The term language travel may mean different things to different people. Indeed, when I use the phrase, it encompasses a few different things. Generally speaking, language travel is travel that is, primarily, designed with a particular language in mind. This could be traveling to a country to practice language skills, or for the purpose of learning a language. Language travel can also mean that you are using language, in some way, to facilitate your travel. This could include teaching your native tongue in other countries, as the means of being able to travel. In an even broader sense, it might be said that the act of studying and learning a language enables you to travel vicariously without ever leaving home.
There’s an old cliche about American travelers expecting everyone to speak English to them when traveling abroad. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but let’s face it, if you travel very widely, you don’t have to be American to quickly fall behind the language curve. Yet, there’s that whole thing about “when in Rome”.
I’m going to guess that a relatively small percentage of travelers are equally conversant in English, Arabic, Swahili and Cantonese. I’ll make a confession up front. I’m not. On the other hand, I think it’s simply good manners to arm yourself with some basic language knowledge when visiting a country where your own language is not dominant. Even if you don’t plan to become fluent in a particular language, language travel can be as simple as learning enough words and phrases to make a good impression, as well as to make your travels a bit more smooth.
When I’m visiting another country, I like to get the basics down. What are those basics, though? Well, for me, I think it’s important to be able to greet someone in their own language. So, a simple “hello” and “goodbye” in the local language are mandatory. I also try to nail down other polite formalities, such as “please”, “thank you” and “excuse me”. After a couple of times being the bungling foreigner, I also added “sorry” to my list.
Obviously, the more you learn of your host country’s language, the easier it will be to navigate their culture, but just getting some basics down is almost always appreciated by the locals. Just like in my own hometown, strangers are more likely to be helpful when you extend a little courtesy.
Luckily, in the digital age, it’s never been easier to access language learning resources. Whether you are trying to achieve fluency, or just memorize those polite basics, the information you need is just a few mouse clicks away. Really, it may be as close as an app on your phone.
I find Duolingo to be one of the handier ways to introduce a new language and to brush up on the basics of grammar and vocabulary. It’s free, effective, and although you can use their regular website, they are probably better known for their handy phone app. Several weeks before going out of the country, I like to start running through the lessons for my target language. Although it may not make me magically fluent in time for my trip, it certainly boosts my comfort and confidence levels.
If you really want to get serious about a new language, truly becoming conversationally fluent, there is eventually one other thing that you’re going to have to do. That one other thing is the most important thing. You need to speak with someone in that language and, preferably, that someone will be a native speaker. The first few times can be a little intimidating, but languages are meant to be spoken. You’ve got to do it.
A great resource for learning a new language is the website italki.com. Through italki, you can find professional teachers, community tutors, or informal “language partners”, all of whom can help you learn, or improve, a new language.
Basically, on italki, you find someone that speaks and/or teaches the language you want to learn and then you set an appointment to “meet” on Skype. So, you get to have one-on-one lessons and conversations with native speakers, face to face, via video chatting. Some languages are more prevalent than others, but you’d have to be learning something pretty obscure to not find someone to help you.
Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. The professional teachers on italki.com hold relevant certifications and have experience in language teaching. Yet, the costs are often a great value. A decent hourly wage for some countries may seem like a bargain for many Americans and others. It’s worth noting, too, that the Community Tutors charge less, because they do not have professional credentials. I would recommend perusing their profiles, as well, I’ve had mixed results with Community Tutors, but some of the best teachers I’ve found were, in fact, Community Tutors.
Language is the primary conveyor of culture and the more you can delve into the local culture while traveling, the richer your travel experience is likely to be. Daunting though it may seem, learning a new language (even just a little) is more achievable than you might think.
Another option for learning a language is to purchase a language course. Popular language courses include Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur, but in my opinion, they all tend to be a bit expensive. I also have doubts about their effectiveness. If you’ve had success in attaining fluency through the use of a language course, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
There is another option that intrigues me, which I think is the most effective way to learn a foreign language. I’m talking about language immersion. You could accomplish this on your own through independent language travel, but there are many places around there world that offers language immersion classes. In these cases, your trip is all about learning, but you do so while engaged and immersed in the local community. For instance, if you wanted to learn Spanish, Costa Rica is a popular place to do so through language immersion. Another popular place for Spanish lessons is Antigua, Guatamala. Most language immersion schools offer packages ranging from a few days, up to multiple weeks.
Teaching abroad is also a good way to learn your target language. If you only speak one language, that is typically not a problem for getting a job teaching your language in another country. The fact that you are a native speaker of the language you’ll be teaching is of much more importance. It is common for language schools to offer their teachers free, or discounted, classes to learn the language of the host country. Add to that the fact that you will be living in the host country and this could really accelerate your language learning. Instead of paying for a language immersion class, you would, essentially, be getting paid to immersed in your new language.
Whatever your language travel goals might be, there are lots of way to pursue a new language in the context of seeing the world. Armed with a few phrases, or on the fast track to fluency, engaging with new places and people through language is an enriching way to see the world. So, go ahead. Give it a try. When in Rome, speak Italian.