How to Learn the Basics of Any Language for Your Next Trip in Four Steps

By Nomadic Matt | Published March 13th, 2014

Benny Lewis from fluent in three months walking along the Great Wall of ChinaI’ve always been bad at languages. I barely made it through high school Spanish and have forgotten all the French I hired a tutor to teach me. I’m cursed. Or so I thought until I became friends with Benny Lewis from Fluent in 3 Months. Benny has mastered a method for learning languages that has helped me break languages down into smaller, more easily learnable parts. With his help, I’ve remembered a lot of my Spanish, learned Thai, and picked up some Swedish.

Today, I turn the blog over to Benny (who just published a book on language learning) to share how you can learn the basics of any language for your next trip. Knowing just a few basic phrases goes a long way when you travel and puts you in the good graces of the locals.

HERE IS BENNY……

Way too often, we arrive in a country and think to ourselves, “Man, I wish I took some time to learn the basics of this language before I got here!” Or maybe you think anything less than mastering the language is not useful enough to invest time in. But even if you only have a month or a week before your trip, or even if you fly out tomorrow, you still have time to learn some basics of the local language. You only need a short period of time to master a few key words and phrases. And no, you don’t need to be a language genius to pick up the basics fast.

I only spoke English until I was 21. I nearly failed German in school, and I lived in Spain for six months without being able to learn the language—because I was doing it wrong. Fast forward to now: I speak around a dozen languages and counting, and it’s because I make my study hours work for me, practice speaking the language right away, and don’t waste my time studying what I won’t need. Even with just the basics in a language, I’ve had amazing experiences, like receiving my Chinese name on a train in the middle of China…just because I understood the question, “What’s your name?”

Here are four steps to basic fluency:

Step 1: Be specific with your goals

Benny Lewis standing with a group of men in India
A huge mistake many people make is trying to take on too much at once. Having high goals and wanting to become fluent in a language, or even mastering it someday, is a noble goal, but this isn’t going to help you right now with your looming travel plans.

To be successful in learning what you need for your trip, you need as much specificity as possible. I’m lucky enough to typically have three whole months before a trip, in which I can devote most of my days to learning a language, and that makes fluency a realistic target.

I’ve had tighter deadlines, though, and was still able to work with them. Hell, even when I had one single hour of time before my trip to Poland, since I needed to prepare for my TEDx talk on language learning in Warsaw in English, I still took that time to learn enough basic Polish to be able to stretch it into a half-hour Skype call (constantly looking up words to keep the basic chat alive).

The way you do this is to know precisely what you need to learn and to learn only that.

In your mini-project:

  • You need specificity – Do NOT have a vague goal like “Learn Spanish.” If you want to go abroad in June, say to yourself that you want to be “basic conversational in three months,” given that you’ll put 10 hours a week into it. If you only have a month then go for “very confident tourist in 30 days,” and put an hour a day into it or more if you can. If you have a flight out in three days, then take two or more hours each one of the next three days, and aim for “get by with basic necessities well in 72 hours.”
  • You need to build a you-specific vocabulary – Guide books are great for general phrases like “how are you?” but you’re more complicated than that. So spend your study time tailoring your vocabulary to your specific needs. Step two below shows you how to start.

Step 2: Learn the words YOU will use

If you’re starting from scratch, the first thing you need to do is think about which words you’ll be using most on a daily basis in whatever situations you might be in—starting a conversation, sitting at a bar, talking about yourself, ordering in a restaurant, whatever it is. Then:

