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Learning To Speak Again: The How and Why of Language Learning While Traveling

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Aaron Slosberg

To travel to a new country is to step headlong into the confusion, comedy, and delight of miscommunication. Whether you’ve studied the language before in the scripted setting of a classroom, or you’re arriving without a phrase book in your pocket, you most likely will find yourself at some point staring wide-eyed at a stranger as they repeat incomprehensible sounds to you with the same pleading tone that might be used with a toddler. Except in this foreign context you actually are the toddler, only with perhaps even less of a vocabulary!

With my wonderful homestay family in Toraja, Indonesia circa 2012. With over 800 languages spoken, Indonesia is a language learner’s paradise.

If you’re feeling a little uncomfortable even thinking about yourself in that scenario, that’s a pretty normal reaction! Push through that fleeting discomfort because guess what? Being a kid and learning how to speak again can be so much fun! Like your first time riding a bike or jumping in the ocean, learning a language is a chance to return to the magical curiosity and wonder of childhood. Whether your goal is to become fluent, or just to be able to greet the people you meet along the way, you will find so much fulfillment in learning how to communicate in a new language and culture. 

My introduction to language learning is a familiarly mundane one: studying Spanish in high school with all the enthusiasm of a teenager trying to meet their basic language requirement. After two years of doing the necessary cramming to get by, I was about as fluent as a pirate’s parrot. Sure, I could repeat a few phrases on command, but get me off the script and I felt hopeless. It wasn’t until I decided to study abroad in college that my language learning journey began in earnest. I was immersed with a homestay family who spoke even less English than my Spanish. Robbed of the English speaking safety blanket, I realized that if I ever wanted to really get to know this incredibly welcoming family, who fed and cared for me like their own child, it would involve taking some big risks. 

We often think of risk taking in the physical sense of putting our body in harm’s way (think jumping off a high dive, for example), but what I’m talking about here is perhaps even scarier; I’m talking about the risk of social failure. I’d sooner endure a stinging belly flop in the pool than risk having others laugh at me for saying the wrong thing, or even worse, be offended by my clumsy communication. Committing to leave the English language comfort zone by engaging in real, dynamic conversation with my host family felt like an act of bravery because it was one; it takes courage to learn to speak again with all the fun fumbles along the way. Fortunately for us, not only do the rewards of learning a language far outweigh the risks, but many of those risks may have never been there to start, or at least turn out to be nowhere as scary in reality as in our imagination. 

Putting myself out there to learn Spanish was one of the best decisions of my life, not only because it has opened so many doors to new friendships and experiences, but also because it taught me how to approach language learning in ways big and small. Here are a few of the most helpful tips that I keep in mind when learning a new language while traveling: 

Embrace your inner toddler

Be curious, ask endless questions, and don’t be afraid to be silly. One of the best attributes of toddlers is that they haven’t yet learned how to be inhibited. Remember that, just like a child, people will find your questions and mistakes cute and funny, not because they’re laughing at you, but because you are bringing them joy in your pursuit of learning. Maybe you accidentally say “I’m pregnant” (estoy embarazada) when you meant to say “I’m embarrassed” (estoy avergonzado)…when those funny foibles happen, remember that no one is laughing at you, they’re laughing just because it’s funny! Join in on the joke and laugh it off too! 

Take lots of notes

Unless you are truly a linguistic savant, you’ll need to write down words and phrases in order to remember them. Whenever I travel to a new place, I take pages of notes in my journal of the most common and useful words I hear every day. Slowly but surely, those disorganized notes throughout your travels will transform into your own customized dictionary, tailored succinctly and perfectly for your speaking needs. Don’t sweat the proper spelling because your notes are just for you, so write down words with your own phonetic guide that will help you remember and then you can review them later. 

journals on a table

Just a few of my travel journals from the past 20 years containing many pages of language notes often only comprehensible to me.

Perfection is the enemy

When it comes to language learning, you have to get comfortable with making mistakes. Challenge yourself to go beyond what you know to be 100% correct and you’ll most often be rewarded with new vocabulary, improved pronunciation, and dynamic conversation skills; stay in the ‘perfection only lane’ and you’ll find yourself needlessly limiting your own growth and engagement in pursuit of the mirage of perfect grammar. Besides, you’ll find that most people don’t even use proper grammar in casual conversation! Remember to channel your inner toddler by making all the mistakes that kids are supposed to make along the way; there aren’t many toddler perfectionists out there! 

Dragons students using their language skills to sample local foods in an Indonesian market

Find the key phrases first

Everyone has their preferred “first words” that they like to learn which can snowball into more and more phrases. For me, I usually start with expressions of politeness and gratitude (thank you, the food is delicious, I like this…) and then build towards learning how to ask questions in the language (What is that? How do you say this?). The more you practice, the more you’ll find that not all words are created equal and some words just keep popping up again and again. There are travelers who with a very limited vocabulary can communicate about 90% of what they want to say because they learned those key common phrases that can unlock the language. 

Repetition can be a great way to remember key phrases. My early days of learning Indonesian circa 2007

Something is better than nothing

When you’re in a place for a short period of time, it can be easy to say ‘why bother’ with language learning. Don’t fall into this trap! Even learning the most basic words and phrases can deeply enrich your experience and the experience of those around you. You’ll be shocked at what doors a simple ‘thank you’ or ‘how are you doing’ in the local dialect can open for you, and perhaps even more surprised by the amount of delight it brings to others. Even if you’re just learning a few phrases that you’ll forget by the end of the hour, the learning process in and of itself is an avenue for cross-cultural engagement and an expression of gratitude as a humble guest in a new place. 

Language telephone game! Learning some basic Quechua through Spanish translations circa 2016.

Since my first Spanish immersion homestay, I’ve gone on to learn how to speak in dozens of different contexts from formal graduate school language study to picking up phrases to order food in the local market. Besides being a portal to engage with a diversity of people and perspectives, learning new languages has brought so much joy to me and the people I’ve met, helping me transform from a passing tourist to a curious traveler. As you’ll surely find too, there’s no greater respect you can pay to a culture and community than to go outside of your own comfort zone and try to communicate in theirs. Whatever your language goals or travel plans, keep on learning to speak again and again.

Check out Dragons language intensive programs here, although all of our programs have a language learning component.

Aaron Slosberg is Director of Programming at Where There Be Dragons where he has worked since 2008. Aaron speaks Indonesian, Spanish, and a smattering of other languages including occasional communication with his cat, which is rarely reciprocated. 

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