“¡Hola! ¿Cómo puedo ayudarle?” I slightly panic and concentrate on taking a measured breath before I speak. “I can do this”, I say to myself as I smile and say, “Hóla, quisiera un menú, por favor.” The waiter politely nods and briefly disappears before reappearing with two menus for my wife and me. I suddenly feel like I’ve just transformed into the Dos Equis spokesman.
I’m surprised that I held onto the following misconception about language for so long. I used to feel, in some weird way, that some people were predestined to fluently speak more than two languages. I knew that being brought up in a two-language household produced bilingual speakers but to speak three or more languages seemed like a talent you had to be graced with at birth. Further, I ignored evidence that clearly pointed out that being native-level fluent at more than two languages is not as common as I assumed. In fact, the more we traveled the more I realized that it is far, far more common to find someone who is trying to speak just one non-native language at a wide range of fluency (or, rather, lack of any fluency!) than it is to find the mythical perfectly-accented speaker of multiple languages. When I finally realized that the only difference between the speaker of multiple languages and me is that the other person is trying to speak another language, it was a moment of clarity for me.
Bonus points for trying
We also learned something else that had not crystallized during our previous, shorter trips. Learning someone’s language is probably the strongest way to communicate that you care about that person’s culture. It tells native speakers that you decided their culture, language, and way of life means something to you and, because you value it, you were willing to invest the time necessary to speak their language. I’ve had people thank me for trying to speak their language. You can’t fake it.
But, won’t you sound funny when you try to speak another language? Yep, I 100% guarantee it – at least at first. However, no one will make fun of you for trying to speak their language.* Have you ever made fun of someone for trying to speak English? Not likely. In fact, you have probably gotten excited at helping someone with their English and encouraged them by telling them how well they spoke even if you could hardly understand them!
No, you cannot just shove an iPhone in someone’s face
I love technology. I’ve spent most of my personal life, educational life, and career deep in the software world. In the words of Marc Andreessen: “software is eating the world.” There are some pretty cool smartphone apps now for translating spoken language on the fly. However, no matter how digital our world ultimately becomes I also recognize that we are all Homo sapiens – social creatures – and we crave real connections, both physical and mental.
Any kind of technology that is between you and another person is friction. Think about it, would you rather speak to someone on a video call or in person? I love Skype but I prefer an in-person conversation when I can. If you are just trying to order a meal at a restaurant in a foreign country then an app is perhaps better than playing charades. However, always using the app means you will lose out on two critical opportunities: 1) the chance to make a connection with someone and 2) a chance to banish your fear and build useful language skills.
Imagine the roles are switched and you have someone holding out an iPhone to you instead of trying to speak your language. I know it would be hard for me not to feel like the person could not be bothered to at least try to learn something about my language and culture.
Now, you may be cynical and say that you can’t make an authentic connection with someone when ordering a meal, getting a drink, or buying something at a store. Have you ever had a conversation in English with someone in a bar or store and discovered something new? Perhaps you gained an insight into why the local people do something that seems weird to you, learned about the real history of your town, or you found out about a great restaurant. We have this happen fairly frequently, but we can never predict when it will happen.
You may be thinking this all sounds cliché. Fair enough, I’ll give you another reason to learn languages. When people speak a different language they find that they actually think differently than in their native tongue. I feel this is likely true. I feel like I view the world a different way when speaking German than when stumbling along in Spanish.** Learning a language will give you a deeper insight into the world we live in.
Language cheat sheets
Over time we have adopted a practice I call “language cheat sheets”. I cannot recall if I ever heard of someone else doing this or if we came up with it on our own. Since I love lists, it is likely we organically constructed this travel hack after watching a Sonia Gil video. The general idea is that for many of your interactions with people while you are traveling you will essentially be following a script. As long as everyone follows the script then you’ll do fine. Of course, if they deviate then things get interesting! The bonus side effect is that you’ll become more comfortable in your target language quicker and get more adventurous over time.
We came up with our scripts by thinking about our common interactions: ordering at a restaurant, buying groceries at the store, taking a taxi, and buying tickets to a museum or park. We also thought about key needs like numbers, colors, starter phrases like “we/I would like…” While I’ve now learned a fair amount of the International Phonetic Alphabet, when we started traveling I did not. Thus, I made up my own pronunciation symbols and phonetic spellings to help me get somewhat close to the right pronunciations. Over time and continued use, you will refine your scripts and even stop worrying about writing further details down. You will just be using your acquired bits and pieces of your target language. You will then be ready for cannonball diving into the deep end and learning more about your favorite language(s) than just the pleasantries and basic restaurant ordering.
