Hola. Bonjour. Ciao. Konichiwa. Guten tag. Hej.
Chances are you know these greetings and feel confident enough to drop them when you run into Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, German, or Swedish speakers. But what about taking the conversation even further? Although English is widely spoken around the world, mastering just a few phrases from a foreign language adds a level of authenticity to your travels.
It also benefits you in ways that may not be so obvious:
- Stimulates your mind and sharpens cognitive skills
- Gives you access to hidden gems in foreign places, like chef specials
- Helps you empathize with the local population
- Adds a level of security to your trip; taxi drivers, for example, might be less likely to scam you if you demonstrate a basic grasp of their language
It’s just plain fun as well. Here’s how you can learn a foreign language for your next trip, from basics to fluency.
Not everyone has the time or resources to achieve fluency with relatively short notice. That’s okay. Languages share pleasantries even if they’re pronounced in different ways. Mastering these will enable you to interact with locals in a thoughtful, respectful way. While you pick up that pocket dictionary, earmark these phrases:
- Hello & Goodbye
- Please & Thank You
- Excuse me. (Pardon me.)
- I’m sorry.
- I don’t understand.
- I’m sorry, I don’t speak ____.
- Do you speak English?
- Please speak slower.
Just as these basic phrases will help you, some other sayings appear to be helpful but really can trip you up. For example, if you ask where something is, a common enough question, it may imply you have a stronger grasp on the language than you do: The answer will surely include directions (left, right, around the corner) and distances. You’ll be forced to backtrack or ask them to repeat their response in English.
And take these phrases with you. Laminate a flashcard with them on it before you head to the airport. You can study on your flight, at your lodgings, or whenever you’re in transit. If you need pronunciation tips, lean on YouTube. There are plenty of resources there.
Intermediate: The Apps to Download
A cheat sheet with basic phrases is a start, and you’ll be sure to charm some locals by exchanging pleasantries. Expanding your grasp of a language takes a little more work. Luckily, 21st-century technology has provided numerous resources to do just that. Try a combination of these apps (they are free, with in-app purchases and/or subscriptions available) to take your practice to the next level:
Let’s start with a popular one. Duolingo makes a game out of learning a language. The app features flash-card lessons, but it also has leagues where you earn points and compete against other players. Additionally, as you learn more skills, there’s a story function, where you can take the words and phrases you’ve learned and use them in the context of brief stories.
Memorizing vocabulary from a foreign language, writing, and reading will give you a base of understanding, but speaking is the best form of practice. This is where HelloTalk comes in. The app connects you to native speakers in a reciprocal way. You learn their language; they learn yours. Chat via texts, video calls, voice calls and recordings, and doodles.
It’s not just for college students. Quizlet takes a classic study technique—the flashcard—and makes it digital. Because you create your own sessions, you can learn at your own pace. Set up quizzes for verb forms, food terms, numbers, whatever you’d like, and you can hit the books when, say, you’re waiting in line for a passport renewal or sitting in an airport terminal.
The Path to Fluency
Knowing a language is one thing. Conversing in it is something else entirely. So how do you become fluent?
Well, that takes great amounts of practice, dedication, and resources. And setting that as a goal prior to your trip might leave you disappointed. Instead, establish realistic benchmarks leading up to your travel date. It might be mastering numbers one to 100, or exchanging 10 lines of dialogue. Each week you gain more and more of a grasp.
This doesn’t have to be a one-person pursuit, either. Having a study buddy, whether that be your travel partner or a friend willing to help you along the way, can make the process more fun and effective. You can test each other, too, by binge-watching a show (or streaming a movie) in the language with the subtitles off to see how much you understand.
No matter how fluent you are by the time you depart, you’ll gain something from the pursuit. The anticipation will build for the trip knowing you’ll be able to say more than hola, bonjour, ciao, konichiwa, guten tag, or hej when you arrive and adios, adieu, addio, sayonara, auf wiedersehen, or hej då when you depart.