Learning a language quickly – tips for travelers

by May 24, 2018Language

Learning a bit of the language of your travel destination can be truly helpful – gaining you respect and perhaps even a few favors from delighted locals. Learning a language quickly, however, is the challenge.

Obviously, the less time you spend somewhere, the less of a language you likely need to have under your belt.  For a couple of days, just managing a few polite phrases can get you by. However, if you are spending a few weeks – or maybe even a month or more – in a particular country – learning as much of the language as you can will be oh so advantageous.

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Bag languages and words like a hunter

I’m a bit of a hobby linguist, a recreational language hunter who likes to knock down and bag words and phrases wherever I go. Having a couple of foreign languages under my belt, I have also found a little word analysis often helps since languages – even unrelated ones – can have similarities. So, don’t just try to memorize a series of letters, but really LOOK at a word and then consider saying it aloud. Even if the letters don’t remind you of a word you know, once you hear it, it may. In Norwegian the word for “fish” is “fisk,” and “Forbudt” means “prohibited” like “verboten!”

When a friend and I spent two months doing the backpack-in-Europe thing in college, we had a small language phrasebook to study so, as we hopped from Italian to Greek to Spanish to French to German, we would spend time on the train learning the basics together.

What to focus on for short stays

  • Hello, good-bye, how are you
  • Please and thank you
  • Yes, no
  • Numbers
  • “How much”
  • “Where is…”
  • Right, left, straight ahead
  • “I would like…”
  • “The check please”

This little handful of phrases will get you around reasonably, covering ordering, asking for directions, being polite, and a little shopping. If you have cell phone reception, keep a language app handy for quick needs that go beyond these; if not, an old-fashioned paper phrasebook is a must. In South Korea a couple of years ago, we were in a tiny neighborhood restaurant trying to figure out a menu. The young waitress had a translation app she was using to communicate with foreigners who happened in – and it worked great!



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Top Translation Apps For Travelers: Having a translations app handy on your smartphone is essential for communicating when traveling and helping you when learning a language quickly. Two that we have used include Google Translate for both iPhone and Android (free) and iTranslate Voice for both iPhone and Android. iTranslate Voice has a very limited, though accurate, free version, but for the full meal deal, you will have to subscribe monthly or annually. 

Of course, for complicated languages that make learning a language quickly (say, Vietnamese, Albanian…) or for desperate moments, there are other ways to communicate that go beyond words. Take a look at our story, “9 ways to communicate when traveling in a foreign country” for a few tips.


However, be careful when it comes to the sign language or charades part of communication. As one of our writers found out, pointing to a water bottle may not mean a port for a cruise ship…. And you may end up in the wrong place, like a cafe for a drink instead of the dock for the ship.

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