Take Along Some Language When You Go

One of the most useful things you can take along when you travel outside your home country is some of the language that’s spoken wherever you’re going. Knowing even a little bit of the local language can go a long way, and shows that you’ve taken the time and effort to understand the people and culture at your destination, versus requiring local residents to know and speak your language, or wait while you stumble through a phrase book.

Language learning is a subject that is near and dear to my heart: I taught English as a foreign or second language for more than 20 years (and let me say right now that if English is your native language you should thank your lucky stars. It’s an incredibly difficult language for anyone to learn). My master’s thesis topic was on learning a second language as an adult, and the many factors that can specifically affect adult learners. I know that learning a new language is not the easiest thing to do, especially if you’re older or have a busy schedule or other obligations, but it can be done if you’re motivated.

There are boundless options for language learning these days, many for free, and include a myriad of on-line, self-directed courses where you can learn at your leisure.

I will say upfront though, if you have the time, the best language learning option is a classroom course. Language is communication, and in a classroom learners have the opportunity to practice live with both their instructor and fellow students, and receive immediate feedback on comprehension, pronunciation, grammar, and so forth, things usually not available from an online course (unless paid for). Language classes geared for travel are often available through the continuing education department in local community colleges at reasonable cost. Regular language courses at local colleges and universities are also an excellent way to learn another language, but require more time commitment and have a heavier focus on grammar, with little to no immediate concentrated emphasis on the language needed for travel.

Online language courses available these days can be sorted into four categories: algorithm (i.e. Duolingo, Memrise, Babel, etc.), textbook (Lonely Planet, various online language schools), formal language courses (Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, etc.), or ‘human learning’ (Conversation Exchange, etc.). All have different records of success, and need to be evaluated for the time commitment required for some degree of proficiency; how much engagement they provide; personalization; and overall effectiveness. Also, some of these are free, but others can be quite costly.

As there are no courses for the language I’m currently studying offered here on Kaua’i, I’m using Memrise, one of algorithmic options. Duolingo is more popular, but after some investigation I found that Memrise gets higher scores for effectiveness. Also, I have found the language used in Memrise’s lessons to be more authentic and practical. I initially tried them both, but quit using Duolingo when I was asked to translate the sentence, “The butterfly likes to eat chocolate,” something that is unlikely to be actually said by anyone, ever. I study for 10 minutes every day, followed by five minutes of reflection on what I learned and reviewed. I’ve found it to be a lot of fun, and best of all, I am remembering things!

The algorithmic method can be compared to using flash cards – vocabulary, phrases and sentences (simple grammar) are presented in a variety of ways, and if answered correctly the lesson moves forward, but if a mistake is made that word/phrase/sentence starts over, or is inserted more frequently into the lessons for repetition. One thing I especially like about Memrise is that a variety of native speakers appear throughout the lessons, using a normal rate of speech, versus my having to listen only to “teacher speech,” which is much slower, and not something you’re likely to encounter in the real world. This listening practice has been invaluable. I also like that the focus of the algorithmic method is primarily on vocabulary versus grammar, at least at the beginning. Again, language is communication, and while grammar is important, in my experience it’s usually initially better to try to communicate with the words you know rather than worry about being grammatically correct. With a solid amount of vocabulary, there’s a stronger chance of being understood as well as understanding what’s being said to you even if you don’t entirely grasp the grammar.

Before you can decide which method might be best for you, whether it’s online or in a classroom, algorithmic or more formal learning, you owe it to yourself to reflect on how you learn best, whether that’s through listening or visual reinforcement or active engagement. Are you good at memorization, or do you need frequent reminders and reinforcement? How much time do you have? All of these factors come into play when learning a new language, and need to be considered when choosing a method, or combination of methods, that are a good fit and will contribute to your success in learning a new language. Also, you need to be realistic about how long it takes to learn a particular language, even the basics. French, Spanish and Italian are going to be easier and faster to learn for English speakers than German, Vietnamese, Japanese or Arabic. The Foreign Service Institute’s language difficulty list shows the time required to reach mid-level proficiency in a variety of languages (and that’s when sitting in a classroom all day!).

