Language Tips & Tricks

There are some people to whom languages come easily, they can prattle comfortably in 7 tongues, seemingly pick up a new language within days of arriving in an unfamiliar place and seem to have a great affinity to music and math. I don’t know if there is a relationship between learning a new language and music and math but I am very generally deficient in all three. This does not, however, stop me from traveling to new countries and bulldogging my way through the communication barrier. If you are fortunate enough to acquire languages easily you can skip the rest of this page, or better still,  pop your tips in an email to me and I’ll add them to this page.

People acquire languages in different ways so there is no one correct way to go about learning the basic vocabulary and sentence structure, of course the younger you are the better, but I think as you get older you become increasingly embarrassed if you blurt out the wrong word or phrase and everyone around you doubles over in peals of laughter. For this reason many travelers want to make sure the words or sentences they speak are grammatically correct, and well, pretty much perfect.

I’m not sure I was ever like this and have developed my own strategies for communicating in foreign countries. I’m just going to list these in bullet form below but first, I would like to say that in those parts of the world where the sounds of the language are so different from your own native language, it is not unusual for several days to pass before we can even understand a simple greeting when it is thrown our way.   Before I went to Indonesia for the first time I had dutifully listened to tapes and committed the most common words and phrases to memory, but it took almost a week before I could pick out those phrases when they were spoken to me, or I heard them in passing. I first had to tune in my ear to the different melodic sounds, the intonations, the pronunciation of the consonants and diphthongs, in short I could not be a lazy listener.   So here goes:

  • Pick up a small phrase book and read the introduction, and the sections on how sentences are constructed, the order of verbs, nouns, adverbs and adjectives, do nouns have a gender and any other peculiarities. You might find some commonalities with a language you already know.
  • Learn the sounds of the alphabet, the diphthongs and general pronunciation. Check out your local library for language tapes, or better still seek out a native speaker in your community for a little language exchange. You help them with your language and they help you with theirs. Invariably you will come away from this exchange with tips on places to go, relatives to meet, and a new friend.
  • Commit to memory phrases of greeting, thanks and “I am a student of your language” (or some similar phrase) and use them all the time. This will at least open up a dialogue for communication.
  • Buy a small notebook (without spirals) that will fit into your back pocket. When you are in conversation (or trying) with someone and they say a word you don’t know, have them write it down in your notebook. These words, that you accumulate every day, will be your homework and because you associate them with a person or an experience they will be easier to recall.   Just remember when you bump into that individual again, he/she will quiz you on that word and then add several more to your list.    This is one of the easiest ways to connect with local people and start learning their language.
  • If you are staying in one place for more than a couple of days, check out community notice boards, the local library, bookstores or a café proprietor to see if there are language exchanges available.  Spending an hour each day with a local over a coffee, beer or local beverage will have you bulldogging your way through the communication barrier in no time.


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