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How to Learn a New Language Before Your Next Trip

Show you give a damn.


By Natalie B. Compton, Condé Nast

When you’re traveling through a foreign country, speaking a little bit of the local language can go a long way. First off, it shows you actually give a damn. Maybe you’ll never pronounce bourgogne correctly in your lifetime, but it’s the thought that counts. “Anything you do to prepare linguistically will afford you greater cultural intimacy than you would have otherwise had,” says Ellen Jovin, a writer who’s studied more than 25 languages and speaks on language learning for businesses and international conferences. Instead of quitting your job to enroll in a full-time Japanese immersion program before your Tokyo vacation, follow the advice of these language experts for picking up some basics. Once you book your trip, start your foreign language exploration immediately.


Start practicing early

A surprise to no one: the more time you have to study the better. How much time you’ll need to tackle basics before your trip will depend on the language, how often you practice, and your own learning style. “Two weeks may be sufficient for one person, while another might need two months,” says Chuck Cohn, founder and CEO of Varsity Tutors. “Learning a language doesn’t happen overnight, so goals should be set according to your current schedule and how many hours you can dedicate to studying and practicing each week. The more time you can allow yourself, the better.” Look at learning a language like training for a marathon or playing the piano. “If you really want to speak a language, you need to practice,” says Kelly Schlinder, coordinator of the Foreign Language Institute (FLI) at Missouri State University. “Language needs to be practiced and used.”


Talk to a native speaker

Practice speaking with someone who's a native in the language you want to learn, either online or IRL. “When I help people with languages I focus on conversations first,” says Smets. “I've seen it over and over again that people first spend time and MONEY on grammar courses, to then become completely confused and scared to speak.” Don’t know someone fluent in Farsi? Dive into the internet. “There are some free language exchange websites as well where you can find native speakers to practice with before you go,” says Kristin Espinar, a language instructor and host of the podcast slash blog Activate Your IELTS. “You can book a few private classes on sites like Italki.com. This site in particular is pretty great because you can find a lot of languages, teachers, and a variety of prices.”


Download language apps

Fire up your local app store, and you’ll find a wealth of options for language learning. “There are a lot of apps out there that can help you to learn languages quickly, things like Bilingual or Hi Native,” says Espinar. Duolingo is one of the most popular on the app market. It gamified language learning, making the process fun and easy but not necessarily the best choice if you’re short on time and just trying to master tidbits. Mango Languages is an incredible tool with hands-free autoplay lessons so you can focus on walking your dog or driving instead of staring at your phone. The app is free for anyone with a library card (and you can easily sign up for a library card online if you don’t already have one). Don’t sleep on the Google Translate app, either. “Google Translate is an excellent tool to help hear the correct accent,” says Caryn Antonini, CEO and founder of Early Lingo. It’s also a massive help when you’re struggling to communicate on vacation.


Consume multimedia

You’ll find people around the world who credit watching Friends for helping them improve or learn their English. Listen to music, podcasts, YouTube videos, audiobooks, movies, and TV shows in the language you’re studying. You don’t even have to focus your full attention to benefit. “Turn on the TV on a channel in the language you want to learn, leave it on the background while you are cooking or busy around the house, that way, you pick up so much unconsciously of that language. It really helps,” says university language professor and two-time TEDx speaker Rachel Smets.


Cram on the plane

Take your studies on the road—or the air—if you’ve procrastinated and you’re pressed for time. “If you just want to learn language basics (thank you, please, hello, goodbye, where’s the bathroom), then you can do that the week of your departure, or even on the plane ride to your destination,” says Jovin. “I have spent hundreds of hours studying languages on airplanes. You are temporarily captive in a small metal structure with little else to do, so it’s perfect.” Go old school with your on-board study method. “I’d certainly recommend flash cards. Sounds rather old fashioned, but they work,” says Shylar Bredewold, owner and lead travel specialist at Odyssean Travel. “There are other iterations available now with the support of smartphones which may more quickly refine the retention of a user and help them to more quickly engage with their weaker diction. Try Anki.”


It’s OK if you suck

Listening to a language app is a hell of a lot different than trying to understand what a street food vendor is screaming at you while you’re holding up the line. Don’t be disappointed when things don’t go according to plan when your new skills are shittier than you’d hoped. “Sometimes people are disappointed that after studying hard for a couple of months or more, they show up at their destination and can’t understand a thing people are saying,” says Jovin. “Don’t be discouraged; after a couple of days, you may well begin to understand more. Even if you still can’t understand as much as you had hoped, or respond as fluently as you had hoped, studying the language will have brought you closer to an unfamiliar culture in myriad ways.”


See more at: Condé Nast

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