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Can You Travel to a Country Without Knowing the Language?

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Jenny Wagner

Few skills are more empowering than being able to communicate in a foreign language. About one in four adults in the United States can hold a conversation in a language other than English. But even if you speak multiple languages, chances are your high school didn’t offer classes in Bahasa Indonesian, Aymara, Khmer, or Wolof. 

Language Classes in Guatemala

Students taking Spanish language classes in Guatemala

So what happens when you want to travel to one of the many interesting places in this world where you don’t speak the language? Here are the top ten tips we’ve learned over 30 years facilitating language study for beginners.

A little goes a long way. If you don’t have much time to study before you travel, consider focusing on a few key phrases that are helpful in any language. Hello. Thank you. Sorry. Where is the bathroom? Do you have ____? How much does it cost? I don’t understand.

Loosen up and practice, practice, practice. Imperfection is your friend when learning a language. Don’t stress about small mistakes, and feel free to fill in the gaps with whatever is available. It’s okay to break the rules— people who grow up speaking multiple languages often mix them together in the same sentences.

Don’t let words get in the way of meeting people. One of the best ways to motivate yourself to communicate is actually having people to talk to. Communication experts agree that the majority of human communication happens through body language and tone of voice. Use non-verbal communication skills such as hand gestures and facial expressions to interact with people.

Taking time to learn Arabic on the flight.

Set yourself some daily challenges. Pick one small language task for yourself every day. Go buy some basic necessities in the local market. Memorize a phrase to repeat to a taxi driver. Introduce yourself to someone and ask them their name. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can even try learning a local joke or tongue twister.

Stay with a family. Learning a language is about more than just learning words. Languages are born out of cultural contexts, and living with a family means steeping yourself in the many subtle ways of being that are deeply connected to communicating in a new language. This is one of the many reasons homestays are a core component of every Dragons program.

Kick off your travels with a basic class. Even a single hour-long class with a local teacher can go a long way. Try to find a teacher who uses a communicative approach and gives you chances to practice your skills in class or on field trips outside the classroom. Take advantage of your time with your teacher to ask questions about cultural norms.

Learn from someone who understands both cultures. See if you can find someone who is willing to unpack some of the cultural differences you might encounter in your new environment. In addition to being multilingual, many of our instructors play the role of intercultural mediators, helping language learners understand the “why” and “how” of language alongside the “what.”

Mandarin language classes

Give yourself a break. Do you feel like you’re hitting a wall with your language learning? Take some time off to give your brain a break. Sometimes when there is a lot of new language input, our mind needs time to digest and process. Don’t be surprised if a week later you experience a sudden explosion in your language skills! Language learning takes time, one of the many reasons why our programs emphasize slowness and depth.

Have fun! Learning a new language opens up new experiences, friendships, ways of thinking, and maybe even a new favorite song, film, poem, or proverb. Don’t forget to take a moment to delight in it all!

Find a penpal. Staying in touch with friends you meet during your travels is a great way to keep your language skills from disappearing once you return home. A video call can transport you back into a homestay experience, and social media, texting, and emailing are all low-pressure ways to keep a new language alive in your brain. 

We wish you the best of luck in your travels, and hope you find it fulfilling to cultivate meaningful connections with people you might not normally be able to communicate with!

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