Speaking a bit of the local language is a skill that will improve your travel experience immeasurably. The problem is that learning languages is really, really difficult, even when you have plenty of time. Here are my tips on taking a crash course in the basics of a language when your departure date looms very near. You just need ten or fifteen minutes a day to give yourself a bit of an advantage in the traveling stakes.
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7 Days to Go: Research
This might sound dumb, but look into exactly what language they speak in the country you’re visiting. I had friends working in Chile who were more than a little surprised that their Spanish-from-Spain was sometimes not understood and at other times led to hilarious misunderstandings.
Hit the internet to find out which language or dialect is going to work for you best. Even if all you learn is that the locals at your destination speak a dictionary-less version of the language, you’ll be wiser. I wish I’d known before I moved to Baden-WÃ¼rttemberg in south-west Germany that the locals would speak to me in Swabian. At the time I just thought that the six years of German study I’d done had all been a big failure.
6 Days to Go: Equip
You need resources. Exactly what depends on how long your trip is, but for anything more than a few days I strongly recommend a good phrase book. My personal preference is for Lonely Planet Phrasebooks, simply because they’re the right size and weight, include some interesting cultural asides and most importantly, focus on the kinds of sentences you really want to use. Unlike guidebooks, phrasebooks don’t go out of date fast so pick up a second-hand one if you’re keen.
You can also return to the internet and search for some pages of useful phrases that a helpful traveler or native speaker has already prepared for you. Print these off ready for your assault on the new language. Or look for a podcast that gives you a couple of beginner level lessons.
5 Days to Go: Cram
Even if you can procrastinate as well as me, you have to admit that five days before take-off is really the latest that you can start trying to learn a few words and have any hope of being able to use them. Start with four or five key phrases, including “thank you” and “excuse me” and a couple of your own choice, like greetings or questions about taxis and toilets.
If you’re heading to a country that doesn’t use the Roman alphabet, you should also try to learn to recognize the language. Learning the Cyrillic alphabet before you go to Russia is a manageable task, for example, and very useful when it comes to reading street signs. Making a start on Japanese katakana — the symbols they use when writing foreign words — is also doable, and a great help if you want to order some food in Japan. Break up the alphabets into five chunks and work on memorizing a chunk per day.
4 Days to Go: Panic
So you’ve forgotten everything you learned yesterday. Don’t worry, that’s normal, and it’s not really that it’s forgotten, you just can’t find it in your brain. Learn everything again and by take-off day you’ll remember. Stick phrases in places you’ll be forced to constantly see them — on your cell phone, in the bathroom, around your computer screen.
If you’ve picked up a phrasebook, flick through regularly to become familiar with its layout. It’s no use knowing that there’s a page to help you order a not-so-spicy meal in a restaurant if you can’t find it before the waiter gets impatient and walks off.
3 Days to Go: Add
Your handful of phrases will be starting to sound familiar now. It’s time to expand your vocabulary. On your travels, forming grammatically perfect sentences is unimportant. Knowing a few key words, however, is essential. Pick a few words that will be useful to you and memorize them. Things like “battery” if you’re a tech freak, “film” if you still can’t accept that digital cameras might take photos as well as the old way, “vegetarian” if you don’t eat meat. Write them out a hundred times, stick them on the fridge or tattoo them on your wrist.
2 Days to Go: Practice
You’re probably getting sick of your five phrases by now. If you can remember them all without looking at your notes, then add a couple more. If not, keep practicing. It might not be as easy to learn these sentences as it would have been in your elementary school days but you will remember them.
1 Day to Go: Impress
With a few basics under your belt, it’s time to get the piÃ¨ce de résistance. That’s the word or sentence that will stun the locals you meet and have them making friends with you for life. My husband’s favorite when we visited France was perceuse, which means a drill, like the kind you use to fix something to a wall. He’d learned it off a fellow engineer who’d spent time in Paris and it forever stuck in his mind, and you’d be amazed how many French men you can impress with a word like this in just one weekend. (French women, on the other hand, were as non-plussed as I was).
Take-Off Day: Speak
Use some of your flight or travel time to revise the bits of language you’ve been picking up over the last week. When you get into the country, speak. Say hello in the local language, thank everybody who helps you in their own language, and don’t be afraid to try out your new phrases. The chances are good that locals will respond positively and might even teach a new phrase or two. Most likely how to swear, but that’s the normal progression of language learning.