11 Ways To (Kind Of) Learn A New Language If You're A Lazy Traveler


Like most people, I have a few regrets from college: sleeping through a final exam, a few run-ins with the law and a walk of shame in a Tamagotchi costume.

You know these. They are the usual suspects of remorse. What I regret more so than that MIP though, is something I didn't do: I didn't take advantage of the language courses in college and prioritize learning a second language.

After years of traveling everywhere from Argentina to New Zealand, I frequently feel ashamed when I'm often one of the only ones at the hostel who doesn't speak at least one other language. Most of my fellow travelers usually speak two or three others, “and a little German.”

Apparently, my fluency in Spanglish, ebonics and Australian doesn't make me a polyglot. In hindsight, I should have lived my year abroad in a country other than Australia if I really wanted to learn a second language.

But I've put my single-language self to the test nonetheless, on a two-month trip through South America. As it turns out, the knockoff Rosetta Stone program I bought off eBay before my trip would've proven more useful had I actually used it.

So, despite being $40 poorer and not vernacularly richer, I've found other ways to not just survive, but to thrive while traveling without any knowledge of the country's language. Here are 11 tips I've found helpful for instant immersion into another country:

1. Useful Phrases

If your flight to a foreign land leaves this week, you're probably living on a prayer that Duolingo will do you any good at this point. Consider this the night before your political science final that you haven't started studying for.

Now isn't a time for learning. It's a time for "skimorizing" (skimming and memorizing the important parts). Commit to memorizing things like how to ask for and understand directions, how much something costs, where an ATM is located and where the best local restaurants are.

2. Survival Sayings

Touch wood that you won't need to ask for a doctor, police or pharmacy. But hey, sh*t happens when you travel, so you should know how to ask for help in case you do.

If you have medical conditions, allergies or are a vegetarian, learn how to say these things as well. It is equally as vital to learn how to ask for the WiFi password, or how to order coffee and steak how you like them. ("Bife de chorizo jugoso, por favor.")

3. SpanishDict It

If you're going to a Spanish-speaking country, you need to have SpanishDict in your app arsenal. It's a complete Spanish dictionary that is available offline, and it provides example sentences, verb conjugations, useful phrases and a word game.

It even clarifies regional usage of synonymous Spanish words, which I started paying closer attention to after mistakingly asking the Argentinian waitress for a blow job instead of a straw. Give it a go, guys.

4. Convert Units Free

Another handy app for your handheld device is Convert Units Free. This won't help you learn a language, but it will help you look like less of an assh*le at arithmetic while you're calculating currency conversions.

It's available offline for all current exchange rates, and even for other units of measurement like Celsius to Fahrenheit and metric units for us unbending Americans.

5. Local Booze

Language learners believe they're better after a few drinks, and they're probably right. When I'm trying to speak Spanish sober, I'm awkward. I overthink everything, and easily get frustrated and discouraged.

Add a few cervezas though, and I'm confident I speak Spanish like Sofía Vergara. I've unquestionably learned more Spanish from drinking Fernet con Cola with locals and sharing Malbec with multilinguals than I did from Duolingo or my Survival Spanish phrasebook. So dive into the local language at the local dive bar.

6. Journal

As you travel, challenge yourself every day to write a journal entry in the language you're learning, even if do so mainly with the aid of your good old Google Translate scribe. Write things like what you did, what you plan to do, how you feel, what you ate or who you can talk to, in order to build up a collection of vocabulary words.

7. Icebreakers

Much like Monday morning inquisitions at the office (“How was your weekend?” “Did you catch that game last night?” “Is that Baileys in your coffee again?”), you'll get asked the same questions so much when you travel, you'll wish you could tape the answers to your forehead.

Be prepared to answer typical conversation starters in English like, "How long are you traveling for?" "Where have you been?" "Where are you going?" and "What do you do for work?" If you're a girl visiting a Spanish country, know that you will be asked, "Do you have a boyfriend?"

8. No English

If you really want to submerge yourself into a language, act as if you don't speak English fluently. Locals love an opportunity to practice their English on tourists, so in instances similar to when people find out you have a pack of gum, everyone will want a piece of you once they know you speak perfect English.

Be selfish and tell people you're Scandinavian (even though everyone over there speaks English too), and also tell them you just ate your last piece of gum. An even better option is to share a piece of gum and arrange a language exchange with someone hoping to improve his or her English.

Whether it's a fellow traveler, employee at your hostel, friendly waiter or Tinder match, meet up and alternate buying rounds of beer while alternating conversations in both languages. Speak slowly, and take the time to politely correct one another.

9. Crash Course Abroad

Enroll in a multi-day language course if you plan to stay in one city for several days. Take a pasta-making class in Rome, or a Scotch-tasting course in Speyside.

If you want an authentic learning experience, you should go straight to the source. Depending on the country and city you're in, you can find very affordable courses. So shop around to compare prices, levels, inclusions and legitimacy.

Obviously, it's best to take a course toward the beginning of your trip, but it's more affordable to take it in a country or city with an overall lower cost of living.

10. Netflix

Except for sporting events, I do not endorse watching TV while traveling. That said, when you're out dancing in nightclubs in Buenos Aires until 8 am, there might be a day or two when all you want to do is watch "Better Call Saul" at the hostel. Whenever I do watch Netflix, I always switch on the Spanish subtitles in my continuous attempt to master the language.

Catching local news, watching the Spanish-dubbed movies aired on long bus rides and listening to Spanish music are all great ways to passively pick up a few useful words and phrases. Hopefully I won't have to use many of the legal jargon or macabre words I learned while subtitling "Making A Murderer," but "Haciendo Un Asesino" did prove to be more complex in Spanish.

11. Podcasts

Other than when you're swimming, showering, skydiving or screwing, there are very few times you don't have your smartphone on you. This means there are very few times when you don't have a Spanish professor in your pocket.

Bus rides, walks, layovers or lazy beach days all make for perfect opportunities to listen and learn a new language. My favorite podcasts for Spanish are "Coffee Break Spanish" and "Notes In Spanish." You might get a few odd looks while you're repeating the phrases aloud, but they are no worse than the looks you get while you're singing audibly along to a Justin Bieber song.

Good luck. Or as they say in Spanish, "buena suerte."