Last Updated on July 6, 2021 by Maggie McKneely
Traveling to a foreign country and want to be able to speak the native language? Here are some of the best ways to learn a language for travelers!
Easiest Ways to Learn a Language for Travelers
Why you should learn your destination’s language
Florence’s Mercato Centrale is a tantalizing hub of everything a foodie could want – every type of unpronounceable Italian charcuterie, cheese wheels large enough to fit a semi-truck, freshly made pasta hanging over racks and windows and clotheslines to dry before being bought for someone’s dinner.
It’s also a black-hole for the English language, as my mom and I learned when we tried to purchase some of those tasty offerings. What was supposed to be an afternoon snack of Tuscan charcuterie turned into a weeklong meal of $40 worth of meat and cheese, simply because we didn’t know the Italian words for “Stop,” or “That’s good. I don’t need any more salami,” and what would have been really helpful: “Please, I don’t want the entire wheel of pecorino cheese.” But no, we went to Tuscany not knowing a single useful phrase in Italian and came up with much emptier pockets.
We got back home to the US with a lot of crazy stories because of our lack of Italian skills, but we also learned a lesson: a lot of people speak English, but a lot of people don’t. Unless you want to spend your trip making up sign language and doing a lot of pointing, it doesn’t hurt to learn the basics of your destination’s native language.
But no one wants to invest time in a formal foreign language class for a short vacation. So what are the most efficient and effective ways to learn a language for travelers? I asked other members of the travel blogging community for their ideas and tips and they came back with a list of apps, programs, and other creative ideas to help you prepare for your next trip abroad.
Ways to learn a language through apps and programs
Duolingo is the app that I have been using to prep for our upcoming trip to Portugal and I love it! The free program operates like a game. You work your way through levels and chapters and get points each time you complete something. Every chapter tests your pronunciations, spelling, and ability to put together sentences. There are modules that focus on a specific skill, such as verb tense, grammar, or related nouns (animals, clothing, etc).
There’s also a general review that tests you on everything you’ve learned so far. If I have no time to learn anything new, I take five minutes out of my day to go through the review just to make sure I retain the information. You can also challenge friends, as well as interact with other people who are also learning the same language you are. It’s one of the best apps to learn French, German, Arabic, even endangered languages like Hawaiian.
You won’t become fluent using Duolingo, but it’s a fun and effective way to learn enough of another language to get by on your travels.
Submitted by: Maggie (me!) from Pink Caddy Travelogue
One of the best ways to learn a foreign language is with the online program called Babbel. While you need a subscription after a small free period, it’s definitely worth the money.
Luckily Babbel is not expensive compared to other language learning programs out there.
To succeed with Babbel, the only thing you need is dedication. With Babbel, you will not learn unnecessary sentences or words – everything that you will learn can be used in daily life. The program includes great explanations of grammar and exceptions in the language you’re learning, as well as pronunciations to practice the language.
If you’re searching for a great language learning program to help you practice a new language and to get to know the basics in order to get around, Babbel is definitely the program to go to.
Submitted by: Manon of Visiting the Dutch Countryside
Rosetta Stone is a great website/ application to learn a new language; while it is perfect for those beginning a language, it can also be used by people at an intermediate level.
I have used Rosetta Stone for two languages – Russian and Spanish. I have never been officially taught Russian but by using Rosetta Stone, I have a grasp of some basic words and phrases – and a Russian woman who I practiced with recently was very complimentary of what I’d learned!
My Spanish was a lot more advanced when I started learning it on Rosetta Stone; I spoke it at a good level from spending a lot of time in Mexico when I was a child and traveling around Guatemala in more recent years. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how much Rosetta Stone had to offer me.
The program teaches languages on a repeat and practice basis, so you’ll be going over the same words again and again until they are ingrained in your memory. It sounds a little dull, but they manage to keep it entertaining, by switching between key skills (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) and using the interactive input format which makes it seem like a game.
There are lots of chances to record and practice your speaking and pronunciation, which is a great feature of Rosetta Stone that many self-teaching programs lack.
You can use the software on your computer, tablet, or mobile, so check it out today!
Submitted by: Claire of Claire’s Footsteps
If you’ve ever thought of learning Spanish you might find this interesting. Back when I started my travels in Latin America I knew how important it would be to learn the language if I wanted to connect with local people. However, after learning a few basic words and phrases on the road, I found that when I returned home, I was struggling to retain what I had learned.
