7 tips for learning foreign languages on the road

7 tips for learning foreign languages on the road

Now, all long-term travellers know how important it may be to know the basics of a language in the country they’re heading to. Not to state the obvious, language is a vital part of culture and history, and in many cases it can also save your… ears… from an unpleasant situation.

In any language learning process, consistency and frequency of your classes (guided or self-taught) is the major key to success. These days people lead increasingly mobile lives. We travel as part of our jobs, we use budget airlines to change the surroundings for a longer weekend, some of us even adopt the life of digital nomads and permanently live in transit.

There is of course also this old-school type of travelling called a holiday—you know, where you go away to a new destination to relax? I heard of those once, they’re meant to be fun.

A change in location can potentially make it hard to maintain a stable language learning habit, but it can also help to find inspiration and develop new, different routines.

Which language takes priority?

Let’s say you’ve been learning French for the past six months. With a disruption of the daily schedule caused by travel your weekly 8 am French italki class will have to find a different slot on the calendar. With a disappearance of triggers many of your learning habits will have to be adjusted to prevent forgetting about the learning altogether.

The habits that you’ve built help fulfil your long term language learning goal of mastering French. But, what if you suddenly find yourself travelling to a country where a different language is spoken?

Should you abandon your French study plan and dive deep into Romanian grammar in preparation for the weekend in Bucharest? Pick up Intensive Mandarin two weeks before a five-day business trip to Shanghai?

The answer is, you can, but you don’t have to. If you have no long term need for learning Romanian it would be a waste of time to torture yourself with a grammar book for a short trip. Same with Mandarin, as much as learning languages has a lot of benefits for the brain, you are getting all of them by studying French! This is of course not to say you should completely ignore the fact that a different language is spoken in your travel destination. You can however maintain a balance between obsession and ignorance by learning some essential language skills… while travelling!

We made a list of some simple (and some perhaps innovative tips) on how to learn language basics while travelling. Even if you wake up in the middle of the night suddenly remembering that you’re flying out early morning, you can use these as a crash-course in a totally new language and work your way up the steps of fluency while you are in a foreign land.

1. Take the first step before you go

You may be busy working or sleeping right before your flight, but make sure to memorise a few key phrases from your phrasebook while you are en route to your new destination. Boring things like Hello, Please, Goodbye, Thank you is what you will need right after you land. It will make you feel much safer when interacting with “your first foreigners” and help establish a quicker bond — may prove helpful when haggling for a taxi price!

It is not much to learn, but it is a colossal first step into the new language, a passage to more conversation.

2. Be a fool, break the ice

Apart from the basic hellos it’s a good idea to learn one or two funny sayings. If a hello can break the ice imagine the power of an equivalent of the English dog’s bollocks, or another ridiculous local phrase.

Why a fool? Because with no familiarity with the language you’ll be likely to mispronounce the phrase or use it in a bit of a wrong context. And even if you say everything perfectly at the right time, to have an otherwise “mute” foreigner suddenly be so to the point will be an incredible surprise and a conversation starter.


Popular colloquial expressions, slang phrases and regional idioms are gold when you quickly want to establish a connection. Using them shows not only that you are open to a new culture and happy to learn more, but also reduces psychological distance between you and the native speaker. Tourists can very often be treated as invaders, guests who only intend to experience a new country or city superficially. Using a funny phrase shows that you have distance to yourself are ready to connect with the new environment even at the price of making a fool out of yourself.

Another idea if you travel a lot is to have one silly phrase that you try to translate into every language you encounter.

It does not necessarily have to be “my hovercraft is full of eels”. It can be your pickup phrase, an idiom, something your grandma once told you. Asking someone to translate it for you is another good ice-breaker and conversation starter.

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2. Make use of mobile apps

Queuing to the boarding gate, waiting for your order in a café, standing in a kilometer-long line to a museum – a great opportunity to employ your gadgets in the language learning process. You can even use the queuing time to go through a basic “in the cafe” or “buying a ticket” dialogue and be ready to act when your turn comes.

There are a few apps catering specifically for travellers, for example TripLingo which serves a handy collection of basic phrases as well as cultural tips about different countries. MosaLingua Spanish is a regular learning app, but has basic short dialogues and topically organised vocabulary sets. The full content of both apps is paid, but their free versions would definitely be enough for a short trip. After all, you don’t want to spend a lot of your travel time staring at the phone!

3. Chit-chat with the locals

With no time to study with a book, you are more less reliant on people. This gives you an advantage of learning the living language immediately, bypassing the laborious phases of language analysis and absorption and going straight to the fun part.

