A guide to the lost art of learning a language before you travel

It’s about more than ordering dinner.
It’s about more than ordering dinner.
Image: Reuters/Toru Hanai
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Among all the complexities of modern travel, communicating in another language ranks low on the list. You can always hold up eight fingers to haggle over flea-market prices, or use Google Translate (among many such apps) to order the right thing at a restaurant. Plenty of travel bookings can be handled online and even newer technology—like earbuds that attempt to translate in real time—suggests that the days of studying French before visiting Paris will soon be behind us.

But should they be? Trying your mouth at the native tongue isn’t just about finding the nearest restroom. Failing to at least attempt to learn some of the language of a country you’re visiting means missing out on many of the things that make travel great in the first place, like making genuine connections with new people and gaining an appreciation for a different culture.

Attempting to speak the local language is also a show of respect, especially if your trip involves any local hosts, and especially if the language isn’t widely spoken (for example, Hungarian or Tajik). And to do it right, you’ll want more than just a phrase book you bought at the airport. Here are some tips:

Set goals

I’m sorry to bust your burbuja, but there is no shortcut to truly learning a language. Doing it right will involve more than the vintage “Learn Russian in Record Time” record you picked up at a yard sale. That doesn’t mean, say, the roughly 1,000 hours of language training that some members of the military or Mormon missionaries undergo, but it does mean making a commitment and carving out the time.

While a comprehensive approach is slower, you’ll likely retain more than if you just learn categorized vocabulary like foods, says Judith Kroll, a linguist and professor at the University of California, Riverside. Instead of just trying to memorize vocabulary lists, she says, it may be even more beneficial to watch a few films in the language you’re trying to learn. “You’re being exposed to concepts within a native language,” Kroll says.

If you’re going somewhere specific, think about the trip and what is it you’ll want (or need) to discuss. If you’re motivated by food, a deeper and more memorable interaction at a restaurant could include asking and understanding what’s in a dish, or seeking recommendations.

Pro tip: Just study a little bit each day. Linguists say language-cramming doesn’t lead to long-term retention either.

Immerse and converse

Language classes involving one-on-one conversations are ideal because you’ll make the mistakes that will end up helping you in the long run.

The classes don’t even have to be in person. Christopher Ekvall, who sells language-training programs to government officials as part of New Jersey language center Berlitz, says that a growing percentage of Berlitz’s US classes are held in virtual classrooms. Whether online or in person, students in conversational classes should be speaking 70% of the time, he says.

“Just listening to a tape is not going to work,” adds Lisa Frumkes, a linguist and senior director of content development at language-learning company Rosetta Stone. “You need to be talking back… engaging your brain, not just sitting there passively.” Rosetta Stone’s software teaches phrases via repetition instead of focusing on the memorization of grammatical rules.

“I often think learning a language is like trying to get fit or lose weight,” Frumke says. “Whichever method works for you ….There’s no one-size-fits all one approach.”

Research the local culture

Learning a language isn’t just the words. It’s context. What good is it if you know the proper phrase, but disrespect a local by being too informal, or even too formal? You should also look into (or ask about) other, unspoken cultural norms, such as the body language of greetings, how to make requests, common table manners, and the like.

“It’s one thing is to say ‘hello’; the other thing is to know how,” says Frumkes. ”[It’s about] knowing the basics of how you conduct yourself.”