After a few online searches, I found thousands of platforms offering to help with my Spanish. What very few of them offered, though, was the opportunity to practice real-time conversation. One of the biggest advantages of learning Spanish whilst traveling is the ability to have conversations with natives in real-time.
Luckily, I found Verbling and from there I began my journey of becoming fluent in Spanish by conversing with locals on the Verbling platform. I find it useful because I can schedule the calls to suit my needs. After around 5 lessons I saw a significant improvement in my Spanish and now have a teacher that I use regularly.
So, if you’re looking to improve your fluency in Spanish, or any other language for that matter, remember that conversation is king and daily practice is imperative.
Submitted by: Dan of Layer Culture
One of the best ways to learn a language is by using Drops. With all the resources accessible online, there’s no reason to let the inability to communicate in a foreign language stop anyone from discovering the world. The most seasoned travelers will all agree that knowing even the basics of a local language while being abroad can go a long way!
Enter Drops, a free language-learning app available for Androids and iPhone users. It has been named Google’s Best App of 2018 and App of the day in over 100 countries on the App Store.
While Drops won’t make you fluent in a language, it offers a comprehensive set of vocabulary-building games delivered daily through five-minute bursts of simple memory drills. It’s based on the concept that smaller chunks of time require lower involvement, thus helping in creating consistency and developing a learning habit without overwhelming the user with long lessons.
Drops currently has 31 languages to choose from, with a range of topics that cover nearly 90% of the vocabulary necessary to effectively communicate one’s basic needs in a foreign language. With its simple interface, Drops brings visual learning to a whole new level with vibrant illustrations that facilitates retention rather than translating the word to your native language.
Overall, Drops is a great tool to enrich your vocabulary as you dabble in learning a new language.
Submitted by: Safia of Nomad Junkies
My best tip for learning a language is that some stuff is more important than other stuff. Prioritize! I see people learning sentences like “The boy is eating the spider”. Really? When would this ever come in handy? I suppose around some toddlers with questionable eating habits, but you get my drift.
Once, I spent hours in a Romanian class learning how to say “I am Korean” (and Japanese, Chinese, Norwegian, etc.). I am not Korean and no one in the class was, none of us would ever need to say that in Romanian to anyone!
So I’m currently loving the Mango app for learning languages. It’s kind of like Duolingo, in that it’s on my phone, I can use it anywhere and anytime, and it’s appropriate for total beginners. But the content is carefully selected and really well prioritized. It includes stuff like “Do you accept credit cards?”. I find myself needing to use my new Mango sentences the day I learn them, which provides a feedback loop, which is great for my memory.
Mango has an iOS and Android app, but it does need a subscription, which I got for free from my public library. Pretty sure they have contracts with many public libraries in the US, although I’m not 100% certain about non-US access.
I love learning languages because even a small step goes a long way to connecting with people from all over.
Submitted by: Shimona of Sidecar Photo
Easy Languages on YouTube
The Easy Languages series on YouTube is a wonderful way to gain exposure to the culture of your destination and to learn a language. Easy Languages is a really cool non-profit that helps people learn languages through authentic conversations in natural, everyday situations. Videos typically feature street interviews with native speakers on topics that showcase local sights and culture.
I’ve used Easy Languages for German, Russian, Spanish, and Brazilian Portuguese, and love it. The series of street interviews give your ear a chance to become accustomed to the sounds of the language, and the insights into the culture are absolutely fascinating.
Videos are available for dozens of languages, including lesser-known options such as Mongolian, a number of African languages, and even Miskito, an indigenous language from Nicaragua.
Note that the moniker Easy Languages can be a little misleading, as the videos feature authentic speech spoken at native speed. It’s most effective to use Easy Languages after building up some basic proficiency in the language. However, subtitles in both the target language and English make the dialogues accessible to anyone and make the program one of the best ways to learn a language.
Submitted by: Ingrid of Second-Half Travels
There’s only one way to truly learn a language – and that’s to speak it. That’s the reason you’re learning a language, right? To communicate with people, get around in a foreign country, be able to speak with your significant other’s family, or immerse yourself in a foreign culture.
All the studying of grammar books and playing with apps won’t make you fluent – but speaking will. And that’s where iTalki is a fabulous learning tool. iTalki is a relatively new platform that allows you to learn a language online with a native speaker at a time that’s convenient for you. You can learn a new language – or maintain an old one – via Skype or other video chat software.
