Language Learning: Start now, and get by now.

My favorite German word!

If you have any spare time during this pandemic quarantine, while you’re planning your next overseas trip, start learning the language now! Learn what you think you need to get by, and then double that. We’ve compiled some of our favorite tips and tricks to help you get inspired.

The American English speaker’s dilemma

“According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 20 percent of Americans can converse in two or more languages, compared with 56 percent of Europeans. Experts estimate about half of the human race is bilingual, at least.” (WaPo, 2019). Why are we so behind? In part, foreign language learning is not a priority in American public schools. This is changing, but very slowly. Most locals you’ll meet overseas (though they don’t understand why) do know that Americans rarely speak another language well enough for basic interactions. But there is some  good news; if you make an effort to be friendly (but not overly), polite, and try the local language first before letting loose in English, you’ll receive help and kindness in return. And, almost always, they’ll switch to English if they are able to. If your travel includes major cities or popular tourist destinations, you will find helpful English speakers everywhere you go.

Be prepared…bring a list of phrases with you

But “Just because you Ameri-can doesn’t mean you Ameri-should.” Be prepared. When traveling, I think about the day ahead before I venture out. Based on my activities (e.g., restaurants, public transportation, shopping), I’ll write down a few phrases I might need, including phonetic pronunciations. I keep paper notes in my pocket or in a small journal. Paper has come in handy more than once when phone/data service is unreliable or if I need to conserve battery power. If you’ve never had to do this exercise before, we have some suggested phrases to learn, as well as common responses you may receive (if you ask a question, you will also need to understand the reply). 

  • Hello/good morning
  • Goodbye/good evening
  • Yes/no
  • Excuse me (Responses: yes; ok; can I help you; it’s ok)
  • Do you speak English? (Responses: yes; no; a little)
  • I don’t speak X or, I only speak a little X
  • Please and thank you (Responses: you’re welcome)
  • How to introduce yourself (Response: recognize an introduction)
  • Pleased to meet you
  • May I please have/I would like (Responses: ok; what color, size; payment method)
  • Do you accept credit cards? (Responses: yes; no; cash only)
  • May I have the wifi password? (Responses: location words; letters; numbers; please make a purchase)
  • How much? (Responses: currency words; denominations; numbers; learn what each bill or coin looks like)
  • Do you have X size or X color? (Responses: yes; no; location)
  • Bottle of water, please. (Responses: number; still; sparkling; how many; what size; tap water)
  • Wine, beer, coffee, tea (Responses: what size; red or white; with milk; sugar; sweet; dry; decaf; hot; cold; non-alcoholic; black; green; color words)
  • What do you recommend? (Responses: learn some food words or local dishes; learn the word for spicy). 
  • Table for X#, please (Responses: locations; numbers; table; booth; outside; inside; ok; right this way)
  • Delicious, beautiful, “cool,”….essentially a simple (but applicable) compliment
  • Check, please 
  • Where is the bathroom? (Responses: right; left; back; front; no public bathroom)
  • Emergency words such as help and fire
  • Medicines or allergies specific to you or your travel companions
  • Descriptions of travel companions (e.g., tall, short, friend, spouse, color words, long hair, short hair)

Use free language apps to start now

Unfortunately, truly free (and usable) apps are minimal. I use these two:

Google Translate: This is the quickest and dirtiest. This isn’t going to teach you how to speak the language, but it has some powerful functionality to help you get by. You can save a phrasebook of your “favorite” words and phrases. Available languages are practically unlimited. Conversation mode and transcribe mode listen to and translate audio around you in order to help with your interactions. A very cool camera mode helps you translate menus, signs, packaging, and other print material–especially helpful if you’re traveling in a place like Greece or Japan. 

Duolingo: We all know this one. As frustrating as it can be to start with “the boy drinks the milk” when you’re in a hurry to learn how to get by….their methodology is sound and gamification makes it fun to learn. It’s easy to devote just a few minutes a day to Duolingo, and the app will guilt trip you if you miss a lesson. It’s available for iPhone, Android, and via very convenient web interface.

Learn the language in your own way

There’s a great TED talk about how polyglots learn languages so easily. What they have in common is that they do it in a way that’s meaningful to them. They find a method or platform that meshes with their personal learning style, and learn in a way that’s fun for them. Here are a few ideas:

  • Start with what you know: Use Google Translate to translate your favorite song lyrics or recipes. Or start with the foreign language versions and work backwards.
  • Language meetups: is great resource. Meetups will look a little different right now, but they’re still occurring via zoom. Also seek out your local library’s language practice meetups. These are usually available for common languages at all levels. Check with your library first (information online may have not been updated for the pandemic) they may also be virtual, outdoors, or on hold.
  • Subreddits: A subreddit is a specific online community, and the posts associated with it, on the social media website Paired with Google translate, these communities are great for learning colloquial language. (For example, They’re a great compilation of important information you may need before you travel, like current events, great new restaurants, upcoming events, political unrest, or safety issues occurring in your travel destination. Don’t forget to “check the sidebar” for rules about posting and frequently asked questions.
  • Movies and YouTube videos: Watch a movie you know really well, but watch it in a different language with English subtitles turned on. Or watch YouTube videos related to your hobbies using the same method. 
  • Cookbooks: Get a cookbook in a foreign language and prepare to be frustrated but enriched!

Please let us know if we missed anything in the comments! What works best for you?


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