How to Easily Learn a Language and Enjoy your Trip

Would you like to know a little secret?

Language is important.

Pretty obvious, right?

Being American (technically Canadian-American but who’s counting?) I am always surprised by how few of us speak a foreign language. Sure, in California many people speak Spanish, but not nearly as many as you would expect.

One of the things I always tell people is that they should learn at least a few conversational basics when traveling to a foreign country.

I did a lot to cram in some French and Italian before traveling to Europe for my first backpacking trip. I was in no way fluent, or even comfortable speaking either language, but what little I did know helped tremendously.

Many Americans expect that since they are paying