Learning a New Language 101

Since being here, we have become pretty good with speaking Italian in a conversational way.  I feel like we are comfortable enough in our abilities that we haven’t had to use any type of translator or dictionary for a while now.  That wasn’t always the case, however, and traveling anywhere where they don’t speak your native language can be a little scary.

When we went to France and Switzerland, and now with our upcoming trip to Croatia, I have had to think fast when it comes to key phrases.  Below, I have a few tips on how to overcome a language barrier, just based on our experience.  I am always over prepared in most situations, but it turns out that that can be a handy personality trait when you are traveling Internationally.

1. Google Translate.  Have this as a backup but never count on this to be your only method of communication.  First of all, the WiFi and cell signal in Europe is touch and go, especially if your phone will be roaming.  Second of all, you never know when your phone will die.  (Well, I guess you know if you pay attention to the battery, but when I have a kid playing Clicky Sticky on guided access for an hour at a nice restaurant, I can count on my phone dying before we even get to dessert.)  Third, it is actually not super accurate.  There were so many times when I used Google Translate to figure out how to say something in Italian and it came up wrong, causing a lot of confusion.

2.  A Phrase Book and/or Dicitonary.  Ah the good old phrase book.  This is a must.  To make things quicker, bookmark pages that you would need to find in a hurry, such as phrases like “Where is the bathroom” or “Can I pay with a credit card?”.  A dictionary can come in handy as well, although it will take more time to look through the pages and most of the time you need to know how to conjugate verbs, adjectives, etc.  I was given a hand me down phrase book from a friend and found my dictionary at a local used book store, which cuts down on the cost significantly.


3.  DIY Phrase Book.  This is honestly what I use the most.  When we went to France, I compiled a one page list of every phrase I could think of that we would probably need to use while going about our regular business during the day.  I stuck it in my back pocket or jacket pocket and kept it there while we were out on the town.  Think of phrases involving “Where is the (hotel, bathroom, train station, taxi cab, restaurant, museum, etc.).” or paying for a service rendered.  Also, if you have any food allergies, make sure you figure out how to relay that to a waiter at dinner before you even get on the plane.  If you are concerned with how to say something, you can always ask a local, especially your hotel concierge.  Usually, people react really well when you are legitimately trying to communicate in the native language of the country in which you are traveling.


4.  Living Language, podcasts and DuoLingo.  If you will be in a country for an extended period of time and want to learn more of the basics, download an app onto your iPhone or iPad.  That way, you can even do some homework on the plane ride if you feel so inclined.  I downloaded the Living Language app onto my iPad and completed 2 of the 3 levels before we moved here.  I felt pretty confident in my ability to relay very basic commands and questions. It was a great starting off point to further my language skills once we were more emerged in the country.  If we had only been traveling here for fun, it would have definitely gotten me through.  I also have a podcast.  Duolingo is fun but was slow for me at times, so it depends on how you learn which method will work for you.  It is always nice to have a back up so if something goes wrong you can rely on your own inner wisdom instead of a phrase book or Google Translate.

Photo courtesy of Linguaholic.com. Click to be directed to Living Language Web site.

5.  Be creative.  Sometimes, hand gestures will do the trick.  Other times, piecing together different vocabulary words from a dictionary will work.  It is a live and learn type of scenario, but it is also what makes traveling fun.  Stepping out of your comfort zone is the reason why you wanted to go somewhere new in the first place, right?

What about you, what are your experiences traveling and learning another language?  Any tips or good language programs to be aware of?


2 thoughts on “Learning a New Language 101

  1. LOVE this post! I think the very best way to improve your language skills in a new country is to actually try to use the language as much as possible. There are usually plenty of people, especially younger people, eager to improve their English who are also willing to help you out as you try to use their language.

    1. THanks, Tracy! I know you just got done living in Mexico for a few weeks and submersing yourself in language too. Definitely speaking it is the best way, I totally agree. It takes a certain amount of self confidence to put yourself out there and start speaking but once you do it and are able to converse it is so thrilling!

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