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Tips and Resources to Learn a Language before Departure

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Few areas of knowledge can create more meaningful travel experiences than shared language. Even the smallest courtesies spoken in a foreign language have the power to disarm and engage. However, starting a language from scratch or even brushing up on one that you may have learned in school can be a very daunting possibility. As a proud language geek and traveler, I have found many options that assist in the process. Here are some tips and resources to help learn some of the local language before you depart on your next trip.

Download Language Apps

There are many free and low-cost apps aimed at providing a base in a foreign language. I usually research and sample a few before I commit. You can also find dictionary apps (such as dict.cc), which can come in very handy if you’re trying to expand your vocabulary in a language in which you already have a year or two of learning instruction in your past. The latter are also great in a pinch when on the road and a key word slips your mind.

The most important elements of language apps are the vocabulary/phrases they teach and audio options. I consider numbers, food, time and common adjectives to be the most important. Unless you have an understanding of the language’s alphabet and pronunciation rules, audio is an indispensable component. For example, I downloaded the “Swahili Primer” app to get a start on the language. Given its categorized vocabulary and the button next to each word which cues a native speaker pronouncing the word, it’s an ideal app that I can pull up any time.

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YouTube

Before I relocated to Ethiopia last year, I felt a little lost in my attempts to learn some Amharic. The Semitic language has its own alphabet (a syllabary called fidel) and I felt that any books I looked in had different pronunciations for the same words and phrases. So I ventured to the land of cat videos and autotune: YouTube. The site ended up being an excellent resource, as I quickly found videos that stressed important phrases and vocabulary and took time to pronounce them slowly. I also came across an exchange between a travel blogger and an Ethiopian girl where he was asking her to translate words and phrases from English to Amharic, which was very useful (and entertaining). You may have to sift through a bit of junk in the process, but plenty of helpful videos exist in most languages.

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Language exchanges and Lessons via Skype

A language exchange used to consist of a pen pal in a seemingly distant land or a meeting at a café where you were usually wondering whether the person across from you would end up being a stalker. With Skype, the process of live language exchanges and lessons has become much simpler. A bevy of sites allow people seeking a language exchange to find each other – I have not used any myself, but a quick Google search is all you need to figure out the most popular ones. Native English speakers should find that their skills are in demand. Additionally, many language teachers offer private lessons via Skype. The overhead of a brick and mortar structure is eliminated and you can arrange the lesson at a time that suits your schedule depending on the relative time zones.

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Guidebooks

Quality guidebooks – whether paper or electronic – are typically written by travelers with extensive time in-country. As a result of their experience on the ground, they will have direct knowledge of which words and phrases are most essential. Often, these tools are grouped by situation and thus can prove important in the moment, especially concerning those unfortunate medical or police issues that can arise. If you do not have a lot of time, the language sections of guidebooks may be your best option – they don’t require an additional purchase and you can memorize whatever language you want to prioritize. Guidebooks may also offer suggestions as to further learning options, including recommended language schools in the destination.

Streaming TV and Radio

Many television and radio stations place their content on their websites – these streams are a gold mine for language lovers. You can watch news programs and series on demand on sites like Spain’s RTVE. And programs are available in slowly spoken or simplified versions, such as those on Radio France International and Germany’s Deutsche Welle. Many of these programs also allow the viewer to familiarize herself with relevant current events in the country at issue.

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Podcasts

I am an unabashed podcast freak and subscribe to many more than I would ever admit. Many of those podcasts are geared towards my learning or maintaining a language. National and regional broadcasters in Europe have made impressive efforts to teach and promote their languages through this medium and they’re a perfect accompaniment to an hour at the gym or even a morning commute. Want to start conversational French from the ground up? Subscribe to the Learn French by Podcast series. Hoping to improve your German before you board the plane? The daily Tagesschau podcast is fifteen minutes of news, sports and weather, with the lotto numbers thrown in at the end.

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Foreign Language Movies

This is my preferred way to work on a foreign language – why not get the pleasure of watching a film and pick up some skills in the process? You’ll get to hear the language as spoken in daily life, which is a very helpful for learning dialogue. If one of the characters orders a tea or a beer in a restaurant, you can replay the scene and practice with them. The movie will also incidentally serve as an excellent conversation piece once you have arrived, especially the more important films that may form part of national or regional identities.

