Who hasn’t dreamed of being multilingual and traveling with ease wherever they go? To travel without worries, without having to wonder what the person in front of you is saying, wouldn’t that be great? Unfortunately, I don’t speak every language there is, but I try to learn as many words and phrases as possible before visiting a country, and this has helped me a lot in my travels.

It makes the trip seem different and more “authentic”, if I do say so myself. Without further ado, here are my best methods for learning a new language, or at least a few good basics. I’ll also show you the advantages of doing so.

1. Watch, Read & Listen

I’m the kind of person who has trouble finding THE application that suits me. Up until now, I’ve never found the right one for me. They’re usually too basic or not relevant enough to the situations you might encounter abroad.

Binge-watching TV series over and over has so far been my best way of learning a new language. I usually watch a series I’ve already watched a lot, so I don’t get completely lost in the story. I also prefer short episodes, around 25 minutes long, so as not to overwhelm my brain with too much vocabulary. Cartoons are also a good choice if you want to learn a language, as they use less difficult words, but give you important basics for everyday situations.

Watching the news while eating or doing chores is another way to get used to the pronunciation and language of the country you’re planning to visit.

As I like to discover all aspects of a new culture, I also tend to listen to artists from the place where I’m traveling. Travel is all about broadening your horizons, whether it’s the food you taste or the music you listen to.
Music will help you work on your listening skills, and you can also try to decipher lyrics while developing your vocabulary.

Photo by Waldemar on Unsplash

Having a dictionary at hand can sometimes come in handy, especially when, after reading or hearing the sentence several times, you still don’t understand the meaning because of that one word. It helps to understand what the word means and why you need to use it in this context.

My other tip is to read a lot, no matter what you’re reading, as long as you’re familiar with the script and alphabet. Bilingual books are also a great way to learn, as the translation is available on the next page. Classics or children’s books, the choice is yours!

2. Mingle with locals

If you want to meet locals and improve your language skills at the same time, Couchsurfing is a great option. The concept is pretty simple: the website connects two people, a local and a traveler looking for a place to sleep for free (you only have to pay a monthly subscription of 2.39 USD to access the website). You can then share your experiences and a meal, while learning a few useful phrases and getting to know the country’s hidden gems. Finally, it’s also a great way to make new friends.

I don’t know if you’ve heard of it or been there, but I’m mentioning it anyway. Going to a language café is another method of improving your language skills, perhaps not as popular as others, but I’ve found many advantages to this method.
A language café is a place where you meet locals and foreigners over a cup of coffee or tea and exchange views on anything and everything in order to practice and develop your understanding of the language. The locals are mostly students or people who take time out from their studies to volunteer and help travelers like us.
It’s another opportunity to make friends and learn more about a country’s culture and traditions. What’s more, you’ll meet other travelers like yourself.

3. Make friends

I know this is sometimes easier said than done, especially when you’re traveling and already a little disoriented by the environment around you. But since you already have the courage to be there, it’s best to go all out.

One of the best ways I’ve found over the years to make new friends is, first of all, to be myself. Then, when I check in at the hostel and enter my dorm, I simply introduce myself to the people there. Remember, we’re all in the same frame of mind: enjoying our time, trying new things, sharing and making friends to have fun.
So people will naturally strike up a conversation, or come up to you if you’re on your own. If you’re open-minded and smile, you’ll find fellow travelers wherever you go.

And if you can’t find anyone at your hostel, don’t hesitate to check out the Meetup app. It’s a great way to meet like-minded people (local or foreign) in a city you don’t know.

4. Be patient

Patience while learning a language

Whatever your reason for wanting to learn a language – whether it’s to acquire the basics on a short getaway or to spend several months in a country – the first thing to do is be patient! You won’t be able to understand every word or communicate perfectly in the space of a few months. But if you manage to do your shopping and acquire negotiating skills, or get to know a culture and its people better thanks to your efforts, that’s already something to be proud of.

And you’ll find that the locals are even more welcoming to those who try. You don’t need to be fluent or have excellent pronunciation. What really counts is that you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone and give it a try!

5. Don’t worry about making mistakes

It’s hard to avoid feeling self-conscious, especially when learning a new skill. In the beginning, it took a lot of persuasion for me to speak in English. I was so afraid of sounding stupid, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how people would judge me for my mistakes.

What I’ve learned over the years is that the locals don’t care, you’re the only one who does. They’re happy to see you speak their language, even if the pronunciation is far from perfect. And if you make mistakes, they’ll usually find it cute and funny and point it out to you while correcting you.

Just a reminder that speaking with locals is actually the best way to improve your skills faster. So don’t be afraid to make mistakes and trust yourself. After a while, it will be easier to practice without feeling too uncomfortable.

