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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?