12 Ways to Learn a Foreign Language While Traveling

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Ditch the classroom for a real-world adventure and learn a language along the way.

If you’re a traveler who doesn’t break out the phrasebook until you step on the airplane, you might touch down to find that getting your point across is harder than you thought. Going from hand gestures to cracking jokes takes time, work, and a bit of nerve, but the payoff is huge—and you can even fit in some of these language hacks in between museum trips and bar hopping.

Choose Carefully

Before you dive into flash-cards and conjugations, remember that some languages take far more work for English speakers to learn than others. The U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI) groups languages into categories, from the relatively easy Category I to the tongue-twisters in Category IV.

If you’re fantasizing about ordering a cappuccino in Italian or chatting up cute Swedes on the ski lift, you’re looking at 24 weeks of intensive classroom work to learn a Category I language. For language learners whose tastes run more to piping-hot bibimbap in Seoul or joining a tai chi session in Beijing, there’s a bit more work to do. The FSI estimates that picking up Category IV Korean or Cantonese can mean a full 88 weeks in the classroom.

Start Now

While the hours required to learn a language can be daunting, those numbers just show that the longer you work on it, the better your results. Even if your foreign trip is months out, it’s worth getting a jump on vocab. And though staying focused on learning a language can seem like a challenge when the payoff is months away, it’s just another way to build some travel anticipation.

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Develop an Adjective Addiction

Beating the next level on Candy Crush isn’t the only thing to keep you glued to a screen. Language-learning apps such as Duolingo, Memrise, and Quizlet manage to gamify the process of picking up nouns and conjugating verbs by handing out points and pixelated prizes. And since it’s educational, you can enjoy a virtuous glow while playing on your phone.

Stay Relevant

If you’re working on picking up a foreign language on the road, all-purpose beginning grammar lessons might not fit your needs—this is not the time to buy a textbook and start at chapter one.

For the specialized needs of a traveler, get picky with your topics of choice: try memorizing the vocab you’ll need to check into a hotel, buy snacks at the local market, find a great hiking trail, and chat someone up at the bar. Taking the time to memorize words you need means instant gratification when they buy your way into an interaction (or clean towels).

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Find a Quest

Start each day with a language mission to complete. If you’re a beginner, memorize a phrase or two that you can use in the market or at a restaurant, then see how far you can get. (Coming up with a simple question or a friendly compliment is a great way to engage.)

For more advanced language learners, challenge yourself to go beyond the basics and dive into a real conversation. While full-blown convos can be intimidating, you can always count on your beginner status as a way to leverage some sympathy.

INSIDER TIPIf you’re making the jump from hand gestures to dialogue, be sure to memorize this one: “I don’t understand, could you please say that more slowly?”

Let It Go

Learning a foreign language means looking silly in public—repeatedly. Whether you’re trying to decode a sign, order a meal, or ask directions, you might find yourself at a loss for words. Learn to embrace the faltering process of doing your best and muddling through; even if you get some laughs, you’ll earn respect along the way.

Make It Your Job

With so much to see on the road, it’s easy to let language practice go by the wayside. If you’re serious about picking up some skills, set aside a fixed period for studying every single day that you’re traveling. The most effective way to learn is to combine reading, listening, speaking, and vocab memorization, so there’s no need for your study session to be boring. Try something different every day of the week.

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Queue Up Your Netflix

Language is a multi-sensory experience. Even if you’re just lounging on a hostel bed, watching a show in a foreign language can be a great way to absorb accents and gestures—and unlike real life, you can rewind if you miss something. For beginning language learners, watch with English subtitles, then graduate into watching a show using subtitles in the language you’re learning; reading along helps you decode the dialogue.

Reading List

If you’re at an intermediate level, reading can be a great way to add vocab, and with lots of basic verbs and nouns, action-driven novels work particularly well. Try simple detective stories, graphic novels, and the trashiest romance fiction you can get your hands on, avoiding literary books with complicated vocab at all costs.

INSIDER TIPUsing an e-reader works even better since most have a built-in dictionary function.

Learn to Listen

Ace language learners spend more time listening than talking. When you’re out and about, tune in to what’s going on around you. If you hear a turn of phrase you don’t understand, write it down—after you figure out what it means, you can try to work it into your next conversation.

Find a Friend

Nothing beats the chance to practice what you’ve learned with a local. When you’re cooling your heels in town for a day or two, search for a conversation partner. Try using networks like Couchsurfing or Meetup to find someone who’d like to swap a few of their language skills for help in your own native language.

Have a Vacation Fling

Do we even need to tell you this one? Nothing adds to the thrill of an overseas journey like a bit of romance—and there’s no language-learning motivation like the need to find sweet nothings to murmur to your newfound squeeze. While we like the old-fashioned approach of in-person intros, there’s plenty of tech to help you with this one, too: Tinder Passport lets you change your location when you touch down, and Flip the Trip is custom-made for finding company abroad.