In this day and age it’s possible to travel around the world – from Ushuaia to Ulaan Baatar – and speak nothing but English the whole time.
Why bother learning Thai or Hindi, when touts in Bangkok and Delhi can hook you up with everything you could possibly want or need – “Very Cheap, My Friend, Special for You!”
The answer, of course, is that making the effort to speak a few words of the local language will lead to a more authentic, fulfilling, unique and memorable travel experience.
After all, you’re a brave new traveler. You already knew that.
But how to learn Bemba when you only have a few weeks in Zambia? Or what Arabic phrases will make the street vendor in Cairo stop mumbling about baksheesh?
Short of signing up for immersive language lessons, here are the best ways to learn a foreign language on the road:
1. Speak With Your Stomach
In most cultures, meals are a social event, and even the shyest solo traveler is certain to interact with locals when ordering food and drink.
The first word you should learn in a foreign country is “delicious.” Beyond that, fill your stomach and vocabulary with food words – water, vegetable, noodle, meat – and the names of local delicacies.
Point to various fruits in the market and ask the vendors to teach you the names.
These are words that you can use over and over, day in and day out – and it just feels cool to walk into a restaurant and wave away the English menu.
2. Make People Laugh
People will laugh at your attempts to speak their language regardless of what you’re actually trying to say.
But if you memorize a joke or a funny phrase in the local lingo, it will really crack them up – and crack cultural barriers too.
“Eating chili peppers makes my asshole burn” was one of the first phrases I learned while traveling in Bhutan.
Since the Bhutanese eat chili peppers with everything, I was able to use my laugh-line three or four times a day. A good laugh is something that transcends culture – nothing is more disarming – but do be sure your joke is culturally appropriate.
Ask a friendly local to help you memorize a good one.
3. Make Your Own Phrasebook
Phrasebooks are great, but they are also limiting. Instead of relying on the same book everyone else brings, make your own list of words and useful phrases.
This way, you can spell words the way they sound to your ear and choose phrases that are useful to you – not some business traveler who wants his suit dry-cleaned.
Plus, when locals see you making an effort to learn by writing things down, they’ll be eager to contribute to your list.
4. Avoid Tourist Hangouts
Instead of swallowing down an overpriced pizza in a backpacker café, wander away from the tourist haunts, duck into a local restaurant and try out a few of the food words from your homemade phrasebook.
When the people sitting at the next table compliment you on your skills and ask you to pull up a chair, wait for an appropriate time to tell your joke.
Your phrasebook will fill up faster than your hand can scribble, and you’ll have a whole new group of local pals.
5. Indulge Your Inner Four-Year Old
The single best way to learn a foreign language is to start studying before your fifth birthday.
(Since most readers of Brave New Traveler are already through kindergarten, this fact isn’t very helpful).
But no matter how old you are, there’s nothing to stop you from acting like a kid and hanging out with kids while you travel.
Make language learning a game and play with the local tykes. They’ll be thrilled to have a new playmate and will never be too shy to correct your pronunciation.
6. Go Shopping
You’ll learn numbers fast while bargaining over the price of a new pair of flip-flops or buying breakfast sandwiches in the local market.
Learn how to say “This is too expensive” and “I want the local price.”
Shopkeepers may not give in completely, but by speaking a little of the local language you’ll demonstrate that you’re not a totally clueless tourist.
Just be sure not to order 20 mangos when you wanted 1 mango for 20 baht!
In many countries, you’ll be approached by locals eager to practice their English. This can sometimes get annoying, but it’s often rewarding to be patient and indulge them in conversation.
As long as they aren’t trying to sell you something, sit down somewhere, order a drink and listen to their story. After speaking English for a while, ask them to help you learn some of their language.
Most will be happy to oblige – and in the best case scenario, you’ll be invited home for dinner with their family.
BONUS: Listen to Tim talk about this article over at Indie Travel Podcast.
Do you have any tips for learning a foreign language on the road? Leave a comment below!