  • Sit down and write out a self-introduction in English – Introduce yourself to an imaginary stranger. Tell them where you’re from, what you do, why you’re travelling, and so on. Then take a look at what you’ve got and pick out specific words you think will be most important for your abroad vocabulary, translate them, and then use a website like forvo.com (actually spoken by a native) or Google translate (automatically produced) to hear how they’re pronounced in that language.In my case, the first words I’ll always need to learn first are “Irish” (my nationality), “blogger” (my job), and “vegetarian” since I’m a travelling vegetarian. Figure out what your words are, and commit them to memory first.
  • Make a list of foods you like, things you want to do, and other daily necessities – Everyone needs to know the word for “bathroom” pretty much on their first day abroad—so go ahead and add that to your list—but also include things that you as an individual can’t live without. Whether it’s coffee or diet coke, sandwiches or oysters, know the words for your go-to foods. And if you plan to try anything in particular while you’re there, like yoga, zip lining, or dipping in a hot spring, learn those too.Because I’m a vegetarian, for example, I have to learn the words for pork, ham, bacon, sausage, chicken, beef, and fish—so I can ask the waiter for something without these foods in them. Whatever it is that you’ll be asking about, jot it down, look up the translations, and make yourself a cheat sheet.
  • Look up a list of cognates, or words that are similar between the languages – It’s actually impossible to truly “start from scratch” when you’re learning a new language. Many languages have very long lists of words you already know the meaning of (albeit with slightly different pronunciations). If “sandwich” is on your list of favorite foods, for example, you already know how to say it in French. In Spanish, hospital is still hospital, and in German the word for fish is pronounced exactly the same. Even a very different language like Japanese has a ton of these “loanwords” for everyday things you might need like coffee, milk, and glass.
  • Use mnemonics to learn unfamiliar words – To remember new words really fast that are nothing like what you’re used to in English, try using a fun mnemonic—an image or story that you associate with a particular word. Sounds silly, but it works. When I was learning French , for instance, I remembered that “gare” was “train station” by visualizing a big fat orange Garfield running out of breath through a train station to catch a train to a lasagna-eating competition, with lots of color and sounds in my mind to make it really stick. This technique works wonders, and creating this image in my mind made the gare-train station association stick much faster than it ever would have by rote repetition alone.

Resources:

Step 3: Learn whole phrases

Benny Lewis wearing a leprechaun hat and holding a sign saying FREE HUGS in multiple languages
With the short time frame you have, you don’t have time to try to understand the grammar of the language. I highly recommend that you skip over grammar studies, which are better suited to later in language learning anyway, and instead just memorize a few whole sentences so that you can convey your point in already-formed phrases.

  • Get a guidebook, but ignore most of it – Guidebooks are great for the essentials, but you won’t need most of what’s in them. Those books try to cater to everyone’s needs, and everyone’s needs are not your needs. Skim through the book and highlight the phrases you will need, like “Where is the bathroom?” or “How much does this cost?” or “Excuse me, do you speak English?” Ignore the rest, and focus only on what’s useful to you. I like Lonely Planet phrasebooks, or you can use this online list of basic phrases.
  • Create your own sentences, and have them checked if possible – Try your best to create a translation by piecing the words together, or (more ideally) changing a single word in a pre-made sentence in your phrasebook. For example, I might replace the word “bathroom” with “supermarket” in the pre-made phrase “Where is the bathroom?” and the resulting sentence is likely to be grammatically correct. You can even use Google Translate for the whole sentence. You can submit your pre-made sentence to the site Lang-8 to have native speakers correct it for free if your phrase is short enough, and they can get back to you surprisingly quickly.
  • Start focusing on how your phrases sound in the language – Once you have your master list of words and phrases, you need to hear how native speakers pronounce them. If you don’t know any native speakers in the language, it doesn’t matter—there are free websites like Rhinospike that let you submit sentences you want to hear spoken, and they’ll send back a translation of your phrase, spoken by a native.

Once you know how the words sound, you need to commit them to memory. One trick that works for me is to sing the phrases out to myself. When I was learning Italian, for instance, I sang, “Where is the bathroom?” in the tune of the Big Ben chime, and took “Dove si trova il gabinetto?” and had it roll of my tongue easier. Putting the words to a tune will cement them into your memory and give you great solo-pronunciation practice.

Resources:

  • For a good list of phrases you’ll need: Lonely Planet phrasebook or the Omniglot phrase list
  • Lang-8 (get your attempted translations corrected by a native)
  • Rhinospike (hear whole phrases spoken by a native)

Step 4: Use it before you fly

Benny speaking the local language with beautiful foreign girls
With these tips, you can actually cram enough of the language into your mind to have something genuinely useful for when you arrive in the country. But there is one final—and extremely helpful—thing you can do before you go to make sure it all goes smoothly:

