10 Simple Strategies to Maximize Language Learning on any Trip
So you have an incredible journey planned to a foreign country and you either:
- Want to practice and improve the language skills you’ve had since high school.
- Are looking to connect with your family roots via language learning.
- Want to master another language for professional reasons.
- Want your kids to get some new knowledge and practice while vacationing and having fun.
If it’s any or ALL of these reasons then you know for sure that the best way to practice a foreign language is to be completely immersed in it, without the day-to-day distractions, and we want to teach you how to get the most out of this amazing opportunity.
Whether you are traveling solo, with friends or with your family try to implement the tips in this guide and you’ll be sure to create and capture language learning moments on your travels!
Strategy # 1: The Key to Intentional Language Development
The key to language development while you travel is not an action or an experience; it’s more fundamental than that. The key is identifying and setting measurable language goals before you travel.
Most perceptive people will learn something of the host language while traveling, but significant learning — learning that makes a difference in your conversational fluidity — doesn’t happen automatically. Before you even begin setting your itinerary, start thinking about what language outcomes you’d like to integrate into your trip.
Some simple goals (that are realistic) will give you the mind frame to capture language learning opportunities all around you on your travels.
Strategy # 2: The Foundation Principle
The foundation principle describes the reality of side by side language growth comparisons of the traveler who has zero language foundation to the person who has some sort of foundation before traveling.
The predictable outcome is that the traveler who has some foundation in the host language before traveling will experience significantly more language growth than the traveler who starts with nothing.
The goal is to start with something before you travel so you can hit the ground running once you arrive to your destination. It’s definitely not a requirement, but it’s one of those pre-travel goals that you could consider to really maximize your time and learning outcomes while traveling.
Strategy # 3: How to Capture & Retain Vocabulary
When traveling to another country, you live the language in that country. You’re completely surrounded by it, and everywhere you look, you’re given one rich opportunity after the next to learn something new.
The problem is that usually you’ll see something, make sense of it in the moment (or make an educational guess about it) and then proceed to forget it until you see it again. So, basically here is what is happening:
You see > You understand > You forget
It doesn’t take much to visualize how this model doesn’t serve you very well as a language learner. The deeper problem with the model above is that the word, phrase, or concept you keep forgetting is nowhere near usable in your vocabulary because you can’t even remember it!
A simple 3-step process can help you move from the above model to this model below:
You see > You understand > You remember > You implement!
What is this magical process that helps you retain and use new vocabulary? It’s not really that magical; it is pretty simple actually. Here it is:
- Write it down: keep a pocket sized journal with you and make a point to write down words and phrases that you don’t already know. Don’t stress about the meaning or perfect spelling at the moment — just get it on paper so you don’t forget it.
- Extra Tip: If you’re uncertain of the meaning of something, you may want to make a brief note of the context that you saw/heard it in so you can clarify later.
2. Clarify its meaning: when you get a chance to look up that word or clarify that phrase with someone else, do it! Spend a few minutes each day to look through your page of notes from the day and clarify any uncertainties you have.
3. Study it: there is no shortcut to learning vocabulary. It takes repetition and persistent mental attention to the vocabulary. You have to see, hear and use a word multiple times before you can implement it naturally into your conversational abilities. So, don’t wait — get started right away!
- Extra Tip: You can study vocabulary in a variety of ways, my personal preference is making physical flashcards on 1/2 of a 3x5 index card. This can get bulky though, so you might consider a digital flashcard program like Quizlet (all devices). Check out Common Ground’s Quizlet Page here.
Strategy # 4: How to persuade others to speak to you in the local language
This is a tricky one, especially if you look like you might be an English speaker. You may share skin tones, eye or hair color with the people in the country you’re traveling to, but many can still guess that you probably speak English. It’s not that hard, North Americans stick out in a variety of ways: the pace we walk down the street, the clothes we wear, our body language, etc — there are so many nonverbal cues that people will recognize and possibly assume that English is a better option.
People tend to speak English to travelers for one of a couple of reasons. They may be very proficient in English and feel like they can get the objectives of the present interaction met more efficiently if they speak English to you. Or they may want to “practice” their English with you. They may not get many opportunities to practice, and you seem like a great opportunity!
It doesn’t really matter why someone is speaking English to you, the point is that you want to speak the host language! How do you avoid English while traveling?
