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How to Learn a Foreign Language to Use During Your Travels

Travelers understand the importance of learning a foreign language, the language of a country they visit. Part of the fun of visiting a foreign country is the joy of understanding a new culture, different from ours, of hearing a language foreign from ours, of interacting with people different from us.

Locals Should Not Have to Speak Our Language – We Are the Visitors

During one of our many trips to Yucatan Peninsula’s Quintana Roo, we stayed at this tiny place called Síijil Noh-Ha. One person we interacted with spoke Spanish and understood some English, the rest only spoke Maya.

We were perfectly capable to understand each other though when it came to the basics.

When we sat at the restaurant, they knew we needed dinner. They only had two choices, and we all knew enough Spanish to understand their names. When the mosquitoes came out and started eating me, they knew I needed a better bug spray than I had, so they offered me one and pointed to my chewed-up legs. When we wanted to use one of the kayaks to get on the water, all we had to do was stand next to one.

After I returned home, I contacted them and thanked them for a wonderful stay. The lady I spoke with apologized for her staff not speaking English. I was so sad she felt the need to say that; I told her I didn’t expect them to; it was our responsibility to learn their language or figure out a way to communicate. We were the visitors.

I was happy they didn’t speak English and told her so. Interacting with people in their own world, hearing them use their own language, was a more genuine experience than if they tried to speak our language. We chose that place for its remoteness, for being off the tourist path, for not catering to tourists.

Of course, I’m grateful when I meet a local who speaks a language I am fluent in. Takes communication to a higher level. Still, I try to mix some of their language in the conversation when I can. I feel the need to let them know I want to learn; I don’t expect them to cater to me.

Why Learn a Foreign Language

When my daughter and her friend traveled through Europe last year, they made it a point to learn hello, please and thank you in the native language of every country they visited. It is such a little thing, but it made them feel better and made locals friendlier towards them.

Though you can get around with English almost everywhere these days, a simple greeting in the local language will take you far. The least you get is smiles, and gentle corrections or you might get better service because locals feel you care. It is one of the easiest ways to get more out of your international travels.

In Transylvania, where most of us grew up speaking at least two, sometimes three languages, we had a saying that roughly translated means “you contain in yourself as many people as the number of languages you speak”. So if you know two languages, you are the equivalent of two people; each new language you learn adds an extra dimension to your personality.

If you really think about it, it’s true. Each language reflects a different way of thinking, a different cultural background, so if you are fluent in more than one, you are basically part of more than one culture.

As a traveler, understanding the language of a country you are visiting helps in basic interaction with the locals. It might even get you better service. If you speak the language above the basics, you’ll get an insight into a new culture, and you might make new friends.

How to Learn a Foreign Language

Most travelers want to understand the cultures they visit, they want to learn the language but may not know how to go about it. And since this was my expertise a lifetime ago (I studied comparative linguistics and was trained to teach foreign languages), I thought I might be able to help.

It is true that those who grow up bilingual will always have an easier time learning another language, than those who were only exposed to one as children. Still, everyone can learn, and with so many different programs, and apps, it is easier than ever. There is no excuse not to understand at least the basics.

Pronunciation

Pronunciation is one of the hardest things to learn, especially if you start later in life. Every language has specific sounds, difficult to master for those who didn’t hear them from early childhood. Young children emulate these sounds easily and can sound like the natives, however, this skill diminishes with age. In most cases, those who learn a new language past their teen years always speak it with an accent. But who cares?

I am trained as an English teacher, I’ve been living in the US for over 25 years, have been speaking English even at home, and I still have a recognizable accent. I never mastered the “th” sound for example. It doesn’t exist in any other language I learned before, and I sometimes still roll my r’s. I learned English in high school, in my teens. But accent or no accent, everyone understands me.

Even if you don’t master pronunciation, even if you speak with an accent, you can make yourself understood if you use the language correctly. So just do it. When in doubt, you can always spell out the word you are trying to say.

The Importance of Grammar

Pronunciation is one thing, but without understanding the structure of a language, you won’t be able to make yourself understood, and won’t understand others.