6. Make it part of your routine

You don’t have to spend hours a day practicing, just include a little vocabulary or spend 20-30 minutes a day to improve. Be consistent and don’t give up even if you feel you’re not making progress.

Almost two years ago, I started learning Korean, which is a whole new alphabet for me. Anyway, whether I’m on the bus or playing sport, for example, I try to devote time every day to practicing this new language. Podcasts, audio books, TV shows… there are now many and varied ways of learning.

But don’t forget to give yourself a break. There will be days when you don’t feel like it, or you’re just too tired. Don’t force yourself or you’ll end up giving up on learning this new skill altogether. Remember, it should be a hobby and something you enjoy doing, not a chore.

7. Try to think in this language

I’m an over-thinker, so since I always over-analyze things and rack my brain a lot, I decided to put it to good use.

It’s a simple exercise and I find it fun to try and visualize sentences in my head and translate my thoughts. It also helps me work on my vocabulary and is like a rehearsal for future conversations. It’s also a free practice option and I can do it anywhere, even while I’m showering. Told you I was a deep thinker!

Thinking in another language is actually one of the hardest things to do. So I simply start by naming what’s around me in my head (soap, shampoo in the shower) and try to make sentences out of it. I can also repeat what I’ve heard or read, make a to-do list for the next day… whatever works for you. Start with small sentences, then try to make them more and more complex over time.

8. Pay attention to context

Context plays an important role in understanding a new language. You’ll find that most of the time, a word or two can make a big difference in whether or not you understand what your interlocutor has said. The simple fact that the situation you’re in will give you hints about the other part of the sentence you didn’t understand at first. It’s a bit like being a detective and having to deduce what was said.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been confused because I didn’t understand half the words. That’s why it’s very useful to have a lot of vocabulary, even if you’re not fluent.

Cute monkey in Language's post
Photo by Jamie Haughton on Unsplash

I still remember vividly the time I was dining with foreign friends in South Korea. The waiter came up to us and said 신분증 좀 보여 주실까요? quite quickly.
Our eyes went wide and we were lost for a moment: “Did he ask us if we’d made our choice?” said one of my friends. But I recognized the word “ID” in the sentence and deduced that since we were ordering alcohol, he simply wanted to check if we were of legal age.

Sometimes a single word makes all the difference, and if you’re still stumped, gestures are also a great way to make yourself understood!

> Now let’s talk about the benefits of learning a new language before you travel:

1. Better understanding of the local culture

Learning a language also means getting to know people. You’ll be able to communicate, if only a little, with the locals you meet along the way. You’ll be able to talk directly to them, and discover any mistakes or inappropriate behavior to avoid. The first time I traveled in Southeast Asia, and more specifically in Laos, I had no idea of the “don’t touch people’s heads” rule. But in conversation with a local friend, I learned all about it, and we spent the evening sharing our cultural differences.

You’ll come away with a better understanding and a more complete and authentic experience, as you’ll have the opportunity to immerse yourself more fully in your surroundings.

2. Discover hidden gems

Hidden gem in Busan

Getting to know people, especially locals, is interesting for many reasons. Once you’ve started chatting, you can ask them which monuments you shouldn’t miss and which restaurants you absolutely must try if you want to eat the best traditional and tasty dishes.

Discussing what they think are the best places to go is also a great way to find off-the-beaten-track spots that only locals know about, and to avoid crowded, touristy attractions.

3. Feel safer

It goes without saying, but understanding your surroundings will make you feel safer. Whether you’re in a cab, strolling the streets or in a market, if you show that you know what you’re doing and can express yourself, you’ll reduce the risk of being targeted by pickpockets.

When I think about it, acting like you’re lost and don’t understand anything is the worst thing you can do. Even if you do, my advice is to always act as if you belong. Walk with confidence wherever you go, and respect the culture of the country you’re traveling in!

4. Increase your self-confidence and reduce stress

Knowing the basics or being able to communicate effectively with locals will actually reduce your stress, as you’ll be able to ask for directions, for example, or read signs and understand menus.

This makes traveling easier and more fun. You’ll also feel more confident, as you’ll be able to manage checking into hotels or ordering food. What’s more, you won’t have any surprises when it’s time to eat, because you’ll know enough not to choose something at random.

5. Make friends all over the world

Why do we all travel? Mainly because we want to explore the world and share our experiences with other people.

I love discovering new cultures and ways of life. The best way to do this is to meet and get to know the people who live there. People you may never see again, all the more reason to talk to them and have a memorable experience.

And when you end up becoming friends, staying in touch and sometimes seeing each other again years later, what a thrill!

I mean, that’s one of the reasons I travel too, to make friends from all over the world, but also to make my travel experience better and more fun!

And that’s a wrap for this post! I hope these tips help you learn a new language or at least some basics more easily so you can enjoy your trip to the fullest!

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