Start learning your favorite language right now
There are boatloads of high-quality resources for learning languages on the web. Fortunately, many are free or very low-cost. In general, you should be able to gain a functional grasp of most languages for very little money. I’ll list a few here to point you in the right direction:
Gabriel Wyner is an interesting fellow. He is an opera singer. He realized that as an opera singer, audiences don’t want to pay to hear a singer with an accent. Thus, he did a lot of research into learning languages and distilled his methods down into usable techniques for the rest of us. He is big into pronunciation trainers and spaced repetition systems. I’ve been using them both now for about four months and can tell a difference. His website has a lot of information. His book is a good one to read before you jump into language learning (check your local library for a copy). I also found his word lists and pronunciation trainers to be well worth the purchase.
The title of Benny Lewis’ website and book is just to grab your attention. You won’t be native fluent in three months. However, Benny is like Gabriel Wyner’s brother from another mother. Benny also emphasizes the spaced repetition systems. Benny goes further by encouraging you to immediately start using your language no matter where you are. He likes iTalki for finding a language partner. I feel that Benny’s self-deprecating personality and his story about learning his first language at 21 are quite motivating. Plus, he’s just a fun fellow with fun friends.
This program is a free implementation of the spaced repetition system (i.e., custom flashcard system) that Wyner and Lewis recommend. It may take you a bit to understand how to use it but hang in there. It will significantly help you with learning your target language. I recommend downloading Wyner’s free template deck and the free tutorials on Anki. While the Anki app for the Android OS and the website are free, the Anki developer charges a one-time fee of $25 for the iOS app (iPhone/iPad) to fund his overall development efforts. It is not cheap, but after buying it, I now use it daily with my language studies.
Duolingo is a free, well-constructed language learning system available on the web, Android devices, and iOS devices. It reminds me of Rosetta Stone. Be forewarned, it is pretty addictive.
I’ve found many good authors selling inexpensive Kindle books that are basic, but interesting story books. For example, André Klein has good German readers and Paco Ardit has fun Spanish ones. I’ve seen authors for other languages as well. I’ve only scratched the surface with my studies.
This site is designed to connect you with speakers of your target language. You can find professional tutors, informal teachers, and language partners. The tutors cost money but the language partners simply trade speaking time in their language for speaking time in your language.
Writing in your target language is an excellent exercise. You can journal daily in your target language on Lang-8 for free. Then, native speakers will correct your writing and give you feedback – sometimes, shockingly fast. In return, you mark up someone’s work in English or whatever other language you speak.
As you get rolling in learning your target language you will want to make sure you are pronouncing words correctly. Forvo is a free site where native speakers upload pronunciations of words in their language. The great thing about Forvo is you can see where on a global map a particular speaker lives. This gives you the ability to decide what accent you want to focus on (e.g., learning Spanish as spoken by Argentines or that of Peruvians). Just like an Australian will sound different than an English speaker from Alabama other languages have dialects ranging from slight to extreme. I also use Forvo to download audio clips of vocabulary words for my Anki flashcards. You will need to create a free account to be able to download audio clips (note: the little down arrow next to each pronunciation is for downloading that particular clip).
You can find high-quality videos for all levels and different languages on YouTube. For example, this Spanish series has interviewers go out into the street to ask people fun questions such as “what would you never lend someone?” I fire up my Roku and get lost in my target language.
Much more enjoyable than your high school language classes
In the past, I dreamed of someday learning multiple languages to the point where I would feel comfortable in many situations. I think that using language cheat sheets while we started traveling gave me the confidence to finally be able to envision what it would be like to speak multiple languages. As I have gone further down the language learning path I have discovered that using languages is a lot more fun – even for an introvert like me – than high school and college language classes made it seem. There is something magical about being able communicate ideas and get things you need in another language. You just might also make some new friends in the process.
Please comment below if you have figured out some good language learning short-cuts or know of some resources I missed.
¡Buena suerte! Viel Glück! Good luck!
* One time I accidentally asked for fish juice for breakfast instead of peach juice on an Italian train. Another time I told an Austrian waiter she was crazy instead of asking for change back from paying a bill. I’ve flubbed up many times but no one has ever made fun of me or made me feel inferior. In fact, just the opposite has happened. Even the previously stoic Italian attendant on the train broke into a big smile, chuckled, and explained the pronunciation difference between “pesce” (fish) and “pesca” (peach). For the rest of the train ride we had great service from her. I suspect this was at least partially due to my attempts at speaking Italian.
** If you ever see me then please greet me in Spanish or German. I’ll do my best to carry the conversation along. You should take advantage of practicing whenever you can!