Language Learning Tips For Travel: Your Guide To Navigating Other Tongues 

Clothes? Check. Passport? Check. New language? Well, that’s up to you.
tips for travel represented by an image of a woman with a suitcase traveling

Travel can be an exhilarating whirlwind, with new sights, flavors and cultures to take in. But it can also be a trial by fire when you’re faced with obstacles that aren’t in your native language. From figuring out directions to ordering a meal or conversing with locals, the ability to communicate in the local language can be a game-changer for your travel experience. Here’s a quick guide to learning for travel. 

When Should I Start Learning A Language Before Travel?

Start learning the language as soon as you’ve locked in your travel destination. The amount of time you’ll need to become reasonably comfortable with the basics largely depends on the language.  If you’re a native English speaker, Spanish or French can be picked up in a matter of weeks, while languages like Mandarin or Arabic require a more extensive commitment. 

According to the Foreign Service Institute, here’s a rough guide to the time required to reach a basic conversational level:

  • Category I: Languages closely related to English (e.g., Spanish, French, Italian) — 24-30 weeks or 600-750 hours
  • Category II: Languages with significant linguistic differences from English (e.g., German) — 36 weeks or 900 hours
  • Category III: Languages with considerable linguistic and/or cultural differences from English (e.g., Russian, Thai) — 44 weeks or 1,100 hours
  • Category IV: Languages with extreme linguistic and/or cultural differences from English (e.g., Arabic, Japanese, Chinese) — 88 weeks or 2,200 hours

For a 1-2 week trip, aim to spend 15 minutes to an hour a day learning your chosen language. Consistency is key. Spacing out your study sessions helps reinforce what you’ve learned. This proven language-learning methodology is core to the Babbel Method: Our lessons use spaced repetition to help you learn incrementally and move new vocabulary from your short to long term memory in 15 minutes a day. 

How Do I Get Started?

Consider setting weekly goals and measure your progress against them. Language learning apps like Babbel have features that allow you to track your learning progress, making it easier to stay accountable.For a short trip, focus on the essential phrases that will help you get around, order food, and handle emergency situations. Here are some examples:

  • Greetings and Pleasantries: “Hello,” “Thank you,” “Please,” “Excuse me”
  • Directions: “Where is…?”, “Right,” “Left,” “Straight,” “Map”
  • Food and Drinks: “Water,” “Coffee,” “Tea,” “Bread,” “Meat,” “Vegetables,” “Fruit”
  • Emergencies: “Help,” “Police,” “Doctor,” “Hospital,” “Pharmacy”

The Babbel app comes in handy here. It has a variety of courses focusing on different aspects of language, including those for travelers that teach practical conversational skills. There are also language-learning podcasts, games and culture bites to create an immersive experience from the comfort of your home. 

How To Talk To Locals

One of the joys of travel is the opportunity to interact with locals. But conversations can also be a minefield of cultural misunderstandings. Remember, communication is not just about the words you say but how you say them. 

The Babbel app incorporates cultural notes in its lessons to help you understand the context behind the words. It also includes pronunciation guides to ensure you’re saying the words just right. Here are some cultural conversation norms for popular summer travel destination: 

  • Spain: Although many people in Spain speak English, especially in tourist areas, it’s appreciated if you can speak some basic Spanish phrases. Even a simple Hola (“Hello”), Por favor (“Please”) and Gracias (“Thank you”) can go a long way.
  • France: The French are generally more formal than Americans in their conversations. They use formal pronouns (vous instead of tu) unless invited to do otherwise. It’s also common to use Monsieur or Madame when addressing someone.
  • Italy: Italians are generally warm and expressive. When meeting someone for the first time, a handshake with direct eye contact is common. Among friends, it’s normal to greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks, starting from the right.
  • Mexico: Respect is a significant aspect of Mexican culture. Titles such as Señor or Señora are frequently used. Politeness is highly valued, so “please” (por favor) and “thank you” (gracias) are important phrases to use.

In case of emergencies

Emergencies can happen when you least expect them. Having a basic understanding of the language can be a lifesaver. Learn phrases like “I need help,” “I am sick,” or “Where is the nearest hospital?”

Here’s an emergency cheat sheet for Spain, France, and Italy: 

English Spanish French Italian
Help! ¡Ayuda! Au secours ! Aiuto!
I need a doctor. Necesito un médico. J’ai besoin d’un médecin. Ho bisogno di un dottore.
Can you help me? ¿Puede ayudarme? Pouvez-vous m’aider ? Puoi aiutarmi?
Call the police! ¡Llame a la policía! Appelez la police ! Chiamate la polizia!
Where is the hospital? ¿Dónde está el hospital? Où est l’hôpital ? Dove è l’ospedale?
It’s an emergency. Es una emergencia. C’est une urgence. È un’emergenza.


Note: In Spanish, French and Italian, the adjective endings change based on the gender of the speaker. For example, in “I’m lost,” a male speaker would say Estoy perdido, Je suis perdu and Mi sono perso, while a female speaker would say Estoy perdida, Je suis perdue and Mi sono persa.

Our top 8 language-learning tips for travel: 

Repetition
Repetition is the key to retaining what you’ve learned. Review vocabulary and phrases daily. Practice speaking out loud and listening to the language as much as possible. Use Babbel’s review feature to reinforce what you’ve learned in your study sessions.

Speak Out Loud
Active engagement is more effective than passive study. Engage with the language in various contexts. Use the Babbel app to listen to dialogues and practice interactive speaking exercises. This not only helps with pronunciation but also builds confidence in using the language in real-life situations.

Learn About Culture, Too
Language isn’t just words and grammar—t’s also intertwined with the culture of the people who speak it. Understanding cultural norms and values can greatly improve your communication skills. The Babbel app provides cultural insights in its lessons to help you navigate these nuances.

Immerse Yourself
Don’t limit your learning resources. Consider watching films or listening to music in the target language. This will help you get used to the rhythm and intonation of the language, and also expose you to colloquial phrases and slang.

Practice With Native Speakers
Nothing beats practicing with native speakers. If you have friends who speak the language, try conversing with them. Alternatively, there are online platforms where you can find language exchange partners.

Incorporate Language Learning Into Your Daily Routine
The more you can incorporate the language into your daily life, the better. Label household items with their names in the target language, listen to Babbel’s podcasts for French, Spanish and a variety of other languages during your commute, or switch your phone’s language settings. The possibilities are endless.

Review Before Your Trip

A few days before your trip, review all the phrases and vocabulary you’ve learned. Babbel’s review feature is perfect for this, as it uses a spaced repetition system to reinforce what you’ve learned.

Practice Patience

Language learning is a journey, and it’s okay to make mistakes. In fact, making mistakes is part of the learning process. Stay open and patient with yourself, and remember to enjoy the process. 

Remember, while it’s beneficial to start learning as soon as possible, it’s never too late to begin. With resources like Babbel’s language learning app, you have all the tools you need at your fingertips. 

Safe travels and happy learning!

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