6 ways to boost your language skills for travel

You don’t need to be fluent in a foreign language to get by while travelling. A few words in the local language can go a long way and often greatly enhance your experience. It doesn’t even have to be the local language: in Bruges we stayed in a B&B run by a lovely lady who spent much of her life in Italy. Since her Italian was better than her English, and our Italian was better than our Dutch, that’s what we used!

Here are some tips and resources to help you improve your language skills for travel.

1. Know the alphabet

Languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet can be particularly intimidating for people whose first language is English. The good news is that these languages often use a lot of English words which are revealed if you understand the alphabet. Two particularly good examples of this are Japanese katakana (used specifically for non-Japanese words) and Russian Cyrillic.

2. Use phrase books

As far as phrase books go, I’m personally a big fan of Lonely Planet. The multi-language ones are handy on long trips where you don’t want to carry a lot of books, and I find the dedicated single language ones feature an impressive vocabulary compared to the other options available. I also think the pronunciation guides are pretty good. Even if you just can’t get your tongue around pronunciation phrase books have other uses. You can use them to write up complicated requests (eg complicated train ticket requests) or even just to point at phrases (eg when you’re lost and too flustered to attempt speech).

On this POINT (hoho), you can also get phrase books which contain pictures instead of words, where you can point at a universally recognisable image of what you’re trying to find or ask about.

In this age of smart phones you can also download both paid and free phrase book apps which are useful because you can listen to the correct pronunciation, although I find even the paid Lonely Planet phrase book apps don’t have as good a vocab as the printed books. And you don’t always have to pay for a printed guide!

3. Write your own phrase book

I credit this brilliant idea to Tim Patterson at Matador. Buy a little notebook and use it to record the words and phrases you find most useful on your travels, whether you copy them from a dictionary/phrasebook or write down your own phonetic representations of something someone has taught you.

The words I consistently find to be most useful are (not necessarily in order of importance):

Thank you
It’s/that’s okay
Do you speak English?
I do/don’t speak …
Only a bit/little
I don’t understand
Excuse me (for attention)
I’d like …
That/this one
(It’s) delicious!
The bill
Do you have …?
How much is it?
That’s too much
Can you write down the price?
The number of people in your group (eg “2” – so you can order the right number of tickets, drinks, etc!)

4. Learn by listening

There are oodles of different audio programs to help you learn or develop your language skills. Two that I’ve found helpful have been Penton Overseas’ Learn In Your Car and McGraw-Hill’s Language on the Move. I particularly like Learn In Your Car because it cuts to the chase and helps you build up your vocabulary.

If you want to save money the Radio Lingua Network offers a fantastic free series of “One Minute” language podcasts designed to teach you the essentials of a language in 10x 1 minute lessons. You can download them from their website or via the iTunes store. They also offer several “Coffee Break” and “My Daily Phrase” series which will teach you more, also for free.

5. Get addicted

What if you want more than a few key words and phrases? Here are two options which, as cheesy as it sounds, can be so fun you end up learning without even realising it!

Rosetta Stone: A very natural way of learning by pictures with no English translations. They offer a very impressive range of languages but it’s a bit of an expensive option – worthwhile investing if you’re dedicated to the cause. You can test the software on their website to see if you like it.

Babbel: A website-based system which focuses on repetition. If you choose the written (rather than spoken option which requires a microphone) you become very conscious of the words by having to remember how to spell them. Cheaper than Rosetta stone but fewer language options. This link gives you a free week to try it out. You can download iPhone apps which offer free vocab as well as access to the paid lessons.

6. The part you don’t want to hear

It doesn’t matter how hard you study, if you can’t bring yourself to speak out loud you’ll be missing out on the most beneficial, practical lessons of all.

It does take courage: what if I say the wrong thing? What if I sound stupid? What if I get laughed at? The first time I went to Italy I wanted to make use of all those school years I spent learning Italian but I was so petrified of making a mistake (because I felt should have known enough not to make mistakes) that I barely said a word. On that trip we went to Florence, Pisa and Venice where everyone we met spoke English anyway, but I didn’t want to use English because I was supposed to know how to speak Italian!

The thing is, you just have to have a go. You might be corrected, you might get things wrong, but most of the time your effort will really be appreciated. (Except perhaps in Denmark?) This is particularly important if you do want to become fluent, because no matter how much you learn on your own you will have to put it into practice at some point. Of course there are uses for languages where you don’t need to speak them (eg watching a foreign language film, reading a book in another language) but most languages are meant to be spoken.

When I went back to Italy a couple of years later I forced myself to use as much Italian as I could. Even when the reply came in English it showed I’d been understood and I forged ahead, rewarded with a feeling of triumphant success.