Teachers are from around the world and the program offers hundreds of different languages, from popular languages like English, Spanish and French, to lesser-spoken languages like Xhosa and Basque. They offer lessons at various price ranges so you can find someone that fits your budget.
I’ve used iTalki to learn both Spanish and French and found it to be a simple yet highly effective tool. I found all my teachers by viewing their profiles (most of which have a video introduction so you can get an initial idea of whether they’ll be a good fit for you) and then got to know them through weeks of one-on-one teaching. Lessons were completely tailored to my needs and level. I didn’t have to go anywhere to attend a class so I could spend more time preparing beforehand to ensure each class was a good one. All my teachers have been so supportive and really taken my language learning to a whole new level.
If you’re looking for ways to learn a language, I highly recommend iTalki.
Submitted by: Rebecca of Rebecca and the World
The Pimsleur Language Program is a series of 90 audio language lessons that are each 30 minutes in length. The program is quite possibly the best and simplest passive method for learning languages. Done in concert with an interactive learning program like Duolingo, Pimsleur is a perfect complement because language learning can occur while doing virtually anything else, from cleaning to exercising, to driving a car.
Whenever I arrive in a new country, I always start my travels in that country with a self-guided tour through the city, put in my headphones, and absorb the language while I wander and become acquainted with the country, using the language wherever I can and effectively avoiding tourist prices. Over my time in the country, I always take 30 minutes a day to wander, listen to Pimsleur, and learn their language along the way.
Before my adventures, I listen to one lesson per day on my commute to work for the primary country I’ll visit – usually 15 minutes on my way to work and 15 minutes going home. I’ve successfully learned Spanish and Italian this way and refreshed my Arabic, so I have tons of faith in the Pimsleur program and highly recommend it.
Submitted by: Carlos of A Brother Abroad
A key component of learning anything, but especially a foreign language, is repetition. Seeing or hearing a word once isn’t normally enough to remember it: you typically have to see and hear it several times before it’s committed to memory. Traditionally you would write down any new words that you’re learning in a notepad but, these days, there are apps like Memrise that are specifically designed for that.
Once you enter a new word or phrase, Memrise will keep showing you the word and testing you on it until it’s confident that you have properly learned it. As well as your own lists, Memrise also has entire courses for most languages. It’s one of the few free resources for learning European Portuguese, for example; it also covers more unique languages like Galician or Haitian.
Everyone has their own ideas of how you should learn a language but, regardless of the approach you take to learning a new language, Memrise is a tool that just about every language learner can utilize.
Memrise is available as an app for iOS or Android devices, and you can also access the website at Memrise.com.
Submitted by: James of Portugalist
What is the most important thing when learning a new language? Conversation, conversation and once more conversation! It doesn’t matter how many words you know unless you can use them to form some simple sentences and speak to others. There is a great way to practice your speaking skills with a native speaker without leaving the comfort of your own home, and it’s completely free too. So how does it work?
Using a language exchange website, you can teach someone else a language you know while they help you with the language you want to learn. You and your language partner can communicate through text, audio, video services or whatever is comfortable for both of you.
Examples include but are not limited to the following websites:
Conversation exchange– a convenient search tool to find your perfect language partner: choose what language they speak, what language they are learning (the one you know), their level, country, age, gender. Once you find somebody that fits your requirements, you can add them as a contact and send them a message.
Speaky– a nice-looking, intuitive, and easy-to-use website. You can chat or make calls (audio and video) directly from your browser, and there is a translator that’s always accessible at the bottom of the page.
Submitted by: Jim and Inna of Executive Thrillseekers
Ways to learn a language through immersion
One of the best ways to learn a new language is to meet native speakers of that language and practice speaking. However, finding those people can be rather difficult, especially if you are learning that language in your home country. A great way to find people who want to learn the same thing is to find a language exchange meet-up in your city. During my stints abroad I used the website meetup.com for this purpose.
Typically, each person will receive a sticker upon arrival which will indicate which language(s) they are able to speak. Then you are free to walk around, mingle, grab a drink and find people who can speak the language you want to practice. This is an amazing way to make new friends who speak different languages and a great way to practice in a casual environment with lots of other budding linguists. These events are often held weekly in major cities so there are plenty of opportunities to get practicing before traveling to a foreign country!
Submitted by: Laura of What’s Hot Blog
In order to learn a language, we had tried apps and online courses but simply couldn’t commit or would find ourselves cheating to find the answers. Instead, we found a solution, which many might consider “jumping in at the deep end” by joining the volunteer program, Workaway.
