How to Learn Another Language While Traveling the World

Whether you’re interested in learning a foreign language for business purposes or just because you’re a linguaphile like me (because, seriously, how much fun is it to speak multiple languages?), there’s no denying that one of the best ways to become a polyglot is to do so abroad. Or if you’re traveling anyway, why not teach yourself a language on the road? Here are a few tips for maximizing your language-learning experience through travel.

Think I can manage to learn all of these languages eventually? (At the UN Headquarters in Geneva last year)

Think I can manage to learn all of these languages eventually? (At the UN Headquarters in Geneva last year)

Dedicate yourself to learning the language, even if English is widely spoken.

I don’t need to tell you that English is now spoken in almost every corner of the globe. But don’t let that be a reason to not study a particular language. Northern Europeans in particular are known for their remarkable language skills, but don’t rule out learning Swedish, German, or Dutch just because English will get you by just fine.

Use every bit of a language you’ve got.

Even if you’ve only just begun studying a language and can say little more than, “What’s your name?” use everything in your language arsenal at every chance you get! Teach yourself how to say, “Sorry, I only speak a little ____,” in case you get overwhelmed, but there’s no reason to wait until you’re fully fluent to start practicing a language.

Study abroad.

If you have the opportunity to do a study abroad immersion program (i.e. one where languages are taught in the native language), do so! I jumped into my year abroad in Spain thinking I knew Spanish like the back of my hand because I had aced my high school Spanish classes, but I quickly realized I still had a lot of room for improvement. Taking classes at a major university, where classes were conducted entirely in Spanish and, more often than not, I had no classmates who were fluent in English, my vocabulary and listening comprehension skyrocketed. If you’re still in college, I urge you to consider doing a summer, a semester, or a year abroad. If you’ve already graduated and are considering doing a master’s degree, have a look at universities abroad – you can often get an incredibly inexpensive or even free education in other countries!

Universidad Complutense de Madrid, where I studied abroad

Universidad Complutense de Madrid, where I studied abroad

Study at a language school.

If studying at a university doesn’t fit into your future plans, consider doing a short term language immersion program abroad. My first affair with Spain was through a language academy in Granada, by far one of the best experiences in my life. Other language programs, like Sprachdirekt, offer opportunities to learn Spanish in Costa Rica, Italian in Florence, or French on the French Riviera, to name a few.

Travel to places where English is rare.

Get off the beaten path and take yourself to a small town or a non-touristy country, where you’ll be basically forced to speak the native language! Living in Madrid and Sevilla did a lot for my Spanish skills, but the people I know who studied or taught in tiny Spanish towns and couldn’t turn to fellow native English speakers now have stunning levels of Spanish. It may prove frustrating at first, but full immersion is the best way to learn.

Seek out conversation exchange meetings.

Most cities will have at least a few groups who host conversation exchanges, get togethers where speakers of English and of the local language can meet up and practice each other’s tongue. They’re a great way to meet locals, and, because everyone is learning just like you are, you don’t have to be terrified of making mistakes.

Mistakes like this? Spotted in Aranjuez, Spain several years ago

Mistakes like this? Spotted in Aranjuez, Spain several years ago. Guess it’s grammatically correct, technically…

Learn on the go.

Traveling typically means heaps of downtime on planes, trains, and buses, so put that time to use. I’m completely obsessed with Duolingo, a free app that gamifies seven languages (and more to come). I also enjoy downloading foreign language podcasts – for beginners, there are some great introductory language podcasts, and, for more advanced speakers, look into local podcasts for native speakers.

What’s are some of your favorite tips for language learning?

2 Responses

  1. Norman Buckfield says:

    Definitely agree with that first point! Having to insist on speaking German in Germany can be a challenge, but it’s got really good now 🙂

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