Last updated: 03:00 PM ET, Mon December 07 2015

5 Practical Ways To Improve Your Language Skills On The Road

Features & Advice | Will Hatton | December 07, 2015

5 Practical Ways To Improve Your Language Skills On The Road

Photo by Will Hatton

So you’re getting ready for a trip, but you don’t have the time or extra money to take a Russian course before hitting the road? You don’t have space in your backpack for an enormous book on the ins and outs of French grammar? You don’t really feel comfortable with the idea of having to corner locals and mime shamelessly until they understand that you want to know the location of the nearest toilet?

Never fear: here are five fun and easy ways to improve your language skills wherever you are.

1) Couchsurfing

Couchsurfing is more than just a free place to stay. Those who sign up tend to be people who know and love their country, and are eager to show and teach visitors anything and everything about it. Not only that, but they love to learn from their guests and you will often become good friends.

What better setting for a language exchange? Your host will teach you how to ask where the toilet is (and then some), and you will teach them whatever they want to know, all in the context of great conversation with new friends. You will be blessed with firsthand local knowledge, including those words your mum wouldn’t like you to learn, you’ll have someone to correct your pronunciation, and you will have fun.

2) Local Programs and Events

From language cafes in many Swedish universities, to comprehensive intercambio programs in Spain, to Monkchat in Thailand, your destination is likely even more eager to teach you some lingo than you are to learn it. When you get there, ask people if there are any free programs like those above, which essentially pair you up with a local and let you talk about whatever you want, in whatever language you agree on.

Alternatively, get involved in an event which is quintessentially local, like Scottish Highland Games or a Finnish wife-carrying tournament: large amounts of excited locals plus tongue-loosening alcohol equals fertile soil for linguistic development.

3) Dating (Tinder)

Love it or hate it, almost everybody’s on it, but not everybody is looking for love (although it would be an added bonus). You’d be surprised at how many solo backpackers all over the world use Tinder as a way of meeting others who happen to be in the same area — be it a person seeking a backpacking buddy or looking for a local to hang out with (or, of course, that special someone).

Whether you want dates or platonic escapades, a redeeming feature of Tinder is that you actually have to talk to people before either can happen. As such, Tinder can be a great way to brush up on your written language skills, from the comfort of your closest Wi-Fi zone, or your speaking skills on that first romantic (or friendly) meeting!

4) Language Apps (uTalk)

What about that sizeable percentage of time you spend traveling during which you are not hanging out with the locals or chatting them up on Tinder? What if you prefer to stay in hostels, Tinder isn’t your thing, or you’re enjoying some downtime anywhere that has Wi-Fi? Then you need an app, which you can use to practice on your own, at your leisure, on the road or at home, to brush up on the essential phrases. uTalk is a fun and awesome app which allows you to learn pretty much any language from any part of the world. Seriously: they have Uzbek. The best part of all? It’s free!

5) Avoid English

Or whatever your native language is. If you want to learn a language, the best way to get better faster is to remove the choice about whether or not you need to speak it. This might sound obvious, but unless you make an effort to throw yourself off the beaten track, you will not have any problem finding hordes of other travelers eager to chat in your native language, or at least in passable English.

So get off the beaten track. Choose destinations that are a bit further from the main attractions or at least places to stay which are run by a local. Visit rural towns. Go to bars and places to eat where you can’t see any English on the menu. Go to the local market. Avoid tours where possible; ask locals where to go and how best to get around. Take a local bus and strike up a chat. Open with your new language.

So why is learning a language a great idea?

If you want to take a nosedive off the beaten track, to make local friends in faraway lands, or just to have the fullest experience possible, it’s time to learn a language. Learning a foreign tongue is the best way to endear yourself to the local people, to bond with them, and, as a result, is the best way to learn about, understand, and connect with the place you are visiting. It is your gateway to the hidden gems of a country that most other travelers probably won’t know about, or, at the very least, lead to a cold beer in a cool local bar.


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