  • Practice with a native speaker in advance – It doesn’t matter where you live. Websites like italki allow you to either set up a free exchange (so that you “pay” for a language lesson by helping someone with their English for 30 minutes first) or get really affordable lessons (I got Japanese lessons for just $5/hour, for instance), and set up a quick session on Skype to use what you know with a native right now from home. You’ll hear what someone speaking to you spontaneously truly feels like, see where your weaknesses are in advance of needing to use the language in the real world, and be able to address problems or questions that have been on your mind.
  • Roleplay to discover what you’re missing – Use your time chatting with a native online to play out the real-life situations you’ll be in abroad. For instance, you can practice ordering a complicated vegetarian meal or renting a hotel room well before you have to do it for real. As you go, you’ll discover there are words you need that you don’t know. For example, maybe you didn’t realize how often you want to talk about your cat or significant other. When you find these holes in your vocabulary, write down the words you need and add them to your master list.

This way, you hit the ground running and are already an “experienced” speaker, knowing what it’s like to speak with a native, and are simply keeping up your momentum.

Remember it’s OK to make mistakes!

Man looking confused holding a Thai Lonely Planet phrasebook
When I was learning German, I once tried to tell my (female) friend that I had just made a “cool” video and asked if she wanted to come upstairs to see it. Sounds innocent enough, right? Somehow, what I actually said was, “I’m horny, and I want you to come inside me,” since the German word for “cool” also means “horny” (geil), and “come” in German has sexual connotations as it does in English if you use it wrong.

We had been friends for a long time, so she knew I wasn’t flirting with her—I explained my mistake and we laughed it off. It turned out that the world didn’t end, and to this day we are still good friends.

I’ve also managed to let it slip that I’m pregnant in Spanish (“embarazado/a”), and in my initial weeks learning French, somehow kept saying, “Thank you nice-ass!” instead of “Thank you very much” (“merci beaucoup” versus “merci beau cul”), and when I arrived in Brazil and wanted to say “thank you” to the immigration officer (“obrigado”), I instead said, “Chocolate bonbon!” (“brigadeiro”).

In each one of these cases, the person I was speaking to was well aware of the fact that I was still a learner, knew I didn’t mean what it sounded like, and were smart enough to see from the context what I actually meant. Rather than scold me for my “unforgiveable” mistake, they smiled and thought it was great that I was trying, in many cases congratulating me for my effort.

So don’t worry about being perfect in a new language. You don’t need a lot of time or even a lot of skill to pick up the language of your next destination. You just need a plan. Make your study time all about you, and remember not to get bogged down in irrelevant words, phrases, and grammar you won’t need.

While many people think that learning a language can only be a challenge that requires years of time, I hope you’ve seen in this article that you can absolutely get to a stage of having something very useful for your trip in a really short time. You just need to be very specific in what you’re aiming for, learn words and phrases that are relevant to you and what you’re likely to say, and not try to absorb the entire language.

Finally, you don’t need to arrive to see if you are ready. It’s better to get online and talk to someone today to clear up all your final problems and questions so that you arrive ready to confidently use what you know.

Benny Lewis was a language dud in school, but after graduating as an engineer he found that language talent is irrelevant and that with the right attitude and approach, anyone can learn a language. His cultural investigations through language learning won him the title of National Geographic Traveler of the Year. His book, Fluent in 3 Months, was just published by HarperCollins to share all of his best language-learning tips.

comments 70 Comments

akshay

Loved this article, one of the best i have read on learning languages. I speak 4 already, have German next on my list. I think i need to start stalking your website

Viel Erfolg with German! You’ll have a blast :)

Ahh new fan here! This was awesome advice, and sort of perfect timing since I’ve just arrived in Iran and am feeling super overwhelmed by Farsi. I’m going to write down some phrases now and give it to my couchsurfing host to translate/practice with.

It can seem overwhelming, since we feel like the ENTIRE language needs to be learned… but start with a few phrases and take it from there ;)

Wow! This was extremely helpful and full of advice that I never seem to hear elsewhere. I’ve always thought that to learn a language, one had to take a classes at university for years, but this seems to be a much more practical approach.

Yes, I hope that traditional learning approaches catch on soon and have more practical nudges for people to actually speak!

Totally. I’ve been in class after class in which I perfected my grammar, spelling, and writing skills but then felt uncomfortable actually having a conversation in that language. There are too many language classes at universities in which you don’t speak at all during the whole class period!

