Most of the time, the end goal of language learning is fluency. But sometimes you don’t have the time or need to become fluent. Maybe you scored a deal and are heading off to Dominican Republic. Maybe your job is sending you to Cameroon next month. Or maybe you’ve just always wanted to see Prague but probably won’t ever immerse yourself in Czech literature, at least not in the original. How should you change your learning to match a goal that is somewhere short of fluency?
I’ve never become fluent in a foreign language. I’m working on it, but I’ve never hit that level. However, I’ve traveled a lot and learned how to quickly pick up just enough of a language to get by.
Along the way, I’ve learned that most people really appreciate the effort and had some experiences that wouldn’t have been available to me without having tried to master the local tongue. If you have a bit of time before you take off, but not enough to realistically master the language, here is what I recommend working on.
Tip #1: Practice Speaking As Much As You Can
Read everything out loud. This sounds silly but it works. Not only does it allow you to practice your accent, but the act of saying a foreign language aloud has been shown to help with retention and understanding. There is some pretty interesting cognitive science behind this if you want to explore ⌈1⌋, but trust me: reading out loud can help you improve your accent, understand sentence structure, and remember vocabulary more easily. LingoDeer already has you speak aloud but go even further and read all of the sentences aloud.
- LingoDeer’s ability to play back your own voice and listen to it next to a native speaker is fantastic, but you can use the app even more aggressively if you read every sentence aloud. Try to say sentences alongside the recorded version.
- If you have an iPhone, you can use the Notes app to practice pronunciation. Set your keyboard to the appropriate language and try to dictate notes. It sounds weird but if you can make your phone understand you then a human will not be a problem.
Tip #2: Focus on Basics (and Ignore Grammar)
People you interact with will make very quick judgments about your ability to speak their language, which will determine how they deal with you. If their first impression is that you are terrible at their language, this can range from condescension (What’s up, Italy?), to stereotypical rudeness (Parisians, I’m looking at you), to not even letting you in to certain establishments (Thanks, Tokyo).
A good command of the basics (and learning some basic local etiquette) will make people much more likely to help you and far more sympathetic when you butcher the more advanced phrases.
For basics, learn greetings, polite requests, thank yous, and any other courteous phrases you think you’ll need. Learn how to ask for directions and how to order food. If there are particular circumstances you’re worried about, look up those situations too.
You also shouldn’t worry too much about grammar. You’ll need to really understand grammar to become fluent, but that’s not what we’re doing here. Grammar often has a lot of exceptions, and those exceptions are disproportionately found in everyday speech.
Take the French passé composé. That’s a tense that is for completed actions in the past. Usually, it uses the auxiliary verb avoir (to have) before the past tense verb. But for some verbs, it uses the auxiliary verb être (“to be”) ⌈2⌋. And the words that use être are all very common words, mostly related to movement. “To come,” “to go,” “to enter,” “to exit,” “to rest,” “to arrive,” and “to leave” all use être in the passé composé ⌈3⌋. And I haven’t even gotten to the really fun part: there are also words (mostly reflexive verbs) that change meaning if you use être in place of avoir.
This would all be very important if you wanted to read Rousseau or speak with President Macron. But if you’re trying to get un café before asking directions to the Catacombs, you can probably get by having memorized the phrases, rather than understanding the finer points.
While we’re here, one interesting thing to consider: why are everyday words so much more likely to be exceptions? Because they can be. Words we use every day, like “to go,” “to have,” and “to be” are often irregular because they get used every day. They are unlikely to be loan words, which are typically regular, and their common use means they can maintain their irregularity while less common verbs, like “to defenestrate” will eventually default to standard forms ⌈4⌋.
Bottom line: travelers will get much further with a limited but perfect understanding of the basics than a broad but imperfect knowledge of the language. If you want to become fluent, you’ll have to learn all of the grammar structures of the language and a wide variety of vocabulary. But for travel, it really pays off to study only what you’ll need and make sure you get that stuff right.
- Go back and review the first lessons in LingoDeer. Don’t push yourself to keep advancing in the course just for the sake of doing it. Even as you move forward, try to do one review lesson a day. That repetition will help a lot.
- You know a few situations you’re likely to be in, like checking into a hotel or ordering food at a restaurant. Focus on those and work on your accent.
- And be sure to check out the LingoDeer’s newest feature — Travel Phrasebook.
Tip #3: Learn Your Verbs
Verbs are the heart of language. Nouns are great, but you can often point, describe, or mime them. It’s not ideal, but you’ll make yourself understood. Verbs are harder but have a higher return for travelers. Messing up a verb is also much more likely to make your sentence incomprehensible or mean something else entirely.
There are some verbs you know you are going to use: to go, to have, to be, to want, to eat, to drink, to come, and to leave are all certainties. Be sure to learn those and then think about what else you’ll need.
- Practice the major verb conjugations in the most common tenses, or at least the present and the simplest way to put something in the past and future tenses and learn the major irregular verbs. To be, to have, and to go are all going to come up on pretty much any trip, but as we’ve seen, they tend to be irregular.
Tip #4: Learn Essential Vocabulary
Certain words matter more to you than to someone else. I’m allergic to oysters (yeah, I know, they’re delicious and it sucks). It is very important that I know how to communicate that when I travel, even though they’re not the most common food. I’ll always learn that word before a trip, just in case. But most resources will group vocabulary by subject, because that is what makes sense for someone looking to completely master the language.
