Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig

Language Learning Before Traveling Abroad? Maybe! But When & What to Learn?

travel highlights - Are you planning to travel abroad this year? Then, should learning the local language be part of your preparation?

Language enthusiasts will likely answer with a clear: “Yes, obviously,” and give you a number of reasons. One of our guest writers did so recently in 5 Reasons for Learning a Language Before You Travel.

Maybe you also saw some ads, such as “Learn a Language in 10 Days.” Or perhaps Benny Lewis' site Fluent in 3 Months convinced you to get started before your next trip.

Yes, learning a new language can be an exciting project. With your new language comes a whole new world to explore - a different way of looking at the world, even a different way of going through daily life.

However, if you are a busy adult with many demands on your time, you also have to decide how much time and effort you can really commit. So, you can probably use a more qualified answer than just “Yes, obviously.”

Types of Travel

“Traveling abroad” can cover a variety of situations:
- a weekend trip to a foreign resort
- an organized tour with others through one or more foreign countries
- staying in, or traveling through a foreign country for several weeks on your own or with a like-minded partner
- living abroad for several months (or years)

The first two situations will hardly give you a strong reason to START learning a foreign language. But, they could still give you a good push to BRUSH UP on a language you haven't used for a while.

As we suggest below, for a shorter visit you can focus on specific vocabulary that you could use in almost any social encounter. On the other hand, the last two situations will certainly provide many opportunities for communicating in the foreign language. Thus, preparing for your trip or stay will very likely include learning and/or practicing the language of the country more extensively.

Language Complexities

easy-medium-hard - For English speakers, some languages are easier to learn than others. Language Testing International's chart for How long Does it Take to Become Proficient? categorizes many of the European languages as Group I languages.

(Group IV languages, which include Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc. are thought to take at least twice as much time to learn as Group I languages.)

For that reason, you'll have to calibrate your preparation time to the complexity of the language and the time you can commit on a daily and weekly basis. The two of us don't speak any of the Group IV languages. But before we traveled to China and Japan, we learned some specific vocabulary that proved quite useful.

Language Learning Hang-ups

Some of us remember our school experience and associate learning a foreign language with “boring,” “irrelevant,” and “embarrassing.”  For example, in school, we had to memorize lists of strange-sounding words and learn sentences we would never use.

We had to figure out abstract grammar rules and we had to drill paradigms (je vais, tu vas, il va, nous allons, etc.). We had to speak up “foreign” in front of our classmates. We got graded on our pronunciation and spelling. Once the classes were over, much of the language faded.

Instead, learning a language can be a fresh and fun experience. It should stretch our mind and engage our whole person. One way to do this is to tie language learning to the enjoyment of planning and anticipating a trip.

Language “Recoveries”

Recoveries - A trip may also be a wonderful opportunity to “recover” a dormant language. It could be a language you heard as a child or studied in school, but never had the experience to hear spoken in its native environment. (see also: 2 Strategies for Relearning a Dormant Language)

Rather than “learning” per se, you could just start LISTENING to foreign radio stations, podcasts, and watch videos or movies in your target language. You may be amazed how much you understand, how much is “still there.” And don't worry about speaking. This will come later.

Our Own Experience

Some years ago (before we started Gamesforlanguage), we decided to spend five months in Rome, Italy. While both of us, in addition to our native German, speak English and French quite fluently, we did not speak any Italian.

About six months before our departure, we began learning Italian with Pimsleur CDs and completed all three Italian courses (90 lessons). It was a humbling experience - as we described in one of our 2011 posts - and one of the main reasons we started our own language learning site!

But it was the preparation before our stay that gave us also the foundation and the desire to really get into Italian once we were there. The progress we made with our tutor in Rome would not have been possible if we hadn't started to learn Italian before our trip.

Our Rome adventure also taught us a few lessons for our travels to countries with languages we don't speak, namely China and Japan (as well as Sweden and Norway.)

What Can or Should you Learn?

It's obvious: the more time you plan to spend in a foreign country on your own, the more intensive your preparation should be. Today, you no longer have to rely just on language classes, books, or CDs. You can learn with online courses and apps (free or fee-based), improve your reading with browser translation extensions, and practice your speaking on language-exchange sites or with online tutors such as italki.

And even if you only spend a few days in the foreign country and don't have the time or interest to really learn the language, we have found that these three (3) word/phrase categories are extremely helpful and should be in your arsenal:
- Communication essentials such as Yes/No, Please, Thank you, You're welcome, Excuse me, Hello, Good-bye, etc.
- Numbers
- Time phrases (minutes, hours, times of day, days of the week)

numbers - Every foreign guidebook has a phrase section, which includes the above three categories, as well as others such as Emergency, Shopping, Sightseeing, Food/ Menu, etc.

(On our site and in the languages we cover, you'll find many free “Quick Language Games” with which to practice aloud or free Podcasts to “train your ear.” For either of these, you don't have to register.)

Before traveling to China and Japan, we only learned Chinese and Japanese basic phrases and numbers. Knowing the numbers 1-20 turned out to be surprisingly helpful.

Language Learning Before Traveling Abroad?

It's no secret, travel can be a terrific motivator for learning or re-learning a dormant language. Once you're realistic about your own time constraints, there's still much you can accomplish.

For short travels to any country, we recommend learning at least the vocabulary of the three categories above.

For longer stays abroad, you can be more ambitious. You should take advantage of the many opportunities that your town or access to the internet can give you. These may range from language classes in your local school or community center, to apps, and free or subscription-based online courses or language communities.

Learning a foreign language when not living in a country where it's spoken, is a long-term project. Visits to that country can definitely boost your enthusiasm as well as level up your fluency. You are in charge of your learning progress. Nobody can learn a language FOR you.

Disclosure: Only the italki link above is to a partner site with revenue-sharing.