At the end of the day, you can’t force anyone to speak a specific language with you, but there is something you can do. The answer isn’t 100% failsafe, but it does help your chances. Here it is: commit to starting in Spanish (or whatever the host language is). The simple act of persistently starting your conversations (or replies) in the host language will continually reinforce the idea that you’re intent on speaking that language. With persistence over time, you’ll definitely start to create the environment of target language use all around you. If you start in English — it’s very tough to transition into the host language.
Strategy # 5: Take those everyday opportunities to use the host language
The benefit of traveling to another country is that you are constantly surrounded by people who speak the language you’re trying to learn. Yes, of course there are probably touristy activities that will naturally have people trying to speak to you in English (use tip #4 for that), but take a moment to step back and observe what the everyday person does in the place you’re traveling.
How do the locals get around? If you’re traveling to Central America, South America, Asia, etc. many people won’t have a personal vehicle. They use public transportation; they may take a taxi or a bus. Have you considered talking up your taxista? You have to tell him where you’re going anyway — so you might as well extend the conversation and talk about the weather or something — maybe even ask him what he recommends you see at a given place. You might also want to inquire if any part of town is dangerous, or somewhere you should avoid. Also, don’t forget about the gold-mine of conversational opportunities on the public bus. If you’re going anywhere during normal commute times, you’ll probably have 50+ people to choose from as a conversation partner. As you board the bus, walk down the aisle and find that person who makes eye contact with you and smiles…then it’s easy — start a conversation and make a connection with someone on your ride!
- Extra Tip: You might avoid the teen with his/her nose in their smart phone — they probably won’t make a great conversationalist. Try sitting next to an older man or woman who has that inviting and inquisitive look on their face. Moms with babies are also great conversationalists — sit next to a baby and you have tons to talk about!
Where do the locals shop? You should shop there too! They probably shop at the local -ía (panadería, verdulería, carnicería, etc). I love to shop in these places for 2 reasons: the prices are generally better than in the large supermarkets, and you usually have to have one of the clerks get something for you. It’s normally just a brief transactional conversation, but it’s more practice with the language! An additional bonus to shopping where the locals shop is that you will probably have a more culturally authentic shopping experience. The products sold in the local shops are generally not imported from the USA, and if you’re buying produce or other food items, they’re definitely going to be more local.
Strategy # 6: Avoid the biggest English temptation & leveraging the power of the right friendships
The biggest English temptation while traveling is your friends. It is tricky to suggest that you travel alone, because it’s actually not advisable (safety reasons), but there is an educational danger of having a constant English temptation at your side that you must be aware of. It’s best if you can travel with a buddy who shares the same language goals you do so you can make a pact to only speak the host language with each other.
This is not something you can overlook, even on the majority of study abroad programs (where naturally you would think people have common language goals), there are countless people who spend thousands on travel, yet don’t make any language advancements. It’s because they spend all their time with each other, and not mixing with the host culture or local people on a deeper level.
So if you should limit the amount of time that you naturally spend around other English speakers while traveling, what are the right friendships in another country? Befriend a local! It’s an amazing experience to make a connection with someone from the place you’re traveling. You naturally open the doors for deep and meaningful exchange (personally, linguistically and culturally) that you cannot approximate in a class back home, nor with your fellow North Americans traveling abroad.
One of the easiest ways to ensure you have the opportunity to connect with a local is to opt for a travel experience that includes host family lodging. Not all travel options will allow for that, but there are significant language and cultural advantages to lodging with a local.
Strategy # 7: Harness the chaos of rapid speak, uncontrolled contexts, and confusing conversations
Rapid speak, uncontrolled contexts, and confusing conversations are more frequent than not when you make an effort to travel in another language. They are less common when you stick to the touristy areas and allow others to speak English to you, but if you are on a true immersion program — you will definitely find yourself in conversational situations where you’re uncertain (at best) about what is happening.
How do you sort it all out? Well, you should first take a moment to record what you can (following tip # 3), then you need to get some help with confusing terminology and phrases. This is the precise reason that we include Spanish classes in our immersion programs.
