We’ve all been there. You’ve packed your bags, managed to arrive at the airport calm, collected and organised and even managed to remember to bring socks. You decide to go for a coffee on arrival and the likelihood is that one of two things happen. The first? You open your mouth to order, realise that you don’t know a single word of the language, attempt some mumbling and pointing and your server responds in perfect English. The second is that you attempt to order and get something rather different.
In both situations, you might wish you had spent a little more time practicing before you left, but never fear. There’s still plenty of time in-country to get your linguist on, even if you’ve never learned a second language (and sometimes doubt your ability to speak your first correctly!).
8 Tips for Learning a Language
1- Be realistic
You are not going to be able to hold a long conversation after a few days of cramming. However, you could certainly aim to order a meal in the target language. Set yourself a goal, not too challenging and not too easy, and see how you get on.
2- Speak at every opportunity
Speaking is the scary part, and as a language-learner I can confirm that there is never a specific time when you will feel ‘ready’ to speak. So just dive in! Even if you only manage a few words, it will help your confidence immensely. Say hello, ask how they are and ask them to teach you the next logical phrase in the conversation.
3- If you don’t know, ask!
Most people love to hear tourists trying to speak their language. I promise that any laughter will be with you, not at you, for the best part! If you don’t know how to order an orange juice, then ask your server if they can help you with the phrase. If you ask every person you interact with how to say one phrase, then you will be surprised how quickly you will pick up the relevant vocab!
4- Select your phrases carefully
It might be tempting to memorise the ‘useful phrases’ page in the guidebook but these are generic and might be of no use to you. You don’t need to know how to order a beer if you don’t like beer, for example.
Learn how to talk about your favourite food, your job or hobbies. Try to ask for recommendations of things to do. The locals know their city better than the guidebook, and if you’re putting in the effort to learn the language a little then you will be rewarded with some great tips!
5- Try a language app
Memrise and Duolingo are the big ones and have free versions. Even if you prefer to go old school and make a few flashcards for yourself, you will be surprised how much you can remember in those minutes sat on buses or trains, sitting with a coffee or waiting in a queue.
6- Listen to radio/TV
If you have access to radio or TV then keep them on whilst getting ready and see how many words you can detect. The speaking will be fast and intimidating but every little helps and you never know, you might impress yourself with your understanding. Every language has its own rhythm and this will help you to get used to it.
7- Mnemonics are your friend
Mnemonics are systems for aiding memory. If you haven’t learned a language before, then this is a great way to get started. For example; you are trying to learn the French formal phrase for ‘thank-you’, which is s’il vous plaît. Phonetically, if you want to remember how this phrase sounds, you might think of watching a seal (s’il) at play (plaît) and before you know it, you only need to remember vous and you’ve got it! You will find that attaching images or ideas to abstract phrases can go a long way, and it’s great to make your own. You will remember a lot more.
8- Write your shopping list in the language you are learning
This can be especially essential anyway in countries where the alphabet is different from English. I have never tried to distinguish between a pot of yoghurt and a pot of cream in Arabic, for example, but I imagine I would struggle! This can be a good tip for learning, but also practical as you will be able to ask for things you can’t find.
Have you ever used these techniques to learn a language on holiday? Will you use them the next time you travel? Let us know in the comments!
About the author: Sara works for Global Language Services, a Scotland-based translation and interpreting company. We are committed to providing efficient, accurate and professional services for all our clients. Get in touch today if we can be of any help!