This is a great article, although I have been checking out Benny’s website before, this really sums up language learning even better! Thanks!!

Glad you’ve been reading along!

Wow! That sure makes language life easier. And less expensive!

Thanks very much for sharin this post!
As a German who speaks three languages I hope that your article will encourage more travelers to learn and speak at least a few phrases for their future stays abroad – also on the Algarve in Portugal.

I know – I was really appreciate of Matt to help me share this post on his blog to get through to so many people it could help :)

Love this – will definitely be putting this advice into practice once we leave to travel in July!

I’ve always felt that I suck at learning a language, but maybe I was just going about it all wrong! :)

I felt I sucked until the age of 21, so there is hope for everyone ;)

I’m a native English speaker and am fairly fluent in Spanish and I always, at a minimum, make sure I know how to say “thank you” in the language of where I’m going. One thing I think is helpful is to try to hear a word spoken before you see it written. Write it down the way you need to see it to pronounce it correctly–not necessarily how it is actually spelled. This is especially true for languages like French.

Yes absolutely! Although once you’ve been in the language longer than a few hours, you can learn its phonetics relatively quickly. But phrasebook’s general pronunciation rules can help in the mean time!

I think one of the biggest mistakes made by new language learners is being too worried about making mistakes. They really needn’t worry at all though! It’s how you learn, and people are more than happy to help you along the way.

Eve

Thank you so much for this post.

Jen

Great tips Benny! I have found that I really struggle with languages and have always left it up to my husband (travelling companion) to learn the basics and then I usually pick it up as we go. Usually after I leave a place I forget everything completely but the exception to this is Italian. I love the language and although it is really only useful in one country I would love to one day try and learn it properly, preferably while living in Italy of course.

Sounds like you’ve caught the language learning bug ;) I’d recommend hopping on a site like italki and getting practice in Italian. You could be speaking it well before you know it!

These basic language learning tips are indeed effective. I have great time studying these tips. I think such tips will surely help me out to communicate with Indian people on my next tour through learning the basics of Indian language… Thanks mate.

This is a very useful tips, especially those who loves to travel! Somebody contacted me before, he saw my profile on Odesk and he is planning to travel here in the Philippines. He paid me $3 per hour to help him to be familiar with some basic Filipino words.

I’ve been checking out Benny’s blog every now and again and I’ve found it very useful. It’s good to have it all here – it’s like a little cheat sheet for his blog :)

I wish I’d followed this advice in Budapest a couple weeks ago when my partner and I very awkwardly walked into a restaurant that had no English on the menu! We ended up just pointing at something at smiling. It was chicken and was pretty good – I just think of it as an adventure!

I loved Budapest. Hungarian intimidates a lot of people, but it’s a surprisingly easy language to get the basics of. It’s more the grammar that scares people off, but you can skip that if you are learning from a phrasebook to get by as a tourist.

I have been following the tips from Benny’s site earlier. But this is an excellent summarization of the techniques.

Tip for Spanish speakers coming to Argentina: ‘coger’ (which usually means ‘take’) actually means ‘shag’ here, so use ‘tomar’ instead to avoid any embarrassing mishaps!!

Thanks for all the great tips! I’m traveling in South America now, and did’nt learn any Spanish before, but as a teenager I loved the Argentine telenovelas like ‘Chiquititas’ and ‘Rebelde Way’, and I still understand and can communicate a bit more than the basic thanks to that! at first I made a lot of funny mistakes like asking: ‘I have toilet?’ insted of ‘do you have toilet here?'(= So watching TV series with translation can also help a lot.

Great tip! When I was in Spain, I found telenovelas from South America to be a great way to ease into the language. They are so much clearer than normal use (and the plots are extremely simple), so you can follow them so quick you get a great confidence boost :)

Lots of helpful tips! I’ll be leaving in September to teach English in Spain, and I’ve been brushing up on my Spanish. This is really helpful and gives lots of encouragement as I try to improve my español.

Your blog is very nice, I’m constantly watching. Also I think your site is very up to date. This article was descriptive and a great article.

