You've bought the flight, booked the hotels, and even researched restaurants… now it's time to learn the language of your destination! Even if you've waited until the last minute, there's a lot you can do with your new language while among the locals. Here's how to learn a language for your next trip!
Be realistic about how much time you have
Even if you've been studying for years, there's bound to be words, local slang, and regional dialects you won't understand when you get to your destination. And that's ok! It won't prevent you from having a fantastic trip.
When you begin studying, decide on a few realistic language goals based on your travel needs, what you want to get out of your trip, and the time you have left to study. Remember that you don't have to be "fluent" to be conversational! Here are some possible goals for travelers:
- Learn to introduce yourself, say where you're from, and explain something about your trip (for example, "We're going to Rome and Florence").
- Get comfortable asking a few essential questions, maybe about where your hotel is, if a certain dish contains an allergen (or meat, or mushrooms, etc), and how to get to a bathroom.
- Work on understanding the main words you'll find on menus and signs. These will be more relevant to you than reading literature in the language!
Start speaking now
Speaking is often the hardest part for new learners. It can feel so uncomfortable trying new sounds and putting words together into sentences. But when you're at your destination, speaking will be your most important skill!
There are lots of general pronunciation tips to help you prepare, but the most important one is to practice speaking at home, now! Don't wait until you've boarded the plane or are in your hotel room to try out the language. Before your trip, talk to yourself, your friends, your cat—they don't even have to be listening to you! 😅 Remember that you just have to get your point across and be understood, and that no one expects learners to have "perfect" pronunciation! It'll take practice to get comfortable speaking, so begin today.
Work on vocabulary
In most travel situations, knowing the right words will be more important than having appropriate grammar or knowing spelling rules. Of course, grammar and spelling are very helpful for conversations and understanding what you read and hear, but if you don't have much time to prepare, you'll get more bang for your buck by focusing on vocabulary.
During your regular lessons, take note of useful words and phrases. Write them down, make a flashcard, record them in voice notes to yourself, and post sticky notes around the house. Get creative about how you practice in preparation for your trip!
Think of all the times, even in your own town, you might be in a restaurant and just say "Bathroom?" to wait staff instead of "Excuse me, would you tell me if the bathrooms are in the back?" The same will be true while traveling!
Tailor your learning to your trip
Each travel group and itinerary will have their own priorities. Your Duolingo lessons will cover lots of skills, vocabulary, and grammar, so make your practice outside the app all about your personal needs. Here are some tips to guide you:
- Decide what words you will really need to recognize. Especially for menus, some words will be really important to recognize—even if you can just point to them on the menu to order! For example, vegetarians will want to recognize different words for meat, people with allergies will need to know words to stay away from, and picky eaters will want to quickly find their favorite dishes. Remember that you won't need to say or write everything in the new language—often recognizing words will be enough!
- Focus on what you'll need to do, instead of what you'd like to do. Assuming you only have a few months (or a few weeks!) to prepare, work smarter, not harder! There are likely many parts of language that won't be essential for your trip. For example, shops and restaurants will have prices written out in digits you understand, so no need to worry about learning large numbers! It may be more important to have a really good grasp on smaller numbers, like 1-10, especially for telling restaurant or museum staff how many people are in your group.
- Practice phrases that are good enough. Pay special attention to set phrases and questions that you can use to get your point across in lots of situations, even if there might be better, more advanced ways to express things. For my trip to Italy, some of my "good enough" Italian phrases were È possibile? (Is it possible?), Andiamo a ___ (We are going to ___), and senza ___ (without ___). I used them constantly!
Focus on what you do know
Instead of trying to speak in your new language exactly like you do in your own language, try to use only what you *do* know how to say. From a learning perspective, this helps you practice and build connections between the words and grammar you've already studied, but it's also really practical: There's only so much you can learn before your trip, so think of clever ways to describe things or rephrase what you want to say, to make use of what you already know.
For example, when I was in Italy after studying Italian for just a few months, I didn't really know how to say things in the past tense yet. I had seen a few past tense forms, but not many, and I knew there were a lot of exceptions. Instead, I used a different past tense form, the equivalent of "have seen" or "have eaten," because it was easier for me as a beginner. I didn't always use it correctly, but it always got my point across—in Italian!
Make language learning part of your trip preparations to add an incredible dimension to your next vacation. It's never too late to start!