Do you really need to learn all of the words related to a particular topic? For a week-long vacation, probably not. But while you might not need all the words for sports in your arsenal, if you’re going to a game while traveling, you might want to look up the vocabulary particular to that sport. (I recommend doing this for most sports in the United Kingdom even if you’re a native English speaker, as cricket is basically a foreign language anyway.)
Same with clothes; your basic course might teach you how to say “skirt” but not “necktie,” or vice-versa. But you know what you wear or might want or need to buy. So look up those words.
- Make a list of the words you will absolutely need, then the words you would like to know or would be helpful. Be sure you know those, regardless of what your language learning resources are teaching you.
Tip #5: Cultural Competence Matters
Languages have idioms, false cognates, and lots of other traps for the unwary. Sometimes these can be pretty offensive. I once learned a pretty bad word from a French movie. A word that LingoDeer’s editorial standards won’t let me translate here. I used this word when trying to speak French. With my professor. During an oral exam. To my infinitely patient professor’s credit she laughed it off ⌈5⌋.
Some of these areas are a bit more subtle. French people often think of Americans as bubbly or overly positive because we tend to respond to “how are you doing?” with “very well,” or “good!” Either of those responses is common and grammatically correct in French, but French people tend to say pas mal (“not bad”) and it can sound grating and over eager to them when we respond to “how are you” with très bien (“very well”).
- Google common mistakes and regional differences before you go. Sometimes the subreddit for the language you’re learning will have a good list of examples. It doesn’t take long and at worst, won’t hurt you, but at best can really help you out in a jam.
- Listening to the radio or watching movies and television in the foreign language can be very helpful.
Tip #6: Don’t Practice Writing
Of the four basic areas of competence in a foreign language, speaking, listening, reading, and writing, writing is by far the hardest. For a short trip, you are unlikely to be writing much. It is more efficient to use your time listening to native media or learning new words. Think of this as an application of the 80/20 rule. Most of your success will come from a relatively small number of things. Why prioritize the skill that is not only the hardest to learn, but that you will use the least?
- Don’t bother with writing, except to the extent that it helps you work on speaking, listening, or reading.
- If you absolutely have to write something, use Google Translate (but be careful), try to rely on phrases you know cold, and ask a native speaker to help you if you can.
Tip #7 (Optional): Get Familiar with Colloquialisms
The last tip I’ll give you should only be used if you feel comfortable with it. If you still feel like you’re struggling with basics, you can skip this, but colloquialisms can also help you sound far more natural.
In Japanese, for example, native speakers tend to omit pronouns if (or once) it’s clear who they are talking about. The first time I went to Japan, I was pretty locked into my English syntax, and would overuse pronouns. If the host of a bar or restaurant asked me how many people we were, I would answer with something like watashitachi wa futari desu. It was a dead giveaway that my Japanese sucked. Watashitachi is hard to say perfectly (Japanese stresses syllables in a very different way from English) and a native speaker would likely omit it entirely.
The second time I went, places that might have been “full” on our first trip let us in because my Japanese sounded much more natural, even though I was still a relative novice in the language, because in the same scenario I knew to just say futari desu. It’s a very small change, but it helped a lot. Traveling in Munich, a pharmacist was much more willing to put up with my halting German (which was much worse than normal because I had a head cold, hence the pharmacy), because I used the greeting grüß gott, which is used in Bavaria in place of guten tag and is a point of regional pride.
Learning about these differences is also a very fun way to learn about cross-cultural communications.
There are two ways to acquire that knowledge:
- look them up as much as possible ahead of time, or
- let yourself discover them on your own.
This is the one area where I think study may not be the way to go; learning these differences naturally can be a really wonderful moment of cross-cultural understanding, and the process of figuring it out will deepen your understanding of the language and the culture.
Learning a language for fluency is a different process than learning for travel. Some of the techniques I’ve pointed out here are good advice for any language learner, but they are particularly effective if you are only learning for a short trip. I can’t promise you’ll never run into a situation where your language skills just aren’t enough, but if you follow this advice, you’ll not only get to do some things most tourists don’t, but you’ll be a better traveler.
⌈1⌋ One summary is Liangguan Huang, Reading Aloud in the Foreign Language Teaching, Asian Social Sciences Vol. 6, NO. 4, 2010, at 148, but there is a ton of research behind this.
⌈2⌋ There are 13 of these verbs, and generations of students of French have learned to curse Dr. and Mrs. Vandertramp, the acronym often used to remember them.
⌈3⌋ If you’re curious, the full list is: devenir, revenir, monter, rester, sortir, venir, aller, naître, descender, entrer, rentrer, tomber, retourner, arriver, mourir, and partir. No, I didn’t do this off the top of my head but there was definitely a time in my life when I could have.
⌈4⌋ There’s even a mathematical formula for this process, that shows how the less frequently a verb is used, the faster it will regularize.
⌈5⌋ The word was connard. Feel free to look it up, just keep in mind that the conventional translations don’t capture the full force of how terrible a word this is in French. Then imagine an idiotic nineteen-year-old student saying this to a tenured professor at a major research university.