Amy

Great post, and thank you so much for including examples of some of the mistakes you’ve made – good for a giggle, and made me feel so much better about my own language speaking mess-ups – or learning how NOT to say something in a language, which is just as important :-)

Yeah, people really do need to just giggle a little and realize that making a few mistakes isn’t the end of the world! ;)

Nice list Matt! I am always amazed at the ignorance of English speaking travelers. At the very least people learn the basics – Hello/goodbye,please,thank you, excuses me etc… Maybe it’s just me being Canadian but it feels so incredibly rude not taking the 10 minutes it takes to learn these phrases. The fact that you try goes along way!

Great. Very informative post Matt. Basic phrases are very essential in foreign countries. Keep exploring.

Very helpful info, thank you. Learning language from scratch is so intimidating so these are great tips for making good use of the time we do put towards learning.

Once you have momentum, you’d be surprised how easy it is to get past the basics! Glad you found this post encouraging!

Wow, this is hugely helpful. I am going to Nepal and Indonesia in the fall, and I have been pretty anxious about not knowing the language at all. We’ll be in some remote villages in Nepal where there is slim to no chance of anybody knowing English. We got a phrase book for Christmas but every time I look at it I’m overwhelmed. I just know how to say “Hi”/”goodbye” because.. well, it’s a common yoga saying. Namaste!

The first step is the hardest, and even confidently knowing hello is more than some tourists. Build on that with other basics like thank you and please, and you can get further with each new word learned :) Have a great time in your travels later this year!

Essentials when learning any new language: “Hello”, “Thank you” & “I’ll have three beers please”.

Anything else is just gravy.

Jen

Loved this post! I am in Cuenca, Ecuador and plan to be in Spanish speaking Countries for the next few months. I’ve been struggling with trying to learn the language and this post gave me the shot of motivation I needed to keep at it. Thanks! Great resources too.

Glad to hear it! Confidence is the missing ingredient in many language learners’ journeys, so it’s great that you have some now. Just take it one little bit at a time and you’ll be flying for the rest of your travels using Spanish!

Very constructive advice there Benny. Traversing language remains a daunting task but the way you broke down preparation levels made it look so easy! thanks ..:)

It really is easier than most people think! Glad this post is showing people that. Thanks!

yudhi

wish i found your article earlier. Felt tired learning my french by youtube and google translate prior to my trip to Europe. Very inspiring, will use your advise and push my brain to learn. Thanks

Yep – don’t just learn it passively, but get active in speaking French! Best of luck :)

yudhi

merci beaucoup, monsieur.

So many good tips. Learning Czech and French at the moment so it’s a good reminder that it’s not impossible!

Hi!
Great tips!
I said I wanted to learn Spanish 19 months ago but did not set any goals- I just played with it. The result- I speak like a first grader.
In a restaurant I once ordered a ***** with butter instead of bread and butter….
So, I will visit your site for more language learning skills, thank you :)

Tom

Awesome tips Benny, thank-you! I am hoping to learn some Cantonese and I have to admit it’s a very daunting project. I’m hoping your advice will make the journey much simpler.

Pdonna

Wow great idea make perfect sense! My question would be what happens when you go up to a native and say in your southern accented Spanish. Hi my name is Donna. I would like a room please. Where can I buy a coke ? You give them your best smile and they hit you with an explosion of Spanish. I see myself giving them my best deer in the headlights expression :) Whaaaaaaaat?

I think the first point is very important. Setting smaller goals stops it from seeming an insurmountable task.

This made me giggle, great work nice-arse ;)

I need to take this advice before my next trip to a non-native English speaking country … thanks!

Great article! I have to admit, I’m from Canada & took French in school. I also lived in France for a year… Yet I still cringe at the thought of holding a conversation in French, even though I very well know I can. I guess confidence is the key for me, alcohol it is! Haha, but great tips about speaking online, never even thought of that. x

Great tips Benny! I think one of the greatest errors created by new foreign terminology learning is being too concerned about creating errors. They really need not fear at all though! It’s how you understand, and individuals are more than satisfied to help you along the way. Thanks to offer this awesome material. I really knowledgeable to research this content.

Thanks for the valuable post full of useful advice. Always have problems with languages when traveling. I think you gave me the chance to believe that nothing is impossible, just need to find the right approach.