No matter what the language though, a little effort learning the local language before traveling can pay off in big ways, and encourage a deeper understanding of the culture, as well as provide experiences that might otherwise be missed. It’s more than worth the effort to learn a little language before you go and try it out when traveling.







9 thoughts on “Take Along Some Language When You Go

  1. tpol1 says:

    I have been thinking of learning a new language too so, I will definitely give Memrise a shot. I have started learning English when I was 11. The first year we all attended a prep class with 28 hours of English every week. This was between 5th and 6th grades. Our homework assignments took more than 2-3 hours each night usually just writing words and sentences over and over again. As an adult, I do not have the time or the stamina to learn a language that way!


    • Laura says:

      Your classes sound like something the foreign service would offer here! Very intensive, but you were at a great age for learning a language and having it stick.

      I don’t have the stamina to learn that way either these days, which is one of the reasons I am enjoying Memrise. Just 10 minutes a day, and I am surprised by how much I am learning and remembering. Memrise has an amazing array of languages available to choose from!


    • Laura says:

      One of the great things about Memrise is that each language has different levels, based on your ability. You could either start at the beginning and move through different levels of German for review, or check out the different levels and find where you think is best to start a review.

      I took a year of German in high school, and can still say “hello,” “how are you,” I’m fine, thank you,” “I don’t understand,” and count to 12! I can actually say “I don’t understand” in several languages!


  2. Laurel says:

    I’ve been thinking about learning some basic Italian before our trip in October. The Memrise website is perfect. Thanks! (I’m horrible so far, but will keep at it.)


    • Laura says:

      Stick with it – it does get better! I felt the same way when I started both Portuguese and the language I’m learning now, but after a few weeks I was/am surprised by what I know, and what I can understand.


  3. Practical Parsimony says:

    I have studied Latin, Spanish, Greek, and Japanese. In my Tesol courses, we had to take a Swahili lesson. I love languages. In hs I thought the learning style was ridiculous. So, I concentrated on vocabulary. It works! You do not need tense and person to be understood. With some of the complexities I am perfect. Other times, I just look at the person with whom I am trying to communicate with a question on my face.

    Because of my Tesol classes, I can teach a person even if I do not know their language. When I applied to teach Spanish teaching students, the principal said I should speak perfect Spanish. NO!

    In order to exercise my brain and ward off memory loss/dementia, I am considering taking German at the local junior college. Well, either German or a very difficult math class. I was not aware of all the programs you mentioned. thanks for that.


    • Laura says:

      I love learning languages too!

      A kindred TESOLer!! When I was getting my degree we had to do third year of any language – I did Japanese. The methodology and I were a VERY poor fit, but that experience was the basis for my thesis – lemonade from lemons, so to speak.

      I always had at a minimum eight different native languages in my classes – my speaking any language fluently wouldn’t have helped in the least. Anyway, my classroom was always ‘English only,’ – it was my job to make sure they understood me, not that I understood them.

      The most important thing I learned though as a teacher was what a crazy, difficult, impossible language English is. It’s a difficult language to learn even for native speakers!

      I think either Memrise or Duolingo would compliment a classroom experience nicely – will be interested to read how your German-learning progresses!


  4. Practical Parsimony says:

    When I taught a Japanese woman and her daughter, I never even mentioned I knew a few words. When I asked the woman to turn the ac down in her home, I asked in English and said “hajemamatsu.” she was so excited I knew Japanese. She asked why I did not tell her. I told her she was there to practice/learn English, not for me to learn/practice Japanese.

    The husband ordered me to speak slowly so she could learn. I ignored him although I did speak slowly enough to be well understood. In a ten-minute period I said whattimeisit? several times. Finally, she had a look on her face that told me she understood. I explained that not everyone would slow down, nor should they. Of course, I do slow down when speaking to a person with English as L2.

    My Japanese was a native speaker, for which I was grateful. He was so helpful.


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