Language Learning for Travelers

For the casual traveller, especially one from the linguistically isolated United States, learning other languages fluently is usually not necessary. A two week vacation to Italy will be met at every stage with English-speaking touts, hotel owners, waiters, and ticket sellers. In fact, nearly all major tourist areas in the world will have a high number of English-speakers working in the tourism industry — even in countries like Syria, where visits by native English speakers aren’t as common. That’s because English has become the de facto language of travelers, the one common language known by young, affluent people throughout most of the world.

Good and Lost, though, is not written for casual travelers. For the lifestyle traveler, who’s interested in talking with people not trying to sell something, and who’s also interested in getting off the beaten path to areas where English will not be nearly as common, becoming multilingual is a necessity. But where to start? Learning a new language is no easy task, and underestimating the difficulty involved may well lead to giving up early. After rather ineffectively picking up a few words in Italian, French, Turkish, and Arabic, I decided to systemize my approach to language learning.

Levels of Mastery

The first thing to do is predict the amount of fluency you want to achieve in any given language. If you’re going to be living stably in a given area for a long time, fluency in the local language would be a good idea; if you’re only passing through, a basic knowledge will do. I change my approach to learning depending on what I’m looking for, according to the following categories:

  • Mastery. As I tend to move around a lot and not settle down to often, I choose my “fluency-desired” languages based on how widespread use of that language is. For fluency, practice is required while not in the speaking area of choice, which includes reading books in that language and finding conversation partners online. More on this shortly.
  • Basic Conversation. Basic conversation is for when you’re only going to be a country for a relatively short period of time, but when you also plan to be getting away from the main tourist locations. For this, I learn a basic vocabulary, tailored to my own life (for instance, words about my profession, interests, family, etc., as well as useful conversational questions), before I enter the country. Then, I focus on picking up more vocabulary and syntax as I travel. It’s important for this reason to always keep a notebook close at hand. I use one as a wallet.
  • Navigation. This is just a list of perhaps 20-40 vocabulary words that can be used to get around. Basic numbers, “right” and “left,” “where is,” and such necessities as “hotel,” “toilet,” and “bus station.” There are a number of pages online that give vocabulary guides to specific languages, and the CoolGorilla line of iPhone language apps are great for this.
  • Courtesy. This is for when you’re going to be traveling in an area where the vast majority of the population speaks a language you’re already familiar with, like many parts of India. Learning language at this level is solely for the purpose of making friends with local people, by showing respect through taking the time to learn a few useful words. This works especially well where speakers of a local language are in the minority. Knowing a few words of Kurdish in eastern Turkey, for example, sparked a number of interesting conversations. I suspect other languages like Basque, Romani, or Gaelic would be useful in similar ways.

The vast majority of your time will be spent achieving fluency; it’s possible to achieve basic conversation (“me writer, my name Tim, you?”) after only a week or so of reasonably devoted study, while it months to achieve any kind of fluency, especially if you’re not living in a country that speaks that language on a widespread basis.

Achieving Fluency

Philosophies differ on the best approach to learning a new language. I’ve heard a number of people sing the praises of packaged programs like Rosetta Stone, and of course taking classes will always help (find one taught by a native speaker, preferably one who has a good understanding of how language works). If you’re poor and not geographically stable, though, you may want another solution.

In my experience, the most useful thing you can do is to start looking for people to practice language with, first by email (giving you time to compose and translate your messages), and then by instant messaging and voice chat. My Language Exchange is an excellent resource and can be either free or very cheap, depending on how you use it. My advice is to get several conversation partners for any given language, as that will give you one or two letters a day to work on, and will force you to keep up with your language (apathy can be a problem if you’re teaching yourself and not taking a class).

All of those letters will be useless, however, if you can’t remember what you learn from them. For this, I suggest either making flash cards by hand, or, my personal preference, using a computer-based system. By far the best I’ve found is Anki, which includes a system of quizzing you most on new cards and cards you have trouble with, allows you to create your own cards, and also lets you download several deck made by other users from a common database. My personal method is to have one deck of flashcard for each language I’m practicing. When I run across a new word in my conversations, I enter it into my flashcard database. Within a week, that word has become part of my vocabulary more or less permanently.

Because I live in rural Montana at the moment, chances for one-on-one interaction with speakers of most languages is almost nil outside of online correspondence. This can be a problem when it comes to pronunciation, especially with difficult (in terms of pronunciation) languages like French, Chinese, or Arabic. A good way to get around this is to simulate immersion, by downloading films in your language of choice. A quick google search will generally turn up a number of good options in any of the major languages. Another method is to use Kató Lomb’s method and read literature in your language, and supplement that with an audiobook that lets you hear pronunciation by a native speaker. And finally, while not quite as reliable, Google Translate‘s newest iteration has a feature that will read you a given phrase out loud, which at least gives you the basics of pronunciation (equivalent to what you’d get by a decent voice synth in English).

It’s also useful, especially if you plan to learn (or partially learn) a wide range of languages, to pick up the basics of linguistics. I began studying linguistics as a hobby a couple of years back, and was surprised at how much it improved my ability to learn. Linguistics helps you understand even in the very early exchanges of learning a language at a bus stop (I’ve had this experience in cafes in Georgia, as well as bus stops in Turkey) exactly which words work in what ways. It also helps you understand elements of language that aren’t used in English, like the multisyllabic word modifiers used in Turkish or Georgian, the three letter roots used in Arabic and Hebrew, and the case-modified clauses of Russian or Greek. The sense of history and heritage you gain in understanding the connections between languages and cultures is well worth it in itself.

