Using the local language to enhance your experience
Welcome, aspiring polyglot! One of the reasons many people become interested in studying languages is travel. When you travel, especially internationally, you will probably find that the inability to communicate is frustrating and that is exactly why you should dive into language learning.
While there are many approaches, especially as you are getting started, there are some strategies that can help you get into the swing of things faster. Whether it's directing focus at specific areas of linguistic mastery or focusing on making friends and fumbling through conversations as you refine your abilities, it is important to focus on that which moves the needle most for you.
Our experience learning languages for travel
Learning a language when traveling is something many people assume will just happen. Unfortunately, most of the time that is not the case. While it may be anecdotal, there are many cases of people who live in a country where their target language is spoken without ever developing the skills to speak it.
Whether over the course of several months or several decades, if you do not take an interest in learning the language or make an effort to improve your language skills you will end up unable to adequately communicate indefinitely.
It's only immersion if you immerse yourself. One of the best ways to do that is by making friends. With that in mind, there are several ways you can go about making friends.
1. Get into sports
An internationally undiscovered gem many could benefit from is the ability to play on local sports teams. Fortunately, it is not necessary to be fluent in a foreign language in order to play the sport with the locals. More importantly, you will be surrounding yourself with native speakers and working towards fluency all while getting to spend time with like minded individuals. You will learn and use basic phrases, you will get to experience local customs, and you will learn your target language by hearing those who speak it as a native tongue.
Something people miss with this is that just because you start with one sport does not mean that you have to stick with that sport permanently. Every sport you participate in is a new place to make new friends while learning a new language. It is also possible that you end up running into multiple languages to learn and, while you won't become fluent over night, you will have a group of people with whom you can reliably and consistently practice.
However, sports aren't for everyone and for many people the prospect of picking up a new sport, let alone while learning a language, is not very appealing. If that sounds like you, there are other ways to ensure you get some authentic cultural experience.
2. Traveling while traveling
Often overlooked is the prospect of traveling around the place where you are visiting, staying, or living. Every country is rich in culture and history and exploring these things is the perfect way to add more input into your day to day life while you are traveling. Most people end up in tourist traps and the tourism industry is heavily dependent on people who are not fluent in the local language. Researching some of the history and culture in your now local country is worthwhile and making the time to go and visit them will always pay off.
Irrespective of what the local spoken language is, there will be people who are more than happy to tell you about the local cultures and traditions. Hearing the spoken language is going to be hugely important in the language learning journey. What you will find as you do this is that you will be running into more and more challenging language, More importantly, though you will be encountering important language and the vocabulary you come across will be directly useful.
If you are traveling around Latin America, you can dive into all the history and cultural differences all across central and south America. You will learn things that are common in south America are unheard of in central America. The cultural differences, the unknown minority language, the intricacies of the Spanish language, and even that language's vast geographic reach. Not only that, but you may even begin to recognize all of the subtle differences between Spain Spanish and Latin America Spanish.
While you can certainly add in a luxury travel destination here and there, the vast majority of the time you will learn more and have a more enriching experience when you avoid mainstream travel itineraries. The best part about dedicating time to learning foreign languages is that the locals will want to help you if you make an effort and it does not take much.
Because English is a widely spoken language, English speakers tend to default out of their target language whenever things get difficult. Fight this urge and remember that every time you win that battle the next fight will be easier.
3. Getting people to come to you
Let's say you don't want to go out and discover new things in a new language. There are ways to get people to approach you and start speaking to you. However, it does not exempt you from the necessity of putting yourself out there and being willing to make mistakes. Since we are already discussing Spanish speakers, we will continue with the central and south America examples. Considering Spanish is a great language to learn as a second language, here are some ways to get people to approach you if you are living or visiting Latin America.
Carry a soccer ball
When living in Costa Rica, if you spend time near a soccer field, with a soccer ball, you will have no trouble making new friends. Though sports were already discussed, this is a way to attract people to you rather than joining a team. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. On one hand, with a team you will likely be able to start speaking English when you truly are unable to understand something being said.
This is not the case in a general pick up game. In all likelihood, when you are hanging out with most natives, you will not be able to speak English. This is a good thing, as native English speakers tend to rely heavily on the ability to default out when necessary. Suffering through slow communication is a rite of passage and it will make you appreciate your progress all the more.