Do you try to learn some of the local language before you travel? Why or why not? If you do, are there any resources other than the ones above that you would recommend?

{ 29 comments… add one }
  • shilpa balakrishnan November 14, 2014, 5:15 pm

    No matter how much I by-heart phrases and words before I travel. The pronunciations are way different from what the locals speak and what we pick up. So turns out, they don’t really understand what I’am saying inspite of me speaking their language. ha!
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    • Dave November 18, 2014, 11:45 am

      Ha – yeah, sometimes it can be a bit difficult. Things tend to gel for me after a few days on the road.

  • Veronika @ travelgeekery.com November 14, 2014, 5:32 pm

    Great base of language-learning resources..!

    I usually learn a few main phrases and keep them in a phone or printed somewhere.

    I’ve recently stumbled upon bliubliu (bliubliu.com), where you can read articles online based on your level of knowledge of a language.

    From other apps, I like those that can read and translate Chinese characters via smartphone camera (e.g. Pleco OCR, Waygo).
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    • Dave November 14, 2014, 6:53 pm

      Thanks, Veronika! I hadn’t heard of bliubliu, but that sounds like an excellent resource to add to the list. And those apps that can read and translate Chinese characters seem pretty remarkable.

  • Corinne November 15, 2014, 2:08 pm

    Dave, What a great list! I also love watching movies. I turn on the subtitles and have learned the weirdest words that way, which always impresses a person in the country I’m visiting. I think the truest part is just giving it a try!
    Corinne recently posted…Weekend Travel Inspiration – PhilippinesMy Profile

    • Dave November 18, 2014, 11:47 am

      Thank you, Corinne! Love the movies, maybe it’s the multitasker in me.

  • Jenn of Who Needs Maps November 16, 2014, 4:23 am

    I had the same issue when I went to China- it was incredibly hard to communicate with them especially in smaller cities. We found an app that translates things in Chinese AND we found there were hand signals for numbers they used for negotiating. So it was really helpful to learn that!

    • Dave November 18, 2014, 11:48 am

      Ah yes, hand signals! I had my Amharic tutor in Ethiopia show me those, they ended up being a big help in the day-to-day.

  • Vanessa November 17, 2014, 3:56 am

    An important thought to take for us travelers. A few phrases learned and and use when talking to a local is like a way to say to them that we greatly respect them. Nice post and great post!

    • Dave November 18, 2014, 11:49 am

      Thank you, Vanessa! I feel like it’s our duty as travelers to make the effort. And as an American I get a bit of extra credit, as it’s REALLY not expected.

  • Revati November 17, 2014, 5:23 pm

    Great tips. I use the Babel app and read a bit before I go to bed in the nights leading up to the trip. Just a couple of words really makes locals so much more friendlier!
    Revati recently posted…Comment on El Palauet Living Barcelona – Living the vibrant spirit by SusanMy Profile

    • Dave November 18, 2014, 11:50 am

      Thanks, Revati! I like the idea of reading before bed in the nights leading up to the trip, that’s a great way to fit in the learning.

  • David Ouellette November 17, 2014, 9:27 pm

    Love this post Dave! I come across far too many travelers who don’t even bother to learn the vital basics, like “Hello” or “thank you.” I admit though, in places like Asia or Africa where languages vary from country to country, it would be pretty easy to get mixed up!
    David Ouellette recently posted…Santa Marta, ColombiaMy Profile

    • Dave November 26, 2014, 6:27 pm

      It’s nice when the same phrases will work in a region. A few words in Swahili can help in a few East African countries.

