How to Learn a Language to Improve Your Travels

How to Learn a Language to Improve Your Travels

Welcome to FLYTE’s Travel 101 Series! The goal of this collection of articles, written by members of our FLYTE Community, is to prepare our students and anyone new to travel for their first trip abroad. In today’s edition, Danielle tells us how learning a foreign language can improve your travels. 

When you plan a trip, there are all kinds of logistics to consider such as booking, packing, planning… and another key thing many people skip: learning the local language.

Imagine running around the streets of Italy, desperate for a bathroom. Every single café you ask doesn’t know English and doesn’t understand your plea for a bathroom. Finally, after 5 attempts, you resort to sign language: pointing at your lower half and doing a little wiggle dance. You feel embarrassed, but the clerk understands and points you to the bathroom.

All of this could have been avoided if you simply knew the phrase “il Bagno per favore?” (Bathroom, please?)

While English is the most widely spoken language in the world, we would be remiss as travelers to assume that we can arrive in another country and expect locals to cater to our language needs. As visitors, it’s essential for us to take the first step to learn some of the local language.

Reasons to learn the local language while traveling

Learning a language can be intimidating but it will enrich your cultural experience as well as make logistics easier. Take the pressure of fluency off yourself, no one expects you to become fluent in a language when you’re visiting a country for just a week.

1. Ability to communicate basic needs to avoid awkward and stressful situations.

Like in the bathroom scenario laid out before, learning the local language will help you navigate day-to-day activities and avoid awkward situations.  It will help you ask for the bathroom, read road signs, order food and tickets, etc.

Some words and phrases you should learn are:

  1. Good morning/good night
  2. Hello/goodbye
  3. Please/thank you
  4. Bathroom, please?
  5. Left/right
  6. Train/bus
  7. The name of your hotel (if it is not already in the local language)
  8. I need
  9. Excuse me
  10. Can I pay with a credit card?
  11. Do you speak English?

2. Depending on your level of fluency, you may be able to have conversations with locals.

When you’re able to carry a conversation in the local language, you may be able to get a better insight into the locals’ lives. You may find yourself able to make friends on buses, in cafes, or wherever conversation happens to strike.

These experiences may also happen even if you’re not fluent! If you attempt to talk to someone they will likely appreciate it.  If you’re struggling, most people will either be patient or switch to a combination of English (if they know it) and the local language.

3. Learning the language shows respect to the local people and their culture.

When traveling, it is imperative to remember that you are a guest in the country while other people are living their day-to-day life there. Learning the language shows that you respect this dynamic and shows that you are grateful for the privilege of being there.

4. Politeness is important everywhere in the world.

Many of us were raised to be polite, to say please and thank you. These habits should not be thrown out the window just because we are in another country. Instead, we should learn the local terms for being polite and make sure we say our please’s and thank you’s.

5. Outside of helping you travel, language learning has benefits for your everyday life.

If you decide to become fluent in the language, it is something you can add to your resume and potentially set you apart in college applications and job hunts. Additionally, language learning has been shown to improve memory, enhance creativity, and make you a better problem solver.

All in all, there are no cons to learning a language.

laptop and notebook

Resources to learn the local language

Now that you want to learn the local language, you may ask yourself where do I begin? How do I find the time? What if I don’t have enough money to afford online courses?

Thankfully, the internet has plenty of resources for language learning.

1. DuoLingo (free)

The DuoLingo app is a free language learning application that can be downloaded to your phone. There are a plethora of language options such as English, Spanish, Italian, French, and many more. They even have lesser-known languages like Scottish Gaelic!

This app works by teaching you the language in a fun and game-like environment. You learn through methods such as multiple-choice questions, viewing pictures/icons, listening to speech, and speaking. DuoLingo will track the number of words you’ve learned on the app so you can easily keep a record of your vocabulary. They create an addictive game-like environment by giving you points for lessons and ranking you among other people learning the same language.

2. EdX (free)

EdX is a MOOC – Massive Open Online Course – platform created by Harvard and MIT. The world’s top universities post online courses here that can be accessed by anyone. There are language courses on here that can provide you a more traditional learning experience.  You can find courses in Spanish, Mandarin, and Italian among other languages. Sometimes, a course will be on there for a limited time, or you may only be allowed access for a limited time – so keep an eye out for that!

3. LingQ (free or subscription)

LingQ teaches you a language by immediately immersing you in it. You will be able to read articles, listen to audio, and watch shows in your language of choice about topics you enjoy. When you do not understand a word, you can click on it and it will translate it for you.  To help you build a habit, you can choose levels and daily time goals.

4. Check with your local library (free)

You may be allowed access to language software through your library card. Additionally, a librarian may be able to tell you recommended books for beginners as well as information about local classes.

5. iTalki (paid)

iTalki is a platform that connects language learners with native teachers from all around the world. With a few clicks, you can set up virtual Italian lessons with someone from Italy. You can tailor it to your budget and schedule, pay per lesson, and have a personalized plan. If your primary goal is to learn some basics to make travel easier, you can discuss this with your teacher and not commit to an entire course.

Additional tips

Now that you’ve found some tools and courses, the next step is to build habits and practice immersion when possible.

1. Set aside the same time every day to work on your language learning.

When you do something at the same time every day, you’re more likely to form a habit. You get rid of the hurdle of “when can I squeeze it in today?” if you schedule your learning every day at the same time. Set a recurring event on your calendar.

2. Make it as easy as possible to do your task.

Create a distraction-free environment – turn off phone notifications and tell your family or roommates to please you alone for the designated time. Make sure your workspace is tidy before it is time to work so you don’t end up cleaning during your study time.

3. Change your Netflix language.

You can change the audio to the language you’re learning and have subtitles in English (or challenge yourself with no subtitles!) It could be helpful to watch a show that you’re already very familiar with so you can make connections. Click here for instructions to change the language.

4. Find a friend who speaks the language at home.

With more common languages such as Spanish, it’s possible that you already know fluent speakers. See if you can arrange lunches or dinners with these people and tell them you want to learn their language. You can then have conversations in just the foreign language or a mixture of English and the language to grow your skills.

With these tools, I hope you’re able to succeed in your goal of learning the local language to travel. Remember, no one expects fluency if you’re visiting for a week or two – so take that pressure off yourself. Happy travels and I hope you can find the bathroom!