We stayed with a Swiss family for a month to practice French. In exchange for a few hours of work each morning, they gave us food and accommodation as well as unlimited memories and endless giggles at our poor pronunciation. Immersing ourselves in Swiss life allowed us to learn so much about the culture and language, far more than we would’ve learned reading the words from a screen.
After our experience in Switzerland, we completed a Workaway in Crete on an olive farm. This was far more challenging as the hosts didn’t speak English, so we had to communicate in Greek (and a LOT of sign language.) Again, living with locals and surrounding ourselves in the language proved beneficial to our learning experience. If you fancy a challenging yet rewarding way to learn a new language we cannot recommend Workaway enough. We put together a full Workaway review that covers everything you need to know about joining, setting up a profile, and the best tips to ensure your dream host says yes. You’ll be fluent in no time!
Submitted by: Lauren of Faramagan
An excellent way to learn Spanish is by actually traveling to Spain and going to a Spanish language school. My personal choice was Enforex, a school that has branches in many places in Spain and Latin America. It offers several types of programs for all levels, and the study period varies from one week to one year. The school also offers accommodation, tours, and language exchange.
The lessons themselves are super interesting and interactive, and you get to practice diverse conversation topics. It was exciting for me to go to class every day and learn Spanish in such a fun way from the most incredible teachers. Plus, you’re in a Spanish-speaking country, so you get to practice your Spanish all day long.
Another great thing about studying in Enforex is meeting people from all over the world. You wouldn’t normally find people from Japan, Turkey, Germany, and many other countries sitting in one classroom. It’s an inspiring experience all on its own and one more good reason to learn Spanish in Spain.
Submitted by: Or of My Path in the World
Language can sometimes be one of the biggest barriers while getting involved in a local/cultural activity while traveling. The internet and Google do not always turn out to be helpful while facing a language barrier. I got a bit of unique advice to overcome the language barrier. It initially looked absurd to me but on giving it a shot I was surprised that it actually did wonders.
One of my friends recommended watching shows in the foreign language with subtitles. Take a pen and paper and start noting the down the words which are used repeatedly, along with the commonly used words like ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘thank you’ etc. I tried doing it for my trip to Turkey and within a couple of weeks of watching some really amazing Turkish shows, I was already speaking small sentences in the Turkish language.
However, I would also recommend doing some mandatory research on the commonly used words and phrases that are used while traveling. This also helps in speaking the language in the appropriate accent, which is a huge plus while mingling with the locals.
Submitted by: Rahma of The Sane Adventurer
Before we embarked on our 8 month trip to France I knew that I needed to improve my French! Despite visiting France a few times, my French hadn’t progressed since high school. I could introduce myself and let people know how many sisters I had but that was about it! Not particularly useful for day-to-day conversation.
Thankfully, a colleague mentioned that he was learning German with the Michele Thomas method. I admit I am a bit of a language learning hoarder. By that I mean, I buy it, look at it a few times and expect to be fluent while it sits on my bookshelf!
These CDs by Michele Thomas are the only resources that I’ve gone back to again and again. The man behind the method was an amazing linguist from Poland. Unlike many methods, he doesn’t expect you to memorize, or write notes. The focus is very much on him as the teacher. You listen, you join in, you learn. He doesn’t focus on teaching you to ask where the nearest taxi rank is or how to book a hotel room. You’ll learn that stuff and more but without knowing it. You’ll have to listen to them to understand what I mean!
Submitted by: Amy of Family Edventures
There are dozens of ways to learn a language prior to embarking on a foreign getaway, many of which focus on learning useful phrases that could come in handy on your trip. What many people fail to practice is how to actually understand the language rather than simply memorizing a few helpful sentences.
Many of us know the deer-in-the-headlights feeling when you recite one of your well-practiced questions in a foreign language, only to be completely bewildered when met with a rapid-fire, incomprehensible response. Speaking is one thing, but oftentimes understanding a foreign language is far more challenging.
One method we have found helpful is listening to music in the language you are practicing. We will read the lyrics in the target language and again in English so we know what is being said. Listening to songs repetitively when you know what to listen for is a great way to train your ear. We’ve done this with Spanish songs as well as in Portuguese before visiting the Azores and found it to be extremely helpful.