Finally, check out the wide range of “language hacking” methods available on blogs across the internet. One of my favorites is Benny the Irish polyglot, who has truly perfected the art of picking up new languages.

What to Learn

If you’re going to spend a lot of time (and possibly money) in gaining fluency, it’s a good idea to choose well from the outset. As I said in the first paragraph, English is by far the most useful language for travelers to know, but since you’re reading this article I’ll assume you already know it.

The next step is to determine which languages are going to be spoken most widely in the regions you plan to spend a lot of time in. For the more nomadic travelers (like myself) that could cover a lot of ground. A key realization is that language use shouldn’t be measured in population, but in geographic area. You’re going to need to know the local dialects as much (probably much more) in rural areas as in cities. Here are a few of the big ones.

Spanish, Portuguese


Spanish and Portuguese are fairly similar (as is Italian), so fluency in one will translate well to learning the others. Spanish will get you through most of central and South America, as well as Spain and parts of Northern Africa (like the separatist Moroccan region of Western Sahara). Spanish is also the second language of Brazil.

Portuguese will get you through Brazil, Venezuela, and Portugal, as well as Macau, Angola, and Mozambique.

French

French is spoken widely as a second language in Europe, especially in regions bordering France, and is a common language to encounter when talking with other travelers. In addition, you’ll find it spoken in eastern Canada, much of northwestern Africa (like Niger and Cameroon), Haiti, and Belgium. French also has the dubious benefit of being the language of a relatively recent colonial empire, which means you’ll also find French speakers in places like Syria, Egypt, and Madagascar.

German

German will be useful throughout northern and eastern Europe, as well as in former German colonies in southern Africa like Namibia and Burundi. This is another major language of fellow travelers, and is useful for that reason in its own right. It’s also widely spoken in Turkey.

Russian

While much harder to learn than any of the above languages, Russian allows you to travel over an extremely wide swath of northern and central Asia and eastern Europe, where (unlike Europe) there are often very few English speakers, even in the tourism trades. In any part of the former USSR, older people will be able to speak Russian — just make sure to clarify up front that you’re not actually Russian, in those cases (like much of Georgia) where the separation from Russia wasn’t a friendly one.

Beyond the simple fact of widespread Russian, the Cyrillic alphabet is particularly useful, as many other European languages, like Serbian and Mongolian, use it. Cyrillic is fairly easy to learn for users of the Latin alphabet.

Arabic


Another difficult but widespread language, Arabic will get you through the entire middle east as well as nearly all of northern Africa and much of Africa’s eastern seaboard. In addition, Arabic is the sacred language of Islam, and so many devout Muslims throughout the world will know at least some Arabic. The Arabic alphabet is very difficult for those who don’t also know some of the language, as many vowel sounds are left out. Still, it’s at least useful to learn how to recognize city names in Arabic script. Note that many Arabic countries use the eastern Arabic numeral system, which functions identically to the one used in English (which actually came from Arabic originally), so it’s useful to learn.

Chinese

Chinese has the highest number of speakers by population, and (from what I hear) can be very difficult for westerners to learn, based on the Chinese usage of tonal inflection to modify meaning. It is, however, spoken over a wide area and has a rich cultural history. In addition, the basic written character set is also widely used in Japan (Kanji), though the spoken languages are very distinct.

Hindi, Bengali

Due to India’s staggering linguistic diversity, English is very widely spoken as a common language. However, Hindi and Bengali are still widely used, and the Devanagari script is a widely useful one. For more reasons to learn Hindi, check out this great article by my friend Shreya Sanghani, writing over at Matador Travel.

Malay

If you’re going to be traveling a lot throughout Indonesia the south Pacific, Malay will be useful. Note, though, that if you’re American, your stay in Indonesia is limited at any given time to a month, so seek fluency in Malay if you’re going to be spend rather more time there than that.

Have you learned another language? How did you go about it? How long did it take? How useful was it? Answer in the comments!

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  • http://, Sarah S

    this is my first visit and I just wanted to stop by and say HI

  • kyle m.

    GREAT post. I’m gearing up for French immersion and euro-travels, and found your post very useful.

  • tsraveling

    Hey Kyle! Where are you going to be doing French immersion?

  • http://www.piercedheartsandtruelove.com Kat

    Do you have any resources you’d recommend for starting to learn the basics of linguistics? As a language lover who’s planning long-term travel, I really like that idea.

    Thanks for the helpful post!

  • tsraveling

    Hi Kat,

    One of my favorite resources for linguistics, which also happens to be free, is iTunes U. You can download a bunch of lectures for linguistics courses of varying depths, in video or audio format, and just go through them like you would a normal course (and buy the accompanying books, if you’re really devoted).

    For individual language structure, to be honest, Wikipedia is actually a great resource. I don’t know who does the various language overview pages, but nearly all of the ones I’ve seen have been great. For a good overview of various writing systems, check out “Writing Systems of the World”, by Akira Nakanishi.

    Once you start getting into technical territory, it’s all academic works and therefore a bit pricey, especially for those of us with no JSTOR subscriptions. However, once I’m more stable (ha!) I’ll be checking used bookstores, ABEbooks, etc., for textbooks as well.