Going to a country where you don’t speak the language is humbling. Suddenly, you might find yourself in one of the following situations:
-Asking for “the song” instead of “the bill”
-Unable to ask where the bathroom is after you’ve just downed a huge pitcher of drinks
-Thinking that you’re speaking the language correctly but being met with a blank stare
-Attempting to use Google Translate but realizing you don’t have wifi
While many of us are content to wander the world assuming everyone speaks English, it’s just not true. It always pays off to know a few words in the language of the country you’re visiting. Not only will you get what you want faster, but you’ll make friends and experience the culture more deeply.
After trying many language learning options, including Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, various language-specific iPad apps and college courses, I’ve found that nothing prepares me for travel quite like Pimsleur audiobooks.
Audiobooks you listen to in your car may not sound as sexy as cute digital apps like Duolingo, but in my experience they work better. Why? They make you learn a language not just with your brain, but with your mouth. Speaking a language is not as simple as just knowing words and academically explaining how they come together. It’s a physical skill, and the cadence and pronunciation take awhile to get right.
When I’m in a cab in Brazil, the cab driver doesn’t care that I learned the subjunctive mood in Portuguese six years ago in college. He cares about whether or not I accurately and confidently pronounce the street I want to go to. By the end of our trip, Neil was getting around about as well as I was, because he has an ear for pronunciation. For those of us who aren’t as naturally skilled at picking up phrases by ear, practicing with a tape makes a HUGE difference.
Here are a few things I’ve learned from practicing with Pimsleur audiobooks before trips:
- Trust the Books
For some reason I always used to think what language courses teach you to say aren’t what people actually say. It’s true that they don’t teach you informal colloquialisms or slang, but for the most part, what the tapes teach you is what people really do say. This might vary by culture (Japanese is probably more formal than Brazilian Portuguese), but that doesn’t matter. You’re a tourist, and you don’t need to sound like a character in City of God. The books will teach you what to say without being disrespectful or weird.
2. Start Learning At Least Three Months in Advance
Do one course in your car every day. Or while doing dishes. It fits into your life effortlessly.
3. Cross-Reference with Some Pop Culture
If you’re like me and get paranoid that what you’re learning isn’t what people really say, check this instinct by watching movies or listening to music in that language. Netflix has started releasing tons of international shows in different languages, so you’ll probably be able to find something there. Recognizing the phrases you’re learning in natural dialog will give you the confidence you need to try a phrase abroad.
4. When You Get to the Country, Suck it Up and Talk to Someone
Ask for directions. Tell your waiter you want to practice the language, even if they speak English. Once you start putting yourself out there, even people who speak English may be happy to switch back to their first language. There’s a reason one of the first phrases you learn on Pimsleur is “you speak ___ language very well.” Even if you eek out one tiny word, you’ll probably be praised with this phrase. People are that nice and patient.
Take that compliment to the bank, because you’ll need all the confidence you can get. And remember to show the same patience and positivity to people learning English, now that you know how humbling it is to try a new phrase.