Top 3 tips for language learning, without going to class

career break aims and objectives - tips for learning a new language

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.”

I used this Michel Thomas audio guide, alongside a trusty pocket Spanish dictionary.  Help the site by buying through these links at no extra cost to you.

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.

top 3 tips for language learning
With a few words of the local lingo you can easily negotiate super-cheap transport on buses like these … adventure beckons!

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, online lessons or other conversational practice, text books, or a classroom environment; find the way or ways that suits you – and give it a go.

What are your best tips for language learning? Have you tried an online course? Or had online conversations with a native speaker? What’s worked, and what hasn’t? Share your experiences below.
Julie Sykes of The Gap Year Edit


Hi, I'm Julie, a York (UK)-based travel blogger and comfort-zone pusher. Join me as I bring you pics and musings from my mildly adventurous travels around the globe. My mission is to hear you say, "I"m so glad I did it!" instead of, "I wish I could, BUT ..."

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2 Responses

  1. I so needed this advice. Just written a feature on letting life pass me buy and two regrest were failing to learn Mandarin and Thai. You’ve inspired me to keep going!

    1. Thanks Laura. I’ve always found languages with a non-roman script even more tough, especially when they are tonal languages too. You probably have some good tips for me 🙂 Despite spending a month in Thailand, I could only manage basic greetings and the odd food-related word, so you’ll be one up on most. That could be your mantra when you next visit?: “I know more Thai than 99% of visitors here.” 🙂

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