Your comfort zone can be a dangerous place. It’s the familiar way of life where you don’t challenge yourself, don’t grow and don’t learn anything new. It’s the cozy sofa from which you make proclamations like, “Some day I’ll learn Spanish. Some day I’ll visit South America. Some day…”
May we humbly suggest that “some day” come sooner rather than later? How about your next vacation? Planning to go somewhere in your comfort zone? Pittsburg again? That won’t do! Flip the script and visit that place you’ve always wanted to, but only avoided because you didn’t speak the language. Well now’s the time to book the tickets! Because with Babbel you’ll only need three weeks of learning to get you speaking the language the minute you step off the plane! It sounds incredible but it’s true, three weeks is enough time to acquire basic conversational skills in a new language (we even proved it here). You won’t be perfect, but you’ll have enough words and phrases in your brain to start talking to people (and understand them too, of course).
Naturally, the vacation itself will present you with a ton of opportunities to expand upon your learning and solidify your newfound language skills. Because while you can always consume media like newspapers, music, movies and podcasts at home in order to practice your new language, actually talking to locals in your new language is the best way to improve your comprehension and fluency.
Our contributor to the magazine, Pia Leong, put her beginner-level Spanish to the test when she and her boyfriend Jimmy took an epic bike tour across South America. Their route would start in southern Argentina, go north through the country, passing in and out of Chile, cross Bolivia and finally end in Cusco, Peru — six months after they started.
Jimmy already spoke Spanish, but Pia had only started learning. She had some catching up to do, and she was determined to do it by talking to as many people as she could. On her travels she discovered four important tricks to learning a new language while traveling, which you can read below. Using these four tricks Pia transformed herself from a complete beginner into a very conversational (and confident) Spanish speaker, and the six videos below document her development, one month at a time.
1. Rely on context for clues
Talking to strangers in a new language might sound intimidating, but you have a very useful trick up your sleeve before you even open your mouth to speak: context. Where are you — a souvenir shop, a fruit stall, a street corner? Who is around and what are they doing? What are you planning to say to them? All of these factors narrow down the scope of possible topics that might come up in the conversation, which narrows down the words you’ll probably hear. In the video above, Pia talks to Marcedonio about bread baking. The context determines the vocabulary, and also provides useful clues when she hears new, unfamiliar words.
So take a minute to observe your surroundings before you speak. Review the relevant vocabulary in your head, prep your questions, imagine what the answers to your questions might be. Great! You are primed to start a conversation!
2. Ask lots of questions
Asking someone, “What’s that?” or, “What do you call that?” can turn into a conversation that doubles as a vocabulary lesson. A minimum of question words can keep the conversation flowing, as Pia demonstrates in the video above. With simple questions about the plants in the nursery, she gets Lucía to do most of the talking, so she can practice her listening comprehension in Spanish.
3. Get a local to show and tell
Getting someone to show you how to do something gives even more context for what they are saying. New vocabulary you learn is directly connected to actions and objects, so — even if you are being bombarded with new, unfamiliar words — you have something concrete to connect them to. In the video above, Pia learns new vocabulary on a dairy farm the hard way — when she has to try to milk a cow herself! But she’s also able to use this trick in the less hectic environment of a weaver’s workshop — which you can watch below.
4. Repeat, repeat, repeat!
By the time she and Jimmy reach Bolivia, Pia is an expert interviewer in Spanish. In the video above, notice that she is able to ask Andrew more complex questions about the salt production process than she could have done when they started their journey in Argentina.
And now compare the video below to the very first one. You’ll notice the marked improvement in Pia’s level of Spanish. Over the course of their trip, not only does her vocabulary expand as they meet more people and learn new words in new contexts, but the very act of speaking gets easier with each repetition.
You can tell by the final video that she is more comfortable starting up conversations, she’s more confident, and she speaks Spanish more quickly and fluently. Not a bad result — and all it took was good, old-fashioned practice!