Some people erroneously feel that they’ve been “studying” the language back home, and that the last thing they need is more classes. We say it’s erroneous because the classroom actually takes on a new identity when you’re traveling. It’s common back home for the classroom to feel like the place a student goes and has to speak the target language. That’s true to a certain extent; every good language teacher wants to give students realistic opportunities and invite them to speak the language in class so that they gain comfort and confidence with the language.
However, when you’re making an effort to travel in the host language, the classroom becomes a place of clarity. The classroom is the one place where you can get all of your questions answered. Neither your host family, nor the person on the bus, nor the clerk at the vegetable stand will be able to help you clarify that grammar issue that you don’t understand. The classroom, under the guidance of a professional instructor, allows you to actually capitalize on the language chaos that’s happening all around you while you’re living and traveling outside of the classroom walls.
If you don’t have access to a class or a professional instructor. Take a self-study language book with you — this is definitely not as useful as a human, but it will at least allow you to refer to some grammar conventions that might be confusing you as you travel.
Strategy # 8: Eliminate the biggest “language learning” hoax ever
What is the biggest language learning hoax ever? It’s a relatively new development, and it’s getting more accurate, so it’s becoming even more tempting. We see it all the time in our classes, and we have to constantly remind people of the danger. What is the hoax?
Translator apps! Translator apps make you think you’re learning, but you’re not actually learning anything. In fact, you’re actually undermining your learning — it’s worse than not learning anything, you’re hurting your language progress!
What’s so bad about translator apps? There are plenty of reasons to steer clear of Google Translate if you’re learning a language, but the core problem is that it’s passive activity, requiring no brain work on your part. You get an answer to your question, but you sidestep a learning opportunity, and you actually lean on English conventions instead of trying to use what you know to piece something meaningful together to make communication happen.
What is the solution? Use a dictionary app! There are fantastic electronic dictionaries that you can easily travel with — pick one and use it instead. You’ll be able to select the best fit word for your context and you’ll engage your brain.
Strategy # 9: Attempt the impossible
What does this mean; try walking on water? No, best not to attempt the supernatural — just the “impossible”. Try doing something you think might be beyond your reach because it requires so much coordination, or you don’t currently know enough to complete it.
It doesn’t have to be something risky, it could be as simple as taking a bus to the end of its route, picking up a second bus and seeing where you end up! Then of course you need to find your way back to your hotel or host family. You can talk to that mom and baby along the way :), and it will definitely require you to use the language as you navigate around the city.
On our Spanish immersion programs, we have our students complete a reto personal — this is where they identify a -personal challenge and have to complete it in a 4hr chunk of time. It’s a great way to create a mini-adventure within your trip that requires you to interact with others in order to complete it.
Extra tip: Do this as early as possible in your trip, it really helps you gain independence and confidence in your survival skills and conversational abilities.
Strategy # 10: Go the extra mile — (do that one more thing even though you’re tired)
When you’re trying your hardest to travel in the host language, you definitely feel a level of exhaustion that you’re unlikely to feel back home (even during finals week or the few days prior to your big project deadline). Immersion is so tiring because every single thing you do requires you to use extra brain power to complete it in the host language.
So, going the extra mile means not retreating when you’re tired. It means spending that extra 15 minutes in the kitchen with your host mom, attempting the impossible (tip # 9) when you think you need a down day, or resisting the temptation to use the translator app (tip #8) when you have a headache.
Going the extra mile will always hurt a little because it takes extra effort. But you’re spending all that money to travel, don’t you want to get all you can out of it? If you regularly remind yourself to keep going, you’ll not regret a moment you spent traveling.
Extra Tip: Think of your travel experience as a lime and you’re trying to make a refreshing limeade. You actually need 3 limes, but you only have 2. So, you need to squeeze every drop of juice out of those two limes that you have, because it might be a few years before you get another lime (another travel experience) in your hands. We’re always encouraging our participants to SACAR EL JUGO out of their experience — why wouldn’t you?
It’s not always easy to maintain a singular focus on language development while traveling. If you’re on a tour program, you’ll face many challenges from the English speakers around you (and the natural lack of focus on language development). However, if you’re traveling alone or on an “immersion” program, you can definitely bank on these 10 tips setting you up for unfathomed language success on your next trip.
If you’re looking for a travel experience that will encourage you every step of the way to stay in Spanish — give our Spanish Immersion programs a look! If they seem like a good fit for you, we’ll be happy to help.
Good luck with your trip, ¡buena suerte!