MINDSET TO AVOID AT ALL COSTS
Tell people you’re learning a new language and you’ll hear all the time that you just have to “get in the language-learning environment” to “soak up the language”, as if you can just move to Paris and start speaking perfect French right away. This is preposterous! I don’t know why people say this, or even think this. When has a difficult skill just “come” to you without deliberate, consistent practice? LITERALLY NEVER. If we could pick up skills that easily, we would never have to hire professionals to do anything for us. We could just do everything ourselves. You are never going to learn a language by just listening to it, not looking up definitions, and not actively storing them into your memory. While some people have it easier than others, there’s no such thing as putting in no work at all.
Instead, getting into the language-learning environment just means that being surrounded by the language forces you to constantly practice what you know and learn what you don’t. if you don’t use Japanese, the regular pedestrian walking around Tokyo isn’t going to understand a word that you’ll say. If you ask a question in Chile, you have to use your Spanish to understand the response. There’s no more crutch – you can’t get out of practicing! This is how children learn to speak and is what improves your language skills so quickly when you move. There is no magical osmosis that only happens in that part of the world. It’s simply practice.
Here’s what it takes to get yourself to basic proficiency:
Get in the right mindset
In most schools, learning language was about memorizing vocabulary and grammar and learning to read and write. Because of the nature of the class, the teacher or professor could only assess your language level by having you read and answer questions or write essays. The focus wasn’t on speaking or listening and focused a great deal on grammar rules that you forgot right away.
This method of learning is almost useless for you. Instead, you need to speak and listen. Your goal is to understand others and be understood by them. You’ll learn very quickly that these two tasks are not as difficult as they sound, and they almost never require intense grammar knowledge. Instead, focus on getting the right words and sounds down. That way, you can put them together into a sentence when you need to.
For example, if a new English speaker says, “Bathroom where,” you immediately understand. The grammar of that sentence is almost nonexistent and it’s missing a few key words, and yet they got the information they needed from you. Once you try this extremely basic form of communication, you see that it only takes basic vocabulary to get your point across.
Getting into the right mindset means that you don’t worry too much about getting everything right. Accept that you will make many grammar errors but what matters is only your ability to understand and be understood.
Study – be deliberate about remembering
The myth about “picking up” a language like you can pick up a check belies the effort that you need to pair with your outside experiences. If you hear and see vocabulary that you never look up in the dictionary, you will rely on guessing, which can only get you so far. Instead, search up the new words right away with your translation app or write down them down for later.
My memory is terrible, so I make flashcards and study them every day. When I try to say something and find that I don’t know a particular word, I write it down to add to my flashcards that night. Even if you remember things easily, I recommend using flashcards. They are useful for keeping track of all the vocabulary you have learned, and can serve as a wonderful tool for you to keep up with your language if you aren’t able to practice it in your environment.
Make the most of your flashcards by creating a double set. One set you can review with your native language side up, and the other you review with the new language side up. This ensures that you can both recall (for speaking) and recognize (for reading signs and listening) new words.
My recommended flashcard service is Anki. Many people use other services like Quizlet, which is also helpful. I like Anki because the web and online platforms are free and sync to each other. Anki works on a proven time-based review system, meaning that each time you see a card you can set the amount of time that will pass until your next review – incredibly helpful for focusing on the words you actually don’t know.
[Recommended Read: The Ultimate Guide to Using Anki Flashcards to Learn a Language]
Practice speaking with real people
Speaking is important skill #1 of 2. If you’re not going to be in a formal office work environment, chances are that you will be communicating verbally almost 100% of the time. Like I mentioned before, there is no need to try and be perfect with your sentences. As long as you have all the words there in a basic grammatical structure, you should be fine. Go over sample conversations in your head before you do something and recall the words you might need in that conversation. Remind yourself of the words that you might need.
Of course, finding a language partner can really improve your skills in a short time. You can use a service like iTalki, which links you to other language learners all over the world. You can pick a native Arabia speaker learning English, or another native English speaker learning Arabic to practice. There are so many possibilities, just explore them!
For example, if I am about to walk into a restaurant, I try to remind myself how to say words like menu, pasta, rice, and check. As long as I can recall most of the words I need, I should have no problem getting my point across. When you just start out with a language, that’s what you need to focus on – getting your point across. Accept the fact that you won’t be mastering a language without time and energy.
