Top Travel Tips

Picking up a Language Abroad: Dos and Don’ts

Whether you’re planning a vacation, preparing for a business trip, or possibly relocating to a foreign country, here are my best tips on how to learn a language fast, before your trip and while abroad.

Let’s start with what not to do. Having lived in the Philippines for eight years and speaking shamefully little of the local language, Tagalog (or Filipino), I consider myself somewhat of an expert on this subject.

How to learn a language fast

1. Don’t be shy; own your embarrassment

I am shy and quite stubborn. Let’s be honest, shyness is usually a pride thing and I don’t like to be embarrassed. However, if you want to be successful in learning a new language the first thing you’ll need to do is get very comfortable with making mistakes, getting laughed at, and being embarrassed.

Why not be the first to laugh at yourself? You and everyone around you will have lots of fun and you’ll be learning in the process.

2. Don’t take the easy way out

Here in Manila, everyone and their mother speaks English. When I first moved here I learned how to say please, thank you, how much, and how to direct my tricycle driver to go left, right, or straight ahead.

After that, though, I didn’t actually need anything else and more often than not I took the easy route and communicated almost exclusively in English.

Chances are you will have to use a bit of English when learning to communicate in a new language but don’t let it become a habit. Keep pushing yourself to use any and every word you know, even if you’re mixing it up.

You learned the word apple in French class but don’t know how to say “Do you have?” yet, so ask if they have pommes with any French words in your arsenal, English if you must, and plenty of exaggerated hand movements.

Well, French might not be the best example. Don’t speak French in France unless it’s impeccable; you’ll be fine in Africa, though.

Anyway, you’ll learn by making mistakes and getting feedback, so start making them!

3. Don’t ignore the foundation of the language

If you’re in China, for example, you may be tempted to ignore the daunting plethora of characters and focus solely on learning to speak the language. However, you may regret that choice down the line as you will be missing an important piece of the puzzle when trying to grasp the language.

The same goes for grammar. We all know that sitting through grammar lectures will not teach you how to speak a language on the street. Conversely, picking up words and phrases as you go will not help you understand how they fit together.

4. Do learn these 10 phrases before your trip and start using them as soon as you land

  • Hello
  • Goodbye
  • Please
  • Thank you
  • Sorry
  • Can you help me…?
  • Where is…?
  • How much? (as in how much does this cost)
  • A little but I’m trying to learn (in response to “Do you speak…?”)
  • Can you teach me a new word/phrase?

As a foreigner in the Philippines, I’m always being asked if I speak Tagalog. If I reply, “kaunti lang,” meaning just a little, the Filipino conversation typically ends there and switches back to English. That’s why I’ve been trying to add, “pero sinusubukan kong matuto,” I’m trying to learn.

Saying this in Tagalog and not in English shows that I’m serious about it. Even if I have to use English after that, I’ve at least made it clear that I want as much of the conversation as possible to progress in their language and not mine.

After all, it doesn’t matter how much of a beginner you are; if people keep talking at you in a foreign language you’ll be forced to pick it up eventually.

5. Do learn some expression you won’t find in a phrasebook

–If you know what I mean.

It’s good fun and people are likely to acknowledge your effort to speak like a local and offer to teach you a few more of their favorite phrases.

For example, if you’re in Manila and something shocking or frustrating happens, try saying: “Susmaryosep!”

In the predominantly Catholic country of the Philippines, this commonly heard exclamation is a contraction of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and coming from a foreigner it is certain to generate laughs.

And laughs build a connection. Connection sparks conversation and conversation is the best way to learn any language.

6. Do study the building blocks of the language

What you’ll want before throwing yourself into a language is an understanding of its foundation, which we already talked about not ignoring. You might be able to learn this on a useful website or app, from a friend, or with a private tutor depending on how serious you are.

The point I’m reiterating here is: find out what the language is built on and make at least some effort to understand that.

In addition to speaking Dutch as a second language, I learned some French and German in high school and since then have picked up a little Spanish and Portuguese here and there.

Something I regret is not taking the opportunity to learn Latin while in high school, as it seemed pointless at the time to learn a dead language.

However, it is the basis of at least five European languages and a source of vocabulary for many others, English included. Personally, I think a basic knowledge of Latin would have helped me advance my knowledge of a couple other languages I’ve been interested in learning.

That doesn’t mean I’d recommend studying Latin before learning, say, French or Italian. If you’re interested in learning multiple Romance languages, however, it would make sense. Regardless, understanding where a language comes from can be useful.

When learning Korean, as another example, you’ll find literal building blocks within each character. Hangul, the native script of Korea, was actually invented by an ancient King as a simplified and more practical alternative to Chinese characters, which has thousands of unique characters and 214 radicals on which they are based. All Korean characters, on the other hand, can be assembled using the 24 “building blocks” of the Hangul alphabet.

7. Do take the time to learn a little history

A language isn’t just a way of speaking: it reflects the way people think and behave. One of the most interesting ways to learn a new language is through understanding the history and culture that have shaped it.

A few interesting anecdotes on where a word or phrase came from or how it became a part of popular speech make the whole experience of learning a language more fun and engaging. Susmaryosep, am I right?

It might be interesting for someone learning English to know that goodbye is short for “God be with you.” This tells you something about the language’s cultural roots as well, which brings me to my final tip.

8. Do use language to understand the country’s culture

An Aussie will casually cuss at a friendly acquaintance and call their boss “mate”. It is, after all, a casual culture. Here in the Philippines, Australian businessmen are notorious for showing up at the office in shorts and flip-flops.

Many languages have special grammar rules for addressing someone with respect and/or formality, and showing such respect is fairly important in these cultures. English does not have this.

In Tagalog (or Filipino), the word “po” is added onto everything you say to an elder to show your respect for them. Respect for the elderly is, after all, a building block of Filipino culture.

Japanese is full of honorifics and formalities used not only when addressing the elderly but for talking to more or less anyone who isn’t a close friend or family member. Politeness is indeed a building block of Japanese culture.

As you make the effort to embrace these elements of a foreign language, your understanding of the people who speak it will grow and they, in turn, will be more likely to embrace you. Whether on holiday or business and staying for a short time or a long while, immersing yourself in the culture through your use of language is guaranteed to enrich your experience.

Special thanks to the yolichat teacher community for their input on this post!

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