How To Learn A Language When You Travel

Written by: Steph Dyson

Learn The Lingo On A Gap Year

For us native English speakers, we come to rely on the fact that the world dominance of our mother tongue means that we will be able to get by, wherever, whenever.

However, this misses the point: not only is learning a new language an excellent skill to add to your CV (yes, “proficiency in ordering beer in Chinese” is unlikely to get you an interview any time soon), but it can also widen your experiences of a country. Language means interactions, experiences and a different type of welcome that you otherwise wouldn’t receive.

So whether you want to say “kon’nichiwa”, “marhabaan” or “dos cervezas por favor”, try out some of my tips for learning a language when you’re travelling abroad and see what new doors, perspectives and friendships it can bring.

Discover Duolingo – the linguist’s friend

Duolingo logo

Before I left for my travels in South America, I discovered that 20 minutes per day ‘playing’ on the app Duolingo was one of the best ways for starting with a language.

Its 25 ‘levels’ – all structured to make the user feel like they’re playing a game rather than learning –  and courses in 13 languages mean that there is no excuse to travel without language basics.

Pick your starting country carefully

Learning a language in Antigua

When booking your flight out, do some research about the best – and cheapest – hubs for learning your chosen language. I stumbled upon Sucre in Bolivia, but many other South American travellers congregate in Antigua, Guatemala – another destination infamous for the cost-effectiveness of studying there.

Thinking about learning Mandarin to boost your career prospects or give your brain a mental workout? Not only is the county of Yangshuo in southern China’s Guangxi region a cheap destination to visit and study, but the cultural experience and incredible scenery will be something you never forget.

When you’ve committed to a location, give yourself the best chance by signing up to intensive classes – some travellers take as many as 6 hours per day. Make sure you cut back on drinking in the evenings – believe me, studying is always tough with a hangover – and do your homework. You’re not in school now and you’re the one paying, so make sure you get the most out of it.

Find a tandem partner

Learn a language when you travel

Most language schools offer this as part of the enrolment package, but getting yourself a language tandem partner is an invaluable way of practising what you’re studying in class.

Based upon the principle of a language ‘exchange’, the idea is that you meet with your partner and spend half the time speaking in one language, before switching to the other. Find a partner with whom you generally have shared interests to ensure that the meetings don’t fall by the wayside after the initial few sessions.

Personally, I’ve found that these interactions can make all the difference to the speed of your learning. More importantly, they can help to relieve that likely feeling of embarrassment when you first start speaking a new language which you need to overcome to see success.

If not offered by your school, finding a tandem can be as easy as getting chatting to a local in a bar, putting up posters in the local university buildings (often great for finding people with some English who are interested in improving), or investigating language exchange events.

Mundo Lingo is a company which operates in eleven countries in four different continents and runs exchange events every week, providing a chance to swap languages in a relaxed bar setting. Given there are rarely enough English speakers to meet demand, you’ll never be stuck for a partner.

Self-study is sexy

Learning a foreign language abroad

The more hours you put in to memorising conjugations, new vocabulary or how to ask for hot pot without dog meat, the better you will get, and fast.

For me I learn visually, and investing in the first Harry Potter novel in Spanish was one of my initial steps. If you’re not a big reader, make flashcards and test yourself – or find a friend to help out.

If speaking and listening is more your style, record yourself using your mobile and turn it into a language podcast that you listen to on boring eight hour bus journeys.

Another great suggestion is to download music in your chosen language, get hold of the words and sing along. Not only is this a fantastic strategy for cultural immersion (you might be surprised by the songs’ content) but you’ll get extra street cred with the locals.

Join a sports team or go to exercise classes

If there are any sports teams or weekly practice sessions in your city, go along and get involved. Not only is it brilliant for meeting potential tandem partners, but will help you learn different features of your new the language.

Exercise classes and sports games are fantastic for securing your understanding of the imperative (command words), particularly if you don’t mind getting shouted at in different languages!

Step out of tourist hubs – and your comfort zone

Crowds of tourists on the Great Wall of China

It’s easy to kid ourselves that taking classes every morning and then spending the rest of the day chatting away in English in your hostel is still going to result in quick language gains. Unfortunately, it won’t.

Pushing yourself to step outside of the tourist centres and into the local market or other places where you will be forced, through necessity, to use your new language is a more proven method of rapid language acquisition. It often took me a frustratingly amount of time to order lunch in a restaurant in the backstreets of Bolivia, but the exasperation was worth it long-term, and the food was always better than the English-speaking places!

Feeling adventurous? Visit a city where you know you won’t find anyone who speaks your language. Although definitely not for the faint-hearted, the most successful linguists are those who go out on a limb and find themselves richly rewarded.

Volunteer or work where English isn’t an option

Volunteering abroad to learn a language

Finally, the best way is to throw yourself in at the deep end. Complete immersion is a guaranteed approach for becoming fluent quickly, and also one of the most interesting.

Find yourself a volunteering placement combined with language learning in Russia or work with children in Costa Rica. Teaching English can be useful too – but you might spend more time speaking English than the language you’re trying to learn, so ensure you choose a place where this won’t be the case.

I’ve now spent a collective total of nine months volunteering in Bolivia and Peru and the daily necessity of interacting with local people has been the impetus I needed to advance in Spanish. I now deliver workshops to children entirely in my new language – a feat I could never have imagined a year ago, and one that proves that hard work, studying and feeling a bit silly when you speak does pay off.

However you choose to learn a new language, accept that the first month or two will probably be some of the toughest weeks of your life, but also the most rewarding. Travelling with the purpose of learning a language will not only enrich your day-to-day travel experiences, but mean you come home with a new skill, ready for your next worldly adventure or future job application.

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