If you haven’t brushed up on your Spanish, French, or German since graduating from high school, you might feel nervous about traveling to a country where the people speak one of those languages. You could be even more worried if the official language where you’re traveling is one you’ve never studied.

Those feelings are understandable. We all want to make the most of our wanderings, and struggling to communicate can be a major stumbling block when ordering tasty dishes, making friends with locals, or even getting from Point A to Point B.

But with a little preparation and patience, you can remember those verb conjugations again or even teach yourself the basics of a new language. It’s well worth investing the time because this extra bit of effort will make your forays into the world’s most beautiful destinations that much more meaningful.

¡Vámonos! Allons-y! Los geht’s!

A sign in the Italian language.
Photo by Zoltan Kovacs

Before You Go

If You’ve Already Studied the Language

There are plenty of ways to start using your second language again — and the more you incorporate it into your home life, the better prepared you’ll be for your travels. Of course, there may be days when your language skills feel off, but overall, your speaking, reading, and comprehension will improve with a little bit of daily practice and a lot of dedication.

Not sure where to start? Try watching movies or listening to podcasts in your target language, but remember to not get caught up on understanding every word. More than anything, this exercise is aimed at helping you get used to the melody of the language — its rhythms, cadence, and sounds. It will also help you adjust to the speed with which native speakers talk, hopefully sparing you a headache or two once your trip begins.

Next, spend a few minutes each day reviewing grammatical concepts, like how to ask questions, use the past tense, and conjugate common verbs (such as “to be” and “to have”). You can also change the language settings on your phone, connect with native speakers on social media, and hunt down books written in or translated into your target language. (As an added tip, try reading out loud, focusing on correct pronunciation instead of speed.) With all of these suggestions, the idea is to infuse the language into as many pockets of your everyday life as possible — a strategy that will bring your old skills back much more readily.

If possible, you could also practice conversing with a native speaker, a former classmate, or a bilingual friend. This is probably the best way to prepare for your journey, although it’s most effective when combined with other language-learning activities. Just remember: you can do this!

Chinese language characters in calligraphy.
Photo by Raychan

If You’ve Never Formally Studied the Language

The world has never had more resources for beginning language learners. In the digital age, countless smartphone apps and Instagram accounts exist for the sole purpose of helping people pick up new languages, putting easily accessible tools in the hands of anyone who wants to use them.

That said, your language learning can be as casual or intensive as you like. Start by downloading an app like Duolingo or Memrise, where you can set your own goals and track your progress as you go. It’s a simple (and fun!) way to dive into language studies, and these platforms have proven to be an effective tool for many.

Be sure to supplement your app-based learning with other activities. Memorize additional simple phrases, make flashcards, and watch short videos in your target language. Find someone who can carry a simple conversation, and practice speaking with them. If you really want to master the basics, you can even enroll in a formal class and tackle the language with help from a teacher. But don’t overwhelm yourself — just do what you can to diversify your learning!

Finally, remember to download the Google Translate app before you go. While the service isn’t perfect, it will come in handy for double-checking your comprehension and improving your vocabulary on the road. (It even lets you photograph signs for immediate conversion to your native language and gives you the option to speak into a microphone for audio translation.)

French language sign outside a stone building.
Photo by Michael Jasmund

When You Arrive

If You’ve Already Studied the Language

As your plane lands or your train pulls into the station, set a few goals for improvement that you can make throughout your trip. Whether you’d like to work on your vocab, comprehension, or ability to express yourself, you’ll see greater progress if you actively try to reach an objective.

But no matter what, remember to be patient with yourself. You won’t understand everything that you hear in an immersion setting — and that’s a good thing, since it will remind you that languages are complex, ever-evolving systems. After all, it would be pretty underwhelming if it were possible to fluently speak a foreign language with relatively little study, so try to view all that you have to learn with excitement.

Converse with native speakers at every opportunity. Whether you’re ordering food, asking for directions, or talking to a new friend, always give the language your best shot. Sometimes, you may find that other people will prefer to talk to you in English. This can be helpful too, as it will show you what it feels like to be the native speaker in an interaction, but in general, you’ll want to seek out every opportunity to stick to your target language. (In some cases, you can even strike a deal with someone you know you’ll encounter often, agreeing to help each other with your respective languages.)

Another thing to note: the farther you stray from the beaten path, the more likely it is that you’ll need to need to use your language skills. If you’re feeling up to it, this sort of challenge can really test your abilities, so you may want to plan to get a bit lost. Try venturing away from major cities and cultural hotspots — although you’ll likely experience your fair share of frustrating situations, you’ll also learn more about communicating in your target language.

Korean language characters on neon signs.
Photo by Saveliy Bobov

If You’ve Never Formally Studied the Language

You’ve made it! With any luck, you can use your new skills to get directions, buy tickets, order food, and interact politely with locals. While you’ll probably still have a hard time expressing abstract concepts, it’s important to give yourself credit for what you can do.

Remember to always initiate new conversations by speaking the local language, even if you feel somewhat intimidated. That said, you shouldn’t hesitate to switch to English if the other person can speak it. After all, your foreign language is supposed to enhance your experience, not bar your ability to communicate. Rely on your language skills when they’re useful, and find other ways to communicate when they’re not.

Also, keep in mind that different people will have varying degrees of patience with your ability to speak their language. Recognizing that you’re a new speaker, some individuals will be willing or even excited to help you practice, while others may be fairly uninterested. But that’s okay! Be patient with yourself, and be respectful of other people’s time and wishes. You can’t force people to talk to you, and you should express your gratitude when they’re willing to do so.

Beyond conversing with native speakers, you’ll find plenty of new ways to improve your language skills on the road. Make a vocabulary list every day, and look up the phrases that you find yourself hearing over and over again. Or, if you prefer, you can venture to a used bookstore and pick up something you’d like to read, even if you don’t understand much in the beginning. Continue to review the study material you went over before the trip, and keep using Duolingo as well — the key is to surround yourself with as many learning opportunities as possible.

Spanish-language books on shelves.
Photo by Inaki Del Olmo

After You Return Home

Just because your vacation has ended, that doesn’t mean that you have to throw in the towel. Language learning is a lifelong process, and you never know when you’ll need to use those skills you’ve picked up. It’s much easier to work on them consistently than to give up and start again later.

Go back to the practices you set up before you left home, but don’t think of them as vacation prep anymore. Rather, tell yourself that language study is your new hobby — or even your new passion project — and try to dedicate time to it each week. It should never feel like a chore, though, so keep it fun and don’t forget why you wanted to learn the language in the first place.

If you made friends with native speakers while you were traveling, be sure to add those people on social media. Not only will this help you stay in touch, but it will also ensure that your target language shows up in your timeline often.

Finally, you can keep up with current events in the country or region you visited by occasionally checking news sites from that area. You may find that there’s an English version of the site or an option to translate the webpage, but it’s better to at least try reading the news in the original language. This will help your reading comprehension and deepen your understanding of the country’s culture and politics — a win-win for any language learner!

For more tips, don’t forget to check out our guide on how to learn a language at home. And, if you’d like to share additional ideas with us, feel free to sound off in the comments below!

Header image by 301+ Kim