Language Tips for International Travel

When traveling internationally, I think of it as using good manners to learn at least a little bit of the language. You don’t need to be fluent, but knowing a few common words and phrases can get you a long way. When you don’t know the words for what you want to say and the other person doesn’t speak English, gestures and Google Translate can help you out.

Think about times when you may have been frustrated because a foreigner didn’t speak English and they were in the United States, and then don’t do that yourself when you go to other countries.  Below, I’ll outline my tips for learning the basics.

What to Learn First

If you just want to know some basic words and phrases for your trip but aren’t interested in becoming conversational, here are my recommendations for what to learn first:

  • thank you
  • excuse me
  • sorry
  • please
  • numbers to 20, up to 100 if possible
  • this / that
  • yes
  • no
  • hello
  • goodbye

If you’re going to a popular tourist destination, most signs are going to have English translations and most people working in the tourism industry will know enough English to get their job done. Just try to use a little bit of their language to be polite.

If you’re going to a place that doesn’t use the Latin alphabet that English uses, it can be helpful to learn to read a little bit of it. This really depends on the length and purpose of your trip and the writing system that your destination uses.

For example, let’s compare three Asian languages. While Korean looks confusing at first, it’s completely possible to learn to read in a day (I learned to read it one day when I was feeling particularly nerdy, and if I can, then you can). On the other hand, something like Chinese that uses characters is much more complicated to learn, but it’s useful to learn some basics, such as restroom. Japanese uses a combination of hiragana, katakana (Japanese syllabary, similar to letters but not quite the same) and Chinese characters called kanji. Before I went, I learned to read hiragana and katakana, and it proved useful several times, but it was definitely a project that someone who isn’t interested in languages may not want to get into.

Before you go, download an app that will work offline so you can translate things even if you don’t have phone service. Google translate will allow you to download languages to be available offline.

Study Tips for Language Learning

These tips are for people who just want to learn what is necessary for a trip. If you want to learn the language to a higher degree, these tips can help you with the basics, but a different approach would be better. Message me and I’ll give you different advice if that’s what you’re interested in.

  • Learn new words by listening to them. This will reduce your accent and make you more understandable.
  • Find a routine to stick to.  Just a few minutes per day should be enough to master basic travel vocab.
  • Say the words aloud when you study. This will also reduce your accent.
  • Prioritize what will be most useful for your trip – think very practical words.
  • Learn a few things well rather than trying to take on so much that you can’t remember the words when it comes time to use them.
  • Study with a variety of sources to hear different people saying the words and to become a little more flexible with your phrases.
  • Be aware of your own learning style, your purposes for learning the language, and what you want to get out of it.
  • Remember that the way a letter sounds in English isn’t necessarily the way it sounds in another language (particularly vowels and r).

Resources for Language Learning

As I said before, always listen to new words. Below are some of my favorite resources; just choose one or two to learn the basics for a trip. The top four are probably the most useful for someone who wants to learn a little bit for travel. Most are free (usually with extra content that you can pay for), so I’ll mention if the resource isn’t free.

  • Language Pod 101: podcasts, videos, and more – choose survival travel phrases
  • Memrise: a flashcard app and site that has many pre-made decks you can use
  • Verbling: buy private language lessons – practice survival phrases with a native speaker before leaving for your trip
  • italki: similar to Verbling, italki has both language teachers and community tutors who aren’t certified teachers and are therefore cheaper, and also is good for connecting with language exchange partners who will teach you their language in exchange for help with yours
  • Coffee Break Languages: podcasts that are especially good if you want to go beyond travel phrases and get a little more into a language
  • Duolingo: an app loved by many that’s a great resource for getting the basics – This is best used as a supplement for someone who is studying a language beyond just travel phrases, so it has a lot of things that won’t be completely useful for your purposes.
  • Busuu: similar to Duolingo – a good way to learn the basics
  • HelloTalk: an app to meet language learners who want to have a language exchange (primarily texting through the app) – better if you want to get to a conversational level
  • Speaky: very similar to HelloTalk
  • YouTube channels: search for specific things that you want to learn, such as “numbers in Spanish” or “greetings in French” and you’ll get tons of results
  • Other Podcasts: I mentioned a couple of bigger podcast companies that include many languages, but there are many more out there. Try searching in the podcast app for the language you want to learn.

The limits of my language are the limits of my world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

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