It doesn’t have to be hard.
For me, one of the most essential aspects of traveling is immersing myself in the culture of the destination. Culture can involve many different things: food, theater performances, museums, architectural wonders. However, the arguably most crucial facet of cultural immersion is language―more specifically, how we, the tourists, communicate with the locals.
Of course, no one expects a tourist to be fluent in the language of said destination. Still, there are many benefits of attempting to bridge the language barrier: you receive respect, build trust with locals, gain independence, etc. Plus, cultural awareness of your surroundings and your position as a foreigner is essential to being a culturally sensitive traveler. With these pointers in mind, here are some tips and applications that promote foreign language learning:
1 | Learn the Basics on Duolingo
A personal favorite of mine, Duolingo is perfect for ambitious language learners who desire to learn multiple languages (although I suggest sticking to 1-2 at a time)! The website and app both have a very user-friendly interface, with short, game-like exercises to keep you engaged. Lessons are divided into distinct topics like “Weather,” “Food,” and “Family,” to ensure that you focus. They don’t throw too many unrelated vocabulary words at you at a time.
As you progress through a specific lesson, you gain experience and unlock more levels for that topic. But be careful―neglecting lessons for a while can lead to the skill “shattering,” causing you to go back to the basics.
Thankfully, due to its game-like structure, Duolingo provides many ways to keep you motivated. There are daily streaks, a point system for tracking your progress, leveling up, virtual currency, and global competitions recorded via a Leaderboards feature. Invite your friends to join in on the fun, because after all, language learning should be a fun and shared experience!
Duolingo is available for free on its website, iOS, and Android.
2 | Lounge in your bed for some “Netflix and learning.”
Although not a replacement for legitimate practice, watching a foreign-language TV show or movie on Netflix and other streaming services is a great way to complement your studies. After all, these are real conversations between native speakers, giving you a sense of how they pronounce certain words and slang… because let’s face it: a typical language curriculum does not teach practical vocabulary.
Turning on subtitles can also ensure your reading and grammatical skills are fresh, and if you refrain from pausing you’ll consistently improve your reading speed, too.
3 | Learn more with a bonus extension
If you are especially committed to language immersion, then you can download the free Chrome extension called Language Learning With Netflix. The extension provides a comprehensive catalog of titles organized by your target language; for example, if you choose French, then the extension will generate a list of films and shows produced initially in the French language.
When you watch a movie or series through this extension, you’ll see two sets of subtitles: one in English and one in the target language. The Chrome extension highlights the new language you’re trying to learn whenever someone speaks it, like a sing-along. Other cool features include a built-in dictionary and auto-pause playback.
You can find out more about the LLN Chrome extension on their website.
4 | Digitally immerse yourself via Rosetta Stone
Named after the famous artifact that allowed researchers, historians, and linguists to decipher the mysteries of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Rosetta Stone is probably the best known and popular language learning service.
Starting back in the ‘90s by providing sets of discs, the service has caught up with the times. It now offers a truly immersive experience online: you enter a lesson without any help from or translation of your primary language. Instead, the program forces learners to rely on auditory clips and visual indicators to progress through the exercises.
It’s like plopping yourself in a foreign country without the help of a dictionary, phone, or tour guide; you just have to go with the flow and learn as you explore!
Other new features include a patented speech-recognition engine that helps refine how you speak to align with a natural accent and an augmented reality tool that translates the word of any item at which you point your camera.
Rosetta Stone offers a free trial, a 3-month package for your chosen language for $11.99/month, and an “Unlimited Languages” package for three months ($7.99/month), 24 months ($5.99/month), or lifetime ($199) on their website, iOS, and Android.
5 | Carry a trusty pocket dictionary
When you are on-the-go at your travel destination, carrying a pocket dictionary (e.g., English-Spanish dictionary) can be a life-saver. Some dictionaries are even explicitly written for travelers and contain vocabulary related to mannerisms, navigation, and ordering food.
In this new day and age, you might think a pocket dictionary is redundant due to the availability of apps like Google Translate and Word Reference. We get that.
But phone reception might be and usually is spotty in a foreign country (if you even have phone reception at all), so owning a physical dictionary will ensure that you can explore locations without fear of getting lost and not knowing with whom to speak or how.
When I was in Spain, Barron’s English-Spanish Pocket Dictionary was extremely helpful—they even offer it in several different languages!
6 | Pair yourself up with a language partner in person
The most effective way to learn a language is simply to converse with a native speaker of that language. As one who studied abroad in Spain, I can assure you that it is incredibly helpful. You have to think quickly about what you want to say to keep the conversation flowing. And by doing so, you expose yourself to the native accent, which will do wonders for your listening comprehension and verbal practice.
It can be daunting at first since you might not understand your interlocutor half the time, or you might be embarrassed about pronunciation, but don’t worry―confidence comes with practice.
There are many ways to find a language partner to practice with, both formal and informal. Depending on where you live, many cities and surrounding towns have language centers where people can casually meet for language exchanges. When I was in Madrid, there was a multitude hosted at bars, cafes, bookstores, and university buildings, and I do not doubt that they exist everywhere.
7 | Pair yourself up with a language partner online
However, if you do not live in or near an urban center where it’s easy to find a language partner, there are programs like Tandem where you can join an online community of learners and set up virtual calls with other users. Tandem is also great if you are looking for a more personal one-on-one experience. Whether online or in-person, you will surely find your destined language partner!
You can join the online community on their website or download their app on iOS and Android.
As world travelers and world citizens, we should be immersing ourselves in every aspect of a culture, not just the tangible “fun” or “beautiful” parts. Do not get me wrong―learning a language can be incredibly difficult and time-consuming. However, even knowing the basics of another language is extremely helpful when you decide to travel to a country where the natives do not speak or understand English. Making an effort shows that you care and respect local cultures and that you are well-intentioned in your travels.
Hasta luego! Au revoir! Tạm biệt! !وَداعاً
The History and Linguistics of Cursing – from GRÆS Magazine
The Fluent Show – a podcast hosted by Kerstin Cable with tips, stories, and news on language learning
How to Be Safe and Culturally Sensitive When You Travel – from Smarter Travel Media
And finally, from Vanity Fair, a treat with Antonio Banderas. Check out their YouTube channel for more fascinating videos on slang in other languages.