Submitted by: Laura and Chris of Trails Unblazed
When it comes to learning a new language, I often struggle the most with remembering the pronunciation of words and how they should roll off my tongue. One of the most effective ways I’ve been able to learn a foreign language is by listening to music. It’s both entertaining and educational.
I first started learning Spanish by listening to Enrique Iglesias. His music had a good beat and I became more familiar with common sounds made in the language. The music piqued my curiosity and I would translate the lyrics to English to understand what the song was saying.
I also did the opposite and would listen to songs I knew in English, such as Christina Aguilera’s “Come on Over (All I Want Is You),” and then listen to the Spanish translation. Since I knew the lyrics in English, I was then able to pair up what words meant what and knew the meaning of the song.
Both of these strategies made learning a new foreign language fun and exciting. I wanted to expand my vocabulary to understand more lyrics and suddenly learning new words wasn’t a bore.
Submitted by: Martha of Quirky Globetrotter
I recently spent almost 7 months traveling through Spanish-speaking countries in Puerto Rico and South America. I wanted to be self-sufficient enough to travel independently and also be able to connect with local people, so learning some Spanish was essential. I used many methods, including conventional methods such as classroom lessons, but I found that podcasts were a great way to improve both my Spanish comprehension and speaking abilities.
One of my favorite learn-Spanish podcasts is a fun one called Coffee Break Spanish. It features a multilingual host whose co-host is a beginner learner just like the listener. Together they tackle many aspects of living and traveling in Spanish-speaking countries. Episode topics range from basic greetings to navigating markets, pharmacies, and hotel mix-ups.
The hosts offer pronunciation tips depending on whether or not you are traveling in South America or Spain, so you can be understood by the locals. Some episodes even go on location to talk to native Spanish speakers about topics that are of interest to them.
On their own, I don’t think the episodes will make a fluent speaker out of anyone, but they are a great way to practice listening to Spanish and get instruction in fun,15-minute sessions. I especially loved listening to them during those famously long South American bus rides!
Submitted by: Phillip and Thea of Zen Travellers
Incorporating the language into an activity you enjoy is one of the best ways to learn a language. For some, that means reading a book or a blog in the language, and for others, it may be watching movies or youtube channels. As a long-time Japan expat, I think karaoke is one of the best ways to learn a language.
As you probably know, karaoke is an interactive way to sing your favorite songs. The music plays and lyrics appear on the screen so you can follow along. If you’re a beginner in the language, you can start with a slow song and progress to more difficult ones as you improve.
I love karaoke because it helps you with reading, pronunciation, and comprehension. And I find it more effective than other methods because you’re having fun with music you actually listen to. But what if you’re shy? Don’t worry — let a friend take the mic and follow along in your head! What are you waiting for? It’s time to study!
Submitted by: Delilah of Fleur Delilah
Reading in a foreign language is a great way to pick up new vocabulary and grasp verb conjugations and more. However, picking up a classic novel bigger than your head can be very intimidating. Imagine starting your first foreign language novel with Don Quixote, very challenging indeed!
So I recommend starting with a book you already know. Reading Harry Potter in your new language is an ideal start! Who isn’t familiar with the general plot? Knowing what’s happening by having already read it in your native language will help you pick up new vocabulary based on context. Also, since the books in the Harry Potter series were designed around the idea that the audience would grow with the books, your language skills will also “grow” with them. The first book is an easier read than the final chapters in The Deathly Hallows. So, return to Platform 9 ¾ one more time to improve your new language skills in a fun, new way.
Submitted by: Erin of Sol Salute
Ways to learn a language creatively
Before embarking on an epic five-month traverse of South America, we figured we should really learn some Spanish. We began with some of the usual methods, getting to grips with the basics via some apps and CD courses. After a few weeks of this, we came up with an interesting way to practice our skills at home – Spanish-only nights.
We liked to call it ‘Spanish Sundays’. Every Sunday we would have a night in with a home-cooked dinner, following one golden rule as we prepared and ate the food: we were only allowed to speak Spanish. We could use dictionaries and online translators if we needed help, but English was forbidden.
This is a challenging and yet enjoyable way to practice language skills with a partner or friends, and you can have some fun setting your own rules.
At first, we found it tricky, and at times hilarious, as we accidentally slipped back into English. So we introduced some friendly penalties. For example, every time one of us spoke English, we had to put a little money into our savings jar. We not only improved our Spanish, but we saved some extra money for our travels as well!
Submitted by: Alex of Career Gappers
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