I’ve used the ubiquity of English to trample clumsily through just about every country I’ve visited. It’s lazy, rude and effective. Given how often we charge off on last minute travel deals with barely time to flick through a phrasebook, let alone take classes, it’s a compromise that usually gets us the essentials: food, shelter, public transport and cerveza.
But you’ll find yourself feeling more like a tourist than a traveler if you continue to rely on hand signs, thank you’s, and the odds of your language being on your host’s curriculum at school. There’s this tiny thing called manners, too. Being brave enough to speak with your hosts in their own language will take you far deeper into a culture; it invites respect, friendship and personal invitations.
Listen and repeat – out loud
However shy you feel about sounding like an idiot, gazing at that phonetic spelling and repeating it in your mind will rarely imprint the word – let alone the pronunciation – in your memory. Plus, if you can’t muster the courage to say it out loud in your bedroom, it’s unlikely you will ever speak to a foreigner. Language software, MP3s, podcasts, live lessons, YouTube guides and media broadcasts will all help.
Plunge in before you reach the departure lounge
If you travel frequently, you’ll probably wonder which language to learn in the first place. Which will be most useful? With the right attitude, it’s possible to pick up several different ones as you go. If you’re learning Spanish, why not pick up Italian and Portugese which are close relatives of Español and they’ll probably be useful when you make your grand tour of Europe. It’s always useful to give yourself plenty of time to learn something. Start as soon as you know which country is first in your itinerary and give yourself at least three months.
Find someone fluent to practise with
In the UK, look up Gumtree for “skill swap” offers – usually along the lines of “your English for my Spanish”, or whatever languages are on offer. Elsewhere, check out the local classified ads – just make sure you meet in a public place. However, if you’re taking lessons, avoid asking your tutor for extra-curricula conversation; teaching you this language is their profession, so it’s unfair to ask them for a free favour.
Learn “how do you say this in your language?” as soon as possible
“Please speak slowly” is also very handy. Being able to communicate “I can’t speak much of your language but if you slow down and help me, I can learn” will crack open barriers. At the very least, it’ll boost your vocabulary. Asking how to pronounce written words is another excellent trick.
Study in the country where the language is spoken and go local
The best way to learn a new language is to learn it where it’s spoken. You can spend years learning Spanish on Rosetta Stone and it won’t be half as effective as to study Spanish in Spain for a month or two. By taking language classes in the country where the language is spoken, you’ll be exposed to the language on a daily basis and you’ll be using it in practical situations. And don’t stick to your other English-speaking friends while you’re there — go meet local friends and try to immerse yourself in the local culture as much as you can!
Chat with everyone
Well – within reason. Not if they pose a personal security risk, or if you’re exhausted in a 4am taxi after a long haul flight. But practise really does make you braver; if you can start with a friendly person at your hotel or hostel – anyone with a smattering of English to help you along – you’ll build the confidence to try it on waiters, bar staff and potential new friends. Don’t let them help too much by using their own English – at least until you’ve had your turn.
Do you speak a second or third language? What other tips do you have?