You can carry around a small phrasebook (they usually have basic dictionaries at the back), but a better idea is to ask the locals. Of course, I don’t mean coming up to families in the middle of their Sunday picnic to ask to teach you, but while you’re buying a fresh melon at a market stand (or a your favourite latte in the local Starbucks if you’re not market-adventurous) why not ask a few simple questions? In Starbucks you will probably be able to do it even in English, while a market lesson will probably involve more pointing and hand waving.

Learning “in the wild” also means you will be able to make direct connections between new foreign words and the objects they denominate, skipping through the translation system in your head. What better way to learn names of fruit and veg!

4. Find yourself a guide

Do you think I mean a paid tourist guide, come on, we’re on a budget here! And the purpose is to learn a language not go on a five-hour tour of Orthodox churches (although if you also want to do the latter, I’m not judging you).

Just like it’s much faster to learn a language with a private tutor, it’s more insightful to explore a foreign culture with a local guide. By a guide, I simply mean a person who lives in that location. You may not have friends everywhere (although if you have 800 friends on Facebook, some of them have to be abroad, right?), but there are simple ways to connect with friendly locals.

Couchsurfing, apart from enabling you to find free lodgings, also offers an opportunity to meet with people for a coffee. Why not reach out to a few friendly locals?

Even during a quick lunch you can not only discover their favourite food place and perhaps sample some dishes you’d otherwise not dare to and, of course, question them about some funny or slang phrases in the language.

If like me you’re not a very social type why not use HelloTalk? Perhaps you have been using it before at home for practicing writing and chatting in French, but now it’s time for quick a quick new-location 101 class! HelloTalk allows to search for conversation partners by location, if your GPS is on, your location will automatically be shown to others.

Try searching for people learning English (or you mother tongue) in the city you’re in an start a conversation. It’s a great way to find out about popular attractions, restaurants, bars and, of course, the most up-to-date language resource. If you feel like it you can always try to meet with your new HelloTalk friend, but if your introversion prevails, you don’t have to—that’s the beauty of internet relationships.

5. Read receipts

7-11 From wikimedia

Now I get it you may think I’m weird, but I have to confess that I do read shop receipts. Why? You can learn a lot of useful vocabulary from them! I think nearly everyone has seen a receipt in their life, so figuring out which word means price shouldn’t be hard. Then, because you know what you bought, especially if you only got a few things you can try to play a game of matching the items from the list with the items from your basket. Easy way to learn words for cheese or bread. Or apples and rice-cakes in my case…

The same applies with travel tickets. It should be easy to deduce words like arrival time, departure time, place, seat, number or even “no smoking”.

6. Learn phrases

What else to add… there are a few essential phrases that will really make your life easier in a foreign country. They will also make your experience much safer and comfortable. Let’s be honest you wouldn’t like to suddenly find yourself in a shady part of town or with a dish full of shrimps if you’re allergic to them.

Here are a few ideas for phrases, you should try to learn (best when waiting for your luggage at the airport!). Of special importance are those that you may need because of your food preferences or medical conditions.

  • How much is this?
  • Do not rip me off because I am a foreigner!
  • I’m lost.
  • I (do not) understand.
  • I don’t speak…
  • Do you speak English?
  • I need...
  • I’m vegetarian/vegan
  • I’m allergic to...
  • Where is…?
  • Why did the chicken cross the road?

Just kidding. Most people are uncomfortable discussing chickens with a foreigner.

For language purposes an essential phrase to learn is how do you say … in [language X]? This way you’ll learn nouns that you can then use in the simple phrases above ;-)

7. Sing a song

Ask your new friends in the country to teach you a song in their language. It can be a silly children’s song, or better a cool song you really like from a local band. If it is catchy, the words eventually will also settle in your mind in a loop. Song lyrics may not be the most colloquial and grammatically correct usage of the language, but they do teach you many beautiful words in a rhythmical pattern. Even if you are not a musical person, singing will help you memorise new phrases and… make you happy!

How about you ask your HelloTalk friend to tell you the current top three radio tunes in the local language?

Remember: Language is all about interaction. You need it in order to talk to people and discover new ways of thinking and describing the world. Discussing same things in two different language with the same person can bring you two absolutely different experiences!

When travelling keep your eyes and ears open, you already took a step out of your geographical comfort zone to go somewhere, now it’s time to challenge yourself linguistically. Interactions won’t happen on their own and the language won’t enter your head by osmosis.

Regardless of the purpose of your travel I hope the simple pointers above will prove helpful and serve as a comfortable starting point for more interactions and a fuller experience of your destination.

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