How do you go about learning a new language, when you have the kind of job that doesn’t allow you to get to night school every Tuesday at 6pm?
That’s the question I asked myself when preparing for my first ever career break trip to South America.
Here I share my top three tips for language learning: how I’ve gathered enough Spanish words and grammar to organise food, accommodation, transport, bargain, and make small-talk conversation. All without ever setting foot in a classroom.
My six-word starting point
I suspected that knowing the Spanish for “b+++h” and being able to count to five – vocab picked up during a summer as a US Summer Camp Counsellor – weren’t going to be particularly helpful to me for three months of travel in Mexico, Peru and northern Chile.
Language-learning tip 1: Listen while you drive
I acquainted myself with Michel Thomas, a talented polyglot linguist who sadly passed away in 2005.
Michel produced a range of audio CDs that will have you constructing basic sentences in no time, without have to study any books or chant any grammar rules (if you learnt a language at school in the UK, you know what I’m talking about!)
I listened to his Spanish CDs whilst driving to work. Friends used the French equivalents and were equally impressed. They’re also good company when ironing, although admittedly less entertaining than Abba’s “Dancing Queen.”
Language-learning tip 2: Practice at home
I’m currently using the free Duolingo app to help with my vocab. It’s simple but effective, with words and phrases categorised by topic. You can even test your pronunciation using your device’s microphone. Clever.
Another way to get some real-time practice is through Meetup. Even in a small city like York has two Spanish language exchange groups.
Meetup is multinational, so check it out for a group near you. You help someone improve their English in return for them helping you with your language of choice. The most it’ll cost you is a nominal admin fee (say, £1) and the price of a beer / coffee.
Language-learning tip 3: Practice when you’re travelling
Carry a dictionary / smartphone app around with you to look up words you keep seeing and have no idea what they mean.
Read museum exhibit labels. It’ll give you loads of new vocab.
Converse with local people, not just fellow visitors. Shop and market stall holders (you’ll also get a better price in markets if you bargain in the local language), taxi drivers, people you meet at festivals / events / museums, locals on public transport.
Some locals will be learning English, so you can have the BEST half ‘n’ half language conversations to help each other out.
One of my endearing memories from a Guatemala trip last year was chatting to a local girl who was learning English whilst we were squished together in the back of a combi van.
The next level
Am I fluent? Not by any means. But I can get by, although I find that understanding some locals’ lightning-fast responses is harder than making myself understood.
It’s important to know your own learning style. Some people will be able to work their way methodically through a textbook. Others will favour listening to CDs or to native speakers. Some will do their best when immersed; trying it out and sometimes getting it wrong.
Whether it’s full-on country immersion, online newspapers, films, Skype lessons or other conversational practice, text books, or a classroom environment; find the way or ways that suits you – and give it a go.