Remember the dreaded grammar? Yes, it has a function. It structures the language, gives it a certain logic. For the language you grew up speaking, you inherently understand this, and spelling out the rules seems like a boring exercise designed by your teachers to torment you.

But when you are learning a foreign language, understanding its grammar is way more important. Different languages structure their sentences differently. Understanding this makes a difference between making yourself understood or saying something that won’t make sense, or means the opposite of what you want to say.

Syntax

In English, a word’s place in the sentence denotes its meaning. Did you ever notice? If you weren’t paying attention in grammar class, and you are a native English speaker, chances are, you have no idea what I am talking about. But for those of us who had to learn it as a foreign language, it was one of the most important parts of understanding it.

A sentence in English always starts with a subject, followed by a predicate, then a direct and indirect object. Take for example: “The girl takes the dog for a walk”. The girl is the subject, followed by the predicate takes, and by the direct object, the dog, then the indirect object. If you say “The dog takes the girl for a walk,” the whole meaning changes. The forms of the words didn’t change, only their place in the sentence.

Other languages have different forms for the words that denote their meaning in the sentence, so the place they stand in doesn’t make as big of a difference. In Hungarian, the same sentence would be “A kislány sétálni viszi a kutyát.” The translation for the word dog is “kutya”; but when it becomes an object, it changes its form, and adds a “t” becoming “kutyát”.

So if you say “A kutyát viszi sétálni a kislány,” the basic meaning stays the same. To change it, you would say “A kutya viszi sétálni a kislányt.” Now kislány gets the “t” suffix, becoming the object, and if you reverse kutya and kislányt you still keep the basic meaning. The suffix changed the meaning of the word, not its place in the sentence.

Of course, you could go farther, and understand all the nuances, since each change makes a slight difference, but that is for when you mastered the language; it’s an opportunity to play with it.

Prefixes and Suffixes

Which brought me to the prefixes and suffixes. English doesn’t use many, but most other languages do. To keep the same sentence, you saw how Hungarian used a suffix to denote the object. Spanish uses a prefix, not connected to the word. They would say. “La nina lleva al perro a pasear”. The word for dog is “perro.” Here, the prefix “al” denotes the object.

As in the example above about Hungarian and Spanish, one language uses a suffix attached to the word to change its meaning, while another uses a prefix that is not attached. This might make the whole sentence or the idea it tries to communicate hard to understand unless you are aware of it, and look for different forms of the same word.

This is also where most translation programs make mistakes, so understanding it helps even if you use a translator app on your phone.

Verbs – Conjugation and Tenses

Then, of course, you have the conjugation of the verbs and the tenses. English doesn’t really conjugate, it has one form for everything other than third person singular.

Most other languages have a different form to denote who is doing the action. In Spanish, if you say “escribo”, you know it is “yo escribo,” I write; you don’t need to specify “yo”, because the form of the verb already implies it, as opposed to “you write” which would be “escribe.” In English, if you only say “write”, you would have no idea who is doing the writing, or if it is someone ordering you to write; it could be I, you, we, or they (and even you in plural, which is even more confusing), so you definitely need to specify that “I write” to translate “escribo”.

Although if you don’t remember the correct form of a verb, you can use the pronoun with whatever form you do remember, and make yourself understood; locals might give you a quizzical look at first, then get it and correct you.

Tenses are even more difficult, but for a start, you can get away without them. You can use the basic forms in present, and add the expressions “in the past” or “in the future”. Locals might correct you or not, depending on how polite they are or how well they know you, but will understand.

Of course, it’s great if you know all the forms; but it is one of the more difficult things to process – especially for English. But if you use past instead of past perfect, you can still make yourself understood. So, when learning a new language, I would leave this aspect for last.

Language and Culture

The most important facet of learning a foreign language is understanding the culture. Without it, you can’t understand the nuances of the language, you can’t understand the double meanings, jokes, and everything that makes communicating and language fun.

In fact, I consider the moment you understand a joke in a foreign language the moment you conquered it. And that’s when the real fun begins, that’s when you can play with expressions, with double meanings, and really connect with the locals. But this only comes with immersion, though it is the most rewarding part of learning and mastering a new language.