[Recommended Read: Why You Should Start Your Travels with a Host]
Practice listening to real people
This is important skill #2 of 2, and I think is harder than speaking. If you haven’t grown up speaking a language, your brain simply hasn’t been primed to the new language. Even if you have spoken the new language conversationally since you were a kid, clearly hearing words that you don’t know doesn’t mean that you understand. Learning Spanish is going to be easier than Chinese, which is completely different. But just getting your brain in the new language mode trains it to look out for new words.
There are plenty of free resources, such as newspaper/news websites and YouTube channels that can help you out. If you watch a lot of Netflix, you may even be able to change the audio to a different language. I also like to look up music in that other language. For more popular languages (Spanish, Chinese, etc.) you can find people who translate popular songs to that language. Disney translates their songs to a myriad of languages, so you could start there as well, and look at the related videos that YouTube shows you to look around. The songs satisfy my love of music and the lyrics can introduce me to slang or more casual language.
When you actually get to town, take your headphones out and start listening in on other peoples’ conversations. It’s not eavesdropping because you most likely won’t be able to understand what they’re saying anyways and you can get a real glimpse of language in the natural environment, without any pressure to come up with a response or understand what is being said.
Read every day
Part of learning sentence structure and verb conjugations is experience. Applying English grammar to the new language can make you sound unnatural, but your brain is made to soak up grammar. It’s like a superintelligence that gets better and better as it has more and more data to draw from. Read some simple news articles or a short story whenever you can so that you get used to grammatically correct language. Reminding yourself of these structures regularly helps you naturally form better sentences. You won’t even have to sit through boring grammar lessons.
When you get to the country, reading is no longer something that you need to deliberately add into your schedule. Just look around, grab brochures, and step into a museum.
Mind your emotions
Before I started being more mindful, I stressed myself out by setting goals that were too ambitious (75 new words a day!), and then got frustrated when I skipped a day of studying or couldn’t remember a word I learned the day before. I would let these frustrations and negative thoughts dictate my learning experience. Instead of progressing, I would feel exhausted by the end of my day and like my brain was melting. I burned out before I even got to the country!
When I got to Peru for the first time on my own, I turned this around. I found that my taxi driver spoke a little more English than I expected and my AirBnb hosts were foreigners who spoke great English. The first day, I couldn’t understand the clerk’s explanation of how to use my new cell phone number. Luckily, my hosts were more than happy to explain the process to me in English.
I had to remember that people will be sympathetic to my language journey, or can be easily replaced by someone who is. Immigrant parents who have lived in the United States longer than their children often still have accents and make grammar mistakes; you can’t expect yourself to be a master right away, even if you’ve been practicing consistently.
Get a teacher
Before you get to your new country, you can seek out a teacher online. iTalki is a good resource, and many teachers charge $20/hour or less. You can also look around the local college for tutors. When you arrive, ask your accommodation staff or host if they know any good teachers.
If you speak English, you should be able to easily find a language teacher. In many lower-income countries, you can find an excellent teacher for cheap. In Bolivia, my volunteer organization connected with a Spanish teacher who had experience teaching former Peace Corps volunteers for 120 Bolivianos (~$8.70/hour at 6.9 Bolivianos per US dollar) for one-on-one lessons. This price, already considered cheap, was on the higher end of Spanish lessons in Bolivia. At the time, the typical price was between 80-120 Bolivianos per hour.
Is a teacher worth it?
If you’re like me, you may be skeptical of hiring a teacher. Why pay someone to help you if you can do it yourself? I was just as skeptical, but I decided to hire Carla because my volunteer organization recommended it. I also found that there was so much information online, but nothing that was curated. It was hard for me to go through a curriculum from start to finish and get the questions that I had answered. Carla was extremely experienced and had a set curriculum with homework that she provided me. We used part of each lesson to just have a conversation so I could learn the difficulties I was having and have all my questions immediately answered by a native Spanish speaker.
I only took classes with Carla for about one month and paid her about $160 total. Was that worth it? Absolutely. I never had to look up vocabulary by myself; I could just use the lists she gave me. All the grammar rules were outlined neatly in a stack of papers. I put in at least one hour of studying every day and took 2-hour lessons about twice a week. The improvement I saw in my language skills was dramatic.
By the end of the month, I could translate some basic speech that proved to be extremely helpful. I knew that I needed to put in personal effort, and with a guide, I improved more than I expected. Carla told me by the end that I had improved the most of any student she ever had! I was surprised, considering the rigor of the Peace Corps language program. But perhaps it was due in large part to her guidance.
Want to Pin this post for later?
What are your tips for learning a new language? If you haven’t learned a language on the road before, what else do you want to know?
Featured image courtesy of Chris Radley