“I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world,” American author Mary Anne Radmacher once said.
I’m sure many of us would agree with her.
And there’s a way to make it even more gratifying: by studying a language along the way.
But learning on the road doesn’t just happen naturally. You have to be determined and disciplined with a solid study plan in place.
But before we start forming a study plan, there a couple things to consider about your upcoming language and travel adventure.
Why dedicate your time to learning a language while you travel? Oh, and how do you even choose a language?
Travel and language learning are a match made in heaven
Speaking the local language enhances the travel experience exponentially.
In addition to getting around with ease, you’ll be able to engage with the locals and form meaningful friendships.
There’s nothing like being fluent to see a side of a destination that other tourists miss.
By conversing with the locals each day, you can build on your language skills much more quickly than at home. Real world interactions teach pronunciation and linguistic nuances better than a textbook ever could.
Which language should you learn?
There’s no real answer. It’s really up to you.
Did you study a language in school? If you enjoyed it, why not pick up where you left off? After all, you already have a solid base.
Alternatively, you could study a language that might enhance your career. A specialist in Chinese trade, for example, would be the ideal candidate to learn Mandarin.
Or you could consider what will be most helpful for future travel endeavors. German is the most widely spoken language in Europe, and Spanish is the second most common in the world.
Finally, you could just study whichever interests you the most. A salsa dancer could learn Spanish while an anime fanatic could pick up some Japanese.
Language and Travel: How to Learn the Local Lingo While on the Road
1. Travel to learn
Adopting the right mindset is half the challenge of learning on the road.
You need to remind yourself every day that language comes first and travel comes second. By all means, go out and explore. Just make sure you’re able to hone your skills along the way.
Climbing the Eiffel Tower is all well and good, but will it improve your French? It could if you make a conscious effort.
Force yourself to buy your ticket in French, decipher all the signage you come across and eavesdrop on a conversation or two. Better yet, see if you can start one with a random local somewhere en route.
If you prioritize language learning over travel at every opportunity, you’ll already be one step ahead of the game.
2. Check out FluentU
I get it. Textbooks can be insanely boring.
Thankfully, we’re no longer confined to tedious text-based lessons and repetitive grammar exercises. Technology can provide us with more innovative and interactive ways to learn.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Use FluentU’s annotated subtitles, interactive vocabulary lists, flashcards and more to brush up on your desired language before you embark on your language-learning journey.
Whether you still haven’t mastered pronouncing bonjour (hello) or can already debate about politics in Russian, FluentU has material for your skill level.
Watching authentic videos is an entertaining method to immerse yourself in a language the way native speakers really use it, while actively building your vocabulary.
It’s perfect for studying the language and culture before your trip. But files are also available for offline use, so you can watch fun videos on that ten-hour sleeper bus across China or on a train from France to Switzerland.
Access the full video library for free with a FluentU trial!
3. Throw a few classes into the mix
Could you learn Mandarin just by going to Shenzhen and speaking to people?
Of course not. You’d be completely lost.
But you could if you already had a firm foundation. That’s where lessons come in handy.
The old-school language school approach is still one of the quickest way to learn the basics. You can later build upon those basics through everyday immersion.
Aim to enroll in a language course at the start of your trip to give you plenty of time to practice those new skills.
Your class schedule will depend on your itinerary and budget. Nevertheless, keep in mind that an intensive one-month program of about four hours per day is generally enough to become conversational from scratch. You’ll need to do your homework, though, and don’t even think about cutting class.
The only drawback is that language schools are quite expensive, especially if you opt for a private teacher. (Which is definitely the best way to go!)
With that in mind, suss out the cheapest destinations with quality language schools. For example, Antigua in Guatemala or Sucre in Bolivia both offer less expensive Spanish classes than Barcelona.
4. Stay with a host family
Living with a host family is an awesome way to complement your daily language classes with a bit of real-world practice.
Most of the time, you’ll be sharing meals and a living space with your host family, which means you’ll have ample opportunity to chat.
5. Teach yourself
Once you’ve finished your language course, you still need to keep studying to get the best results.
There are countless methods to improve your language skills, many of which can be a heck of a lot of fun. Choose whichever method you enjoy most to increase the likelihood of sticking with it.
As mentioned above, FluentU is a fantastic resource for learning through authentic cultural videos. If watching music videos, news reports and movie trailers appeals to you, FluentU is the way to go.
Bookworms could attempt to read a novel in their target language. Choose something you’ve read before that isn’t overly complex. The “Harry Potter” books fit the bill for fans of the series.
Music is a great way to sharpen those listening skills. Add the latest and greatest tunes to your preferred playlist and start studying the lyrics. As a bonus, you’ll impress your new local friends by showing off how “with it” you are.
Watching TV and movies is another enjoyable way to hone your skills. Netflix and other streaming services are ideal because you can watch with the audio in your target language and the subtitles in English. Sometimes subtitles are even available in the target language.
Finally, there are plenty of self-study apps and online programs to choose from in addition to FluentU. Check out some of the best here!
6. Choose your travel buddy wisely
Does your travel buddy speak your desired language?
If not, you may want to reconsider them as a partner and go it alone. Otherwise, you’ll end up speaking English the whole time, which would be an epic immersion fail.
Ideally, your travel buddy will be a native speaker. Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world, so it’s likely you’ll be traveling with a fellow language student. If you can find a travel buddy who is learning the same language you are, that would be convenient.
If that’s the case, make a “foreign language only” rule and stick to it in all but the most urgent situations. You’ll probably pick up a few grammar or pronunciation mistakes from them, but at least you’ll be able to practice every day.
7. Befriend the locals and/or find a new flame
Interacting with the locals is the best way to learn a language as you travel. The concept becomes particularly true when you form meaningful relationships rather than superficial interactions with vendors and hotel staff.
Make an effort to form friendships through mutual interests or apps such as Meetup. Even partying presents a good chance to study, because alcohol is fantastic at loosening the tongue. Just make sure to steer conversations with the foreign language at all times.
These days, most people look for romance through Tinder, which has become popular throughout the world. And dating provides a fantastic opportunity to learn a language one-on-one!
Of course, your new fling might not be too pleased you’ve hooked up to hone your language skills, so best keep that part on the down-low.
Be careful, though, because you might be tempted to stick around if you grow too attached to that special someone!
8. Avoid the tourist traps
The key to language immersion while traveling is to spend time with the locals. That means avoiding the tourist crowd as much as possible.
Obviously, you won’t want to miss out on any bucket list attractions just because there are other English speakers there.
Instead, look for ways to turn sightseeing into a mini-language lesson and refrain from visiting touristy restaurants, bars and hotels.
9. Volunteer or get a job
Travelers on long-term trips should look into doing a spot of work along the way.
For the best results, insist on a position where you won’t be speaking any English at all.
Working an intensive job with a constant need for communication is one of the quickest ways to boost your language skills.
As you can see, travel is an excellent opportunity to either learn a language from scratch or build on existing knowledge.
But it won’t just happen automatically—you need to put in a bit of effort.
Keep the above advice in mind, and you’ll be waxing lyrical with the local populace on your next overseas adventure in no time.
Harry is a South American-based freelance writer who covers travel, the arts and culture, among many other things.
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