Photo: Waraporn Chokchaiworarat/Shutterstock

How to: Eat a New Language

by Turner Wright May 5, 2009
The simple act of eating might be the most important thing you can do to learn a new language.

If you’re living abroad, struggling with a foreign language and can’t seem to find the time to go over phrases in a textbook, what’s the best way to learn?

Go out to dinner!

Here’s how to eat your way to fluency.

1. Start Small

The best way to learn a language is to start off with simple words.

The vocabulary of food is dead simple. Even if you’re taking the easy route and going to a McDonald’s, you can still use words like “beef”, “chicken” and “drink”.

Editor’s Note – Is there any real chicken left at McDonald’s? How do you say McNugget in Mandarin?

2. Daily Meals

Try to eat out at least once a day to build your language skills and practice any material you might have reviewed. It’s tempting to save money and just let the rice cooker do the work at home, but you lose opportunities by staying in.

When I was living in Japan, each day I typically had one set phrase that I learned from the textbook, bounced off my coworkers, and then practiced in the restaurant (e.g. “Kyou no osusume wa nan desu ka?”, or “Yo, what’s cooking?”).

Not only was I able to eat well, but I also used the sentence structure and grammar to form conversations in other situations.

3. Currying Favor

Every culture has their own “foreigner food test” – a seemingly disgusting food that’s actually kind of good once you get used to it.

In Japan there’s natto (fermented soy beans).

Durian (stinky fruit) in the test in Thailand. Australia has vegemite and we’ve got Dominos in America.

Although you may have no control over your gag relax when first trying these foods, finding the taste buds needed to enjoy them and telling the locals that they taste delicious will tear away cultural misconceptions.

4. Start With Delicious

The most valuable word to learn first in any foreign language is simply “delicious”. You might even find yourself muttering the word when no longer in the country, nor eating the same exotic foods:

“Délicieux! Oishi! Aroi mac! Que rico!”

Eventually you can move on to “sweet”, “sour”, “smooth”, and “Yes, I would like fries with that.”

5. Get To Know Your Neighbors

Photo: imorpheus

One of the advantages of being one of the few white faces in a country like Japan was being recognized at the local supermarket, yakitori stand, convenience store, and izakaya.

By visiting shops and restaurants frequently, most of the staff and waiters came to know me by name. Sometimes they would encourage me to try something new, which always involved me learning a new word and a new phrase to describe the food:

“Excuse me… what is this exactly?”

“ Ah yes, that pasta is topped with octopus and salmon roe covered in squid ink.”

…well, it was worth the experience anyway.

Do you know how to say “delicious” in any foreign language? If so, please tell us how by leaving a comment below!

Community Connection

To get jump started learning about food wherever you’re headed, check out these essential cookbooks for the culinary traveler.

For an exploration of how eating is a cultural experience, take a look at tasting place.

If you’re stuck on just where to begin, Japan expert Abram Plaut offers his tips on ramen joints in Tokyo, Contributing Editor Sarah Menkedick gives an overview of foods you can’t miss in Mexico and Matador Nights shares the best cities for late night snacks.

Discover Matador

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