On the other hand, you will likely find people who are more willing to help you with your language learning. When people go to their predetermined, prescheduled practice they probably assume they are going to go, practice, and leave. Many people prefer just to go, do what they came to do, and leave, without running into extra surprises.
When people approach you and strike up conversations without being provoked, they are far more likely to be willing to take the time to struggle through communication barriers with you. While this is far from guaranteed, it is something that, anecdotally, has been a pattern prevalent enough to take note of and it is worth taking into consideration.
Take your headphones out
A challenge many people run into when trying to meet people is setting themselves up for success. If you go around with headphones in all the time, not only do you put yourself at risk, you close yourself off to meeting new people. You also cut off many of the opportunities you would normally have to speak the new language. The same goes even in your home country. When you have headphones in you miss hearing when people are speaking other languages around you. Sometimes eavesdropping on conversations where your target language is being spoken is the perfect way to get some input.
Once your headphones are out the next thing to do is start getting in tune with the world around you. Listen to the things people say, see which words you can pick out and try to understand the other words based on the context. Read the signs on the buildings and pay attention to the words you hear being widely spoken.
Hearing the way people use their native language from day to day will help you when it comes time to speaking and understanding what people are saying to you. When you hear a word or use a word often enough you suddenly no longer need to think to recall it. That is the point of repetition in studying.
Try new things
At times it can be easy to get comfortable with the things we do every day for years on end. The times you spend traveling are the times you should fight against this urge the most. Trying new things while you learn a new language is something most people will never get to experience, but it can change how you view yourself and potentially provide you with a new hobby.
Some things to try with low barriers to entry include:
Get outdoors and go explore the the place you're staying. Learn the names of the plants and the animals and how they interact. Try to understand how the climate sustains and all the pieces that are involved in maintaining the natural beauty.
- Rock climbing
You don't have to start by scaling El Capitan, there are gyms everywhere with people who are just hanging out, climbing walls, and falling onto mats. While this tends to be a bit more expensive than hiking, you will find friendly people with a common interest here. Often that is all you need to begin excelling in your language acquisition.
When I first started with archery I had no idea what was going on, but the people there were so passionate about their hobby that they took the time to explain everything slowly and in broken English through my broken French. People love to talk about the things they enjoy, putting yourself into places where people are having fun, then trying to join them and share in their interest will net you many friends and you may just find a new activity to work into your life. Most importantly, though, you will get return visit requests.
When are you coming back?
A pleasure of traveling is being asked when you plan to return. If that is something you want, there are some things you need to keep in mind. This is far from an exhaustive list, but if you do these things you will be setting yourself up for success.
- Be useful
As a guest in a country where you do not speak the local language, the ability to recognize where you can be useful is something simple that will set you apart from others. It is not difficult to find the negative things that people often have to say about expats and the passport bro community. It is not difficult to stand out and be better than the average. But being better than average is not the goal. By going out of your way to be useful, in whatever way you can, will lead to people wanting to be around you, irrespective of language barriers.
- Share your culture
Part of learning about other languages and cultures is sharing your language and culture. When you share the things that were important to you growing up and the things that have stayed important to you across time, you open the door to a deeper relationship. Not only that, but you will often find people are more willing to share the things that they hold dear once you have opened up a bit. You may also find that there are crossovers between the cultures you come from and the ones you are now experiencing. Finding common bonds and focusing on what unites you as opposed to that which differentiates you is a great way to integrate into a community.
- Keep your word
No matter what the official language is, keeping your word is vital to developing long lasting friendships. One of the reasons that friendships fall apart, even those that are local, is that people do not show up when they say they will. If you don't show up for people when you are living in close proximity, why would they believe you when you say you'll show up after you've returned home? More importantly, if you didn't before, why would they want you to now? That is why it is imperative that, when you say you are going to do something for someone, you do it, no matter how small. At the end of the day it is a simple formula. Not easy, but simple.
Traveling is advantageous in and of itself. However, taking the time to learn the local language and dive into deeper cultural layers will allow you to have a far more enriching experience. Not only that, but it will also likely result in you having a perpetual invitation to return. Learning a language while you travel is no easy feat, but considering that it is never easy, it is better to learn and practice while traveling if at all possible. While the above is not a comprehensive list, it will absolutely get you started so long as you are willing to make mistakes and sound like a fool when you are first getting started. In order to be excellent, you must first risk being an amateur.