Take Along Some Language When You Travel

(This is an updated version of a previously published post.)

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 some 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 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.

I’ve personally used Memrise and Duolingo, two of the 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 liked 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.


4 thoughts on “Take Along Some Language When You Travel

  1. Headed for Sicily in 2 days and I have been practicing my Italian with Duolingo. Thanks for the info on Memrise! I also like the Coffee Break language podcasts ( have used both French & Italian). They are short and fun and I believe the beginning seasons are always free.


    1. Knowing even a little language can make such a big difference in one’s experience in a different country. I never learned to speak French other than a couple of phrases, but I could read signs and such and it made such a difference when we were in France.

      Coffee Break gets great reviews!


      1. For me personally, it seems rude not to make the effort to learn at least a few basic phrases. I try not to reinforce the loud, inconsiderate, , and impatient American stereotype when i travel!


      2. Knowing a little of the language wherever one visits is a win- win for everyone. Think how important “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” are in English . . . and they’re equally important elsewhere. “Hello,” “good morning,” and other simple greetings too. It really doesn’t take a lot of effort, but the rewards can be immense.


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