The inability to communicate is definitely one of the more intimidating aspects of traveling. Whether you’re staying in a place for a few months or a few days, stumbling over the vowels and consonants of a foreign language can leave even the most composed individual retreating from a conversation with red-faced humiliation. The best way to learn a language is to throw yourself in with no shame and leave your trepidation and fear of mistakes at the border because I’ve got news for you: you’re going to make plenty. Take it from someone who once told a co-worker she looked like a camel. I was trying to tell her she looked pretty. Clearly that didn’t work out the way I intended. The good news is that I never made that mistake again. The bad news is that she hasn’t let me live it down. Whether you’re setting off for a well-deserved vacation, transferring to another country for work, or just wanting to practice another language, here are some tips to get you started.
Let’s start with the most obvious. Whether you’re in the country of your chosen language or at home, signing up for a course will make a huge difference provided you’re willing to put in the time. This is definitely a case of you get out of it what you put into it. A quick Google search will yield a plethora of options for those not already enrolled in a full-time university program. From community college courses, adult school, or community centers. Organizations like the Goethe Institute or the Alliance Française offer intensive summer, weekend, and evening courses in a plethora of locations.
Language Groups/Tandem Partners
This isn’t the best option for those just starting out with a language, but for those individuals in the intermediate to advanced groups, finding a language group or partner gives you the opportunity to practice your new language in a comfortable setting where you’ll likely feel a little less self-conscious about making mistakes. If you’re already abroad, try finding a tandem partner–someone who is learning a language you speak fluently and who is fluent in the language you are learning. You can take turns making mistakes and correcting each other. Check MeetUp, Craigslist, or your local community center if you’re at a loss as to where to find a language group or partner. Most language schools or universities will have an established program that you can take advantage of for free.
There are plenty of people who get a lot out of computer programs like Rosetta Stone that offer language instruction through a multitude of interactive exercises. Personally, I prefer face-to-face language instruction, but I know enough people that swear by Rosetta Stone that I think it’s probably worth looking into if you are just starting out or if you don’t have the time to sign up for a course. Particularly since they offer a 6-month, no-risk money back guarantee. Can’t hurt. I tried their Arabic program and did find it to be useful in addition to the evening course I was taking with an actual instructor. It provided a good supplement to my homework and conversation partner.
Hang Out With Kids
There really is no better way to learn a language than to hang out with a couple of five or six year olds for a few days. They have absolutely no qualms with correcting you on every single little mistake you can work into a sentence. The little ones aren’t too difficult to understand as their sentence construction and vocabulary is generally pretty basic and you won’t feel as self-conscious making language mistakes in front of them. Speaking of kids, I highly recommend picking up some children’s or young adult books to improve vocabulary.
For both German and French, I learned most of my conversational lingo outside of the classroom. By signing up for a running club, joining the French alpine club, and taking dancing classes, I met a lot of people who shared my interests and were patient with teaching me new vocabulary. Additionally the fact that we were engaged in activity took some of the pressure and exhaustion off of conversing in a foreign language by offering more relaxed social situations where not talking was acceptable at least part of the time.
Just Go For It
The best language tip anyone can offer is to leave your shame at home. You are going to make mistakes. There is no way around it. You will inevitably spend part of your time blushing profusely and wishing you could just sink into the ground and disappear. People are going to laugh at your expense, but hopefully they’ll correct you and then you’ll move on with a new grammar lesson in tow. Not only are you going to sound like an idiot, you’ll probably look like one too as you try to pantomime yet another word you don’t know how to say. Just accept that this is part of the experience and enjoy it.