Be a more confident traveler: How to pick up a new language in no time

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

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As a native English speaker, I am fascinated by foreign languages the same way I am fascinated by everything foreign. From the way a specific culture worships, to the rituals they perform around eating and sharing a meal together, I am in awe of all that is unknown and begs to be discovered, like a small child peering into a glowing window from the outside and seeking an invitation in.

To me, language is the way in.

Language is the way in.

Language is the way in.

From the way we form sentences to how we express our desires, our hopes, our fears, our pleasure- it all boils down to the words we choose and why. The ability to communicate in a language other than your own demonstrates openness, it creates new pathways of connection in your brain and above all, it communicates that you care.
Having even a small glimpse into the beauty and poetry of another language is a gift.

So, how does one go about learning a new language, exactly?
Many experts agree immersion is the best tool. It’s how we learn as children and it’s more likely to be retained when we learn this way.
The good news is that traveling and using Workaway are sure-fire ways to be immersed in a new language, if you’re intentional.

Unfortunately, this might take a very long time. When I was traveling in France, I was under the hopeful (and somewhat misguided) belief that after spending several months in the country and staying with locals, learning a new language would come easily. I was a believer in immersion and had already mastered Spanish this way after living with a host family for a semester in Mexico.

What I failed to remember, was that I had taken several years of Spanish classes, laying an important basis of grammar and vocabulary before I arrived in Mexico. This foundation, in addition to my immersion is what really helped me become fluent. In France, I had the experience of immersion but no context. Trying to learn French without a starting point was challenging and overwhelming- far from easy!

Thankfully, I soon discovered tools and tips to help me improve without needing to take years of classes.

1. Duolingo

This is a free, online resource for learning a new language. Even better, Duolingo is an app you can download on your phone and do a few simple lessons each day while you’re on the go. You you can also follow and encourage your friends who are learning a new language by seeing how many “points” they earn as they sail through each level.

Many experts agree immersion  is the best tool. It’s how we learn as children and it’s more likely to be retained when we learn this way.

Many experts agree immersion is the best tool. It’s how we learn as children and it’s more likely to be retained when we learn this way.


2. Read Illustrated Children’s Books

If you’re staying with a host family, ask if you can read their kiddos bedtime stories. This will help you practice your pronunciation, as well as learning basic sentence structures and easy vocabulary. Local libraries are another good resource and many have foreign language books at all levels.

3. Watch a Movie with the Subtitles On

Many mainstream movies have subtitles in French or Spanish, a good way to familiarize yourself with common expressions and idioms you might not pick up in textbooks. Rent a movie you know well (I’ve heard some suggest Disney movies) and read along as you watch. You can also rent a foreign film and put the English subtitles on.

4. Attend a Meetup

A lot of cities around the world host conversational groups dedicated to learning a new language. Do some research and find one near you. Surrounding yourself with others who are also trying to learn takes the pressure off and will help you master common phrases like how to introduce yourself and make small talk. Speaking a new language is often the last hurdle to overcome, so the more you can practice, the better!
cafe meet up travel foreign language learning

5. Ask for help

I’ve found a lot of Workaway hosts and locals are so eager to practice their English, they forget you want to learn their language, too! Find a partner and be intentional about making it more of an equal exchange. Set aside time for teaching, and time for learning. Add some structure, ask questions, and have fun!

Learning a new language

6. Keep a Journal

"Sometimes immersion can feel like being thrown in the middle of a lake without knowing how to swim! "

“Sometimes immersion can feel like being thrown in the middle of a lake without knowing how to swim! “

One of the best assignments I was given was to keep a journal in Spanish while I was in Mexico. At first, this was a huge struggle! Yet, as I began to expand my vocabulary and describe my experience, I began to think in Spanish and dream in Spanish, too. There’s something magical about the act of writing in a foreign language, even if it’s a few sentences a day. You begin to want to write more and it gives you the motivation to continue learning.

7. Make Mistakes

Sometimes immersion can feel like being thrown in the middle of a lake without knowing how to swim! There’s a lot of flapping your arms and kicking– anything to stay afloat. This is a bit how learning a new language feels too- lots of sputtering and stuttering to spit out the right words. This is totally normal and necessary!

It takes practice and a willingness to be misunderstood. You will sound silly and sometimes make a fool of yourself before you will truly master a new language. Enjoy the process and have a laugh at yourself. Others will not only appreciate your effort, but find it entirely endearing.

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As challenging as it may seem, the rewards of learning a new language are infinite. It’s a skill you carry with you wherever you go, opening doors of opportunity you may never expect. As Nelson Mandela reminds us, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

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