Traveling with Language Skills

Photo by Bet_Noire/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by Bet_Noire/iStock / Getty Images

Planning a trip that last longer than a week or two can be a daunting endeavor.  Besides trying to find the time to actually go there are many other aspects to give some thought to; where to go?, how long to stay?, and what to do? are the most obvious.  Another major concern for people is the question of communicating with locals.  Yes, English is widely spoken as a second or third language in many parts of the world; mainly in larger tourist destinations, but what about off the beaten path?  If you are backpacking you are guaranteed at some point to experience a language barrier, no matter how many languages you have acquired; there are just too many languages/ dialects to possibly learn them all.  You can, however, make and effort to learn useful phrases in many languages using the power of the internet.

In America, high school is where most people first encounter learning new languages.  Like many, I had a difficult time with this literally foreign subject.  I also thought that maybe ‘I’ just wasn’t good at learning languages.  Over the last few years my view has completely changed.  Now I have a great interest in learning about the language itself and the culture that uses it.  Unlike in school, I now see that there are benefits to exploring language; for me that happens to be the ability to connect with local people even if they don’t speak your language.  I don’t claim hold great fluency in anything other than English, but even knowing a few phrases is enough to help.  No to mention the excitement you feel when you ask a question and understand the response without using your native tongue.  Also, you will notice the locals become friendlier when they can see that you respect their culture enough to even try to use their language.

There are a ton of websites and books today that can further your knowledge of one or more languages. I can’t possible begin to try and evaluate them all, so i will just discuss the ones I have tried; Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, WeSpeke, YouTube, and Memrise.  I have also purchased a few combination phrase book/ dictionary for when I am on the road.

Today, Duolingo is one the most popular language practice sites by far, with million of users learning one of more of the 9 active languages (Spanish, Italian, French, Swedish, Irish, German, Dutch, Danish, Portuguese, and English as of writing this).  At this time there are also 7 languages (Turkish, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Romanian, Hungarian, and Esperanto)  being developed. Duolingo is completely free.  Students are taught the target language by seeing and hearing sentences, then being asked to translate between their native tongue and their target.  You can also hover over new words to see their meaning within sentences.  There is an emphasis on fun learning regardless of accent marks.  Recently they have also added speech recognition into lessons.  Once you reach a certain understanding of the language Duolingo will ask you to help them translate the internet into your target language.  This serves dual purposes; Real experience reading and writing the language while also aggregating user translations to make the internet more easily accessible to speakers of other languages. This is especially true for native English users; because a vast portion of the internet is in the English language.

One of my favorite ways to learn just about anything is YouTube.  There are tons of people that take the time to create free content on thousands of different subjects.  You can watch videos at your own pace and pause or rewind until you ready to move on.  I use YouTube more to learn about more visual subjects such as photography, graphic design, and video editing than I do for languages.  For languages I use YouTube to learn pronunciation or cultural aspects before traveling.

WeSpeke is the most social of the platforms I have used; using web chat capabilities to allow you to exchange language with a native speaker verbally and visually.  When you sign up you choose your native language and your target language.  Then you are shown people that have the opposite language skills to choose from.  Once you choose someone who speaks your target language and who wants to learn yours you can begin to chat.  You can also use a text box in case words are not understood verbally, but might be recognized in text.  Naturally, I find that WeSpeke is the best when it comes to conversational skills.

Memrise is a system to either add pre-made courses or create your own.  Each course is broken down into different skills and levels made up of digital flash cards.  Once you ‘seed’ a word you will be notified later to ‘water’ them to help that word grow in your vocabulary.  Along with the text aspect of flash cards you can also insert images to help you remember material.  If you are looking to learn unusual languages such as Lakota (Native American) or Lingala (African) Memrise may be the right choice for beginners.

Last but certainly not least, Rosetta Stone; the brand name when it comes to language education.  This is mainly due to a very large marketing budget.  They do offer more language options than most others, but the price alone is enough to price many people out of even considering it.  The software does not using your native language to help you understand words, concepts, or sentence constructions. Instead it you are show pictures and words are either spoken or shown, sometimes both, and you have to correctly match them to move on.  It is meant to be a total immersion into the language, but most of the language used it more formal.  You will not find any slang or colloquial speech, which would be used in daily life. Like Duolingo and Memrise it does stress the importance of practice in long term acquisition.  When you log in you are asked to review previous lessons at random before you move on to new material.

In my experience using just one method the learn a language is an exercise in futility.  I suggest using multiple methods and being creative in order to retain as much as possible.  If you are just looking to learn a few phrases or important words before you travel Duolingo and YouTube or ever even a good phrase book will do the trick.  They’re also the cheapest options.  Don’t shell out for expensive software, classes, or lessons if you are not really serious about the subject.  Also, remember in order to gain fluency in a language you will have to continually practice or revisit it often.

Using different languages will open up your view of the world; possibly eliminating cultural bias’ and helping you appreciate how things work around the world.

Derik BrosharComment