Also, remember that even if you know a language fairly well, you might be able to communicate with locals in one place, and not in another.

I got to the point where I understand Spanish spoken in Yucatan fairly well. I might or might not be able to answer, but usually understand when locals talk to me. On the other hand, when I visited Puebla, I was so lost, I did not understand one word anyone was saying. I felt pretty dumb. Until I asked them to slow down and repeat.

Same country, same language. The difference? In Yucatan, I mostly interact with Maya, and Spanish is their second language. So they speak it slower; in Puebla, they speak so fast, my head was spinning, so I felt like I didn’t understand one word. When they slowed down, I understood more and guessed even more. Still, they use some expressions I wasn’t familiar with and had trouble understanding.

If you are in the same situation, remember to ask locals to speak slower. They won’t mind, and it will make a difference in communication.

How Should You Learn a Foreign Language?

Ideally, I advise everyone to take at least a few classes, to understand the basics, the structure of a language. After that, you can learn on your own.

As for programs, I can only speak for Duolingo, it’s the only one I have used so far. For a free program, it’s great. I’m not sure how it compares to the Rosetta Stone, or others though.

But everyone has a different learning style, so it really depends on the person. Some people learn easier with one program than another. Try a few, and see what works for you.

I know someone who learned a language using only a dictionary, learning a few new words every day. But this was after he took a year of it in school so he already understood the basic structure of the new language.

I met people who told me they learned English exclusively using Duolingo. I use it for Spanish, but to be fair, I have the basics from speaking Romanian – the two languages are related, and if you know one, it will be easier to learn the other – and I also took a Spanish 101 class at a community college when I first moved to Arizona. To build on that, Duolingo does a great job. My only problem with this program is that it starts with conversations, without a preliminary introduction to the structure of the language. It works for some people though, and it definitely works if you already know the basics.

Getting Along While Traveling in a Foreign Country

I’m going to start with the advice from my daughter: learn three words or expressions in the foreign language spoken at your destination. Start with hello, please and thank you.

Download a dictionary to your phone and use it when trying to communicate. If you get funny looks, it might mean that the program didn’t translate correctly. Try again, putting the original words in a different sequence, or using synonyms. Translating programs are good, but not foolproof.

I can use them for Spanish, though sometimes I can see that the sentences come out not making much sense, and I need to adjust things; but when my husband uses them for Hungarian, they come up with some pretty funny things. Same with Google Translate; it’s great for some languages, but for Hungarian, it changes the meaning or the translation makes no sense; work with only individual words if you suspect this, and use them in addition to body language.

Learn how to say food, bathroom, I don’t speak… and do you speak English? Even if they don’t, they may know someone who does.

If you have time beforehand, learn the basic structure of the language, and some of the most common words. And, if you didn’t have time to master conjugation and tenses, learn the pronouns (I, you, etc), the expressions in the past and in the future, and add them to the basic form of the verbs; it might not be grammatically correct, but locals will understand you.

Most of all, just try. And when all else fails, don’t be afraid to use hand gestures, some acting and a bit of comedy. You’ll have much more fun than worrying about finding someone who speaks your language.

And if you are trying to learn Hungarian, read my basic guide or sign up for my classes through the Hungarian Cultural Association of Phoenix (HCAP).

Learning a Foreign Language

4 thoughts on “How to Learn a Foreign Language to Use During Your Travels”

  1. Four years of Latin, in high school . .. I still remember so much of it, and it has helped me over the years, not only with English, but with all of the Romance languages. At least I can see written text in Spanish or Italian and have some clue what it is about. As for the spoken languages, it’s a bit tougher. Speak too quickly and I miss it all.

    1. Wow. I don’t think you can find a school in the US now that teaches four years of Latin. All schools taught it in Romania – only one year, except in specialty schools, where we did take four years. I think they still do. But up until now, I don’t think I met anyone in the US who studied Latin in school. Seems like I’ve been hanging out with the wrong crowd 😉

  2. I completely agree with the saying – “you contain in yourself as many people as the number of languages you speak”. Sometimes learning even 2-3 words in a new language makes a big difference when you have to talk to the locals! Such a great post!

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