  • Sumit Surai November 17, 2014, 10:04 pm

    We all know how important and helpful it can be if we know local languages while traveling. But you have taken it to another level with your research. Great list and surely will be trying it on my next trip.
    Sumit Surai recently posted…Tapovan Hills , Deoghar – Where Religion Meets AdventureMy Profile

  • Mark and Kate @vagrantsoftheworld November 17, 2014, 10:31 pm

    Big fan of the movies with subtitles, a good way to learn.
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  • Leah of The Mochilera Diaries November 17, 2014, 11:44 pm

    I really like Duolingo, a fantastic website/app for learning a variety of languages. It lets you practice writing, reading, listening and even a bit of speaking (by recording yourself and hearing it played back to you) and focuses a lot on proper grammar and whatnot. I love podcasts too since listening is usually my weakest area.
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  • Lisa Chavis November 18, 2014, 5:46 pm

    These are great tips and resources! We typically use Duolingo for a few weeks to brush up on the basics, then follow that with a few podcasts. Listening to the radio and watching movies also help quite a bit. Thanks for sharing!
    Lisa Chavis recently posted…Brown Sugar Bourbon Crock Pot Pulled ChickenMy Profile

  • Ale November 19, 2014, 11:15 am

    You perfectly summarize all the tools we have! A part of the most typical guide book, I’ve never tried the others (especially skype lessons), but your post has been very inspirational!
    Bravo!!!

  • Casey O'Connell November 20, 2014, 6:07 am

    Great post! I love what you said about how the smallest courtesies have the power to disarm and engage! So true! People tend to be friendlier and more willing to work with you if you have made an effort to speak their language! I do try to learn at least key phrases before traveling (please, thank you, excuse me, sorry, 1-10), and to do so I just listen to short youtube videos!

  • melody pittman November 20, 2014, 5:40 pm

    oh my gosh Dave, you are just too much. i barely get all the details worked out for mail, pet sitting, suitcase packed, etc. to go on a trip and you are brushing up on the local languages- LOL – and things like Swahili and Semitic language. You are definitely an over-achiever and very smart man. I am sure the native cultures you visit are so happy with your hard work to fit in with them, and I admire that. Kudos and thanks for the hints. I am just trying to learn easy Spanish and you are conquering the languages of the whole world.

  • Christine November 21, 2014, 9:20 am

    Very good tips here Dave! Learning a bit of the local language is huge. We had so many unique experiences because we were able to speak Spanish that we would not otherwise have been able to have! Heading to Southeast Asia is going to be another story. We’ll definitely have to do some learning!
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  • Margherita November 22, 2014, 2:24 am

    Excellent tips Dave. This is so true, learning a language can indeed help a lot, not only with logistics but also making meaningful connections on the road. I usually just wing it, but you’ve listed so many useful resources there, I might give them a go next time!
    Margherita recently posted…Athenstyle, our home in AthensMy Profile

  • Susan November 22, 2014, 4:39 am

    I am going to check out dict.cc! I find that one of the best way to help me refresh my Spanish before coming to Argentina was listening to Spanish music and trying to translate lyrics in my head!
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  • Cyra @ Gastronomic Nomad November 24, 2014, 12:49 pm

    Great post! I love using the app Duo Lingo on my phone to learn new languages. Italki is a really great website as well – you sign up and buy “Italki credits” then can use them to do either formal classes or informal conversation classes. The Italki credits you spend works out to anywhere between €3-8 per hour, depending on the teacher and you don’t have to commit to any period of time so you could just do a few basic lessons before you go. Learning the local language does enhance any travel experience.
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  • Nathalie Baudet November 25, 2014, 6:39 pm

    Great tips. I also find listening to music to be a great way to learn.
    In songs, the lyrics are often well articulated. Plus, it’s killing a bird with two stones.
    You learn the language and familiarize yourself with one aspect of the country’s culture at the same time.
    I was thinking about writing an article on the same topic for my blog. I’ll be sure to tell my readers to check out yours too.
    Find me on Twitter @NathalieBaudet

  • Hayley @Lovepuffin November 29, 2014, 3:50 pm

    Cheers Dave, will be bookmarking this and returning next year just before I head to India. I think learning just a few phrases of any language before you go is probably the most important thing you can do. No one likes a shouty Englishman (or woman)! Haha. :)
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  • Pola (Jetting Around) November 6, 2015, 2:59 am

    Some excellent tips here, Dave! My favorite would be movies (check) and videos (I recently found some great online teachers who offer free videos to their followers). I’m currently learning French, and I’ve gone from basic to intermediate within a few weeks, thanks to traveling in France and – especially – staying in touch with my French friends. The best and fastest way to learn a language, in my opinion, is by using it and learning useful phrases, as opposed to spending time memorizing conjugations. That works well especially for travel.
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