I always make sure I know the basic greetings when I travel to a certain country. Learning their language is an advantage to every traveler. That’s what I love about traveling.

Great article!

This is very helpful if you really have a short time to learn the language since you can only stay on that place for a certain amount of time.

Learning the local language also shows that you appreciate the local culture and took an effort to immerse with them.

Wonderful tips! and I completely agree with learning at least the first few words you know you would use. Mine typically starts with “Where is the bathroom” and “I would like a cup of coffee please” Not necessarily in that order

Rob

One further tip is to completely immerse yourself in the new culture and language. Have “english free days” where you are forbidden from speaking English. The best way to learn is to be fully immersed in it. Live, breath, and think in your new language. You know you’ve made it when you have your first dream in the language your learning!

I became completely fluent in Spanish (reading, writing, and speaking) after living in Peru for 2 years. Dont think I would have developed the same skills if I had stuck around in the US!

“Learn the words YOU will use” is great advice. Whenever I travel, I try to learn these 4 in whatever language is spoken: 1. Hello, 2. Thank you, 3. Chicken, and 4. “I don’t want it” (comes in handy when dealing with salespeople, tuk tuk drivers, etc)

It’s also really, really helpful to learn numbers 1 through 10.

Loved this article, Thanks Benny! I learnt both Spanish and French at school, but struggling to remember much of it these days.. I love the tips you’ve given though!

This is right path to develope the basic languages.. Your specified points are awesome to learn it bit quicker from Benny. However, we need to spend some more time to learn better before travelling is great points and mentioned time period.. Before starts we need to take a looks @ some important repeating words like “How Much” “Where is it” “How to go” “Please go here” “Please stop” the word “How Much” is mostly used word from the traveler too…

Allie Cook

Not knowing the language of the country you are going to travel will definitely create some problems for you, but things will ease up if you can remember some specific and meaningful words and sentences of the native language and speak them up. As there are always people eager to help you out in all parts of the world, knowing some words of their langauge can help. You have shared some really useful tips.

Daniel

Once I said in German “Ich habe geschissen” – I have shit / I have been shitting INSTEAD “geschossen” ( in “a wild guess” / “shot in the dark” context) mixed with my polish meaning “strzela? w ciemno” literally “shooting in the dark”. I don’t even know till now is “zum Glück schissen” correct in german but my interlocutors /haben gelacht und alles verstanden/
:-)
Greetings

benny, what are your thoughts on Verbling.com?

I think the hardest part is not learning it, it’s practicing it with the natives. That first time you open your mouth to say “Hey how much is this?” or “Hello, where is the toilet?” scares the crap out of most people. But once we get over that first few failures where the responder has no clue of what you said, we learn to incorporate a light slang adjust what we are saying and the rest of it flows a lot easier. Great post and tips, thanks Benny

I was sent references to this post more than once by associates and ignored them because I already had Tim Ferriss’ take on language learning. I’m glad I checked yours out because it’s cool and I picked up several cool new tips. Thanks Benny (PS as in that same light, you might like to check out my travel club, which is not as raw and edgy as straight vagabonding but, it’s a great way to include family, friends and large groups who may not be as adventurous. You can also easily extend your stays and jump of the grid for the native experience; really cool, I love it, especially since my wife and kids aren’t nearly as adventurous and outdoorsy! You can get the membership free and the price guarantee and rake shrinker are World Class! Thanks again dude!

Todd Smith

I recently traveled to Spain and got by speaking absolutely no Spanish. While it can be nice to know some of the local language, it is definitely not necessary. The world today is made for English speakers, so if English is your first language, take advantage of it.

The ideas here are truly helpful especially to those who are constantly traveling to different places. I love to travel but I haven’t been to non-English speaking countries. I would love to go to Germany, Mexico, Spain, Portugal, and China but the language is indeed a barrier. Your insights have given me courage to go to these places. I understand that I need to be specific which is why I am going to pick a language course tailored to my needs. Sometimes I go for leisure, sometimes I travel for business. Picking a language course that caters to my needs would help achieve my travel goals. It’s great that I have friends in social networking sites who I can request to have a chat with me using their native tongue. Putting it into actual practice does the job I have to say. Right now, I am trying to learn French and I am very fortunate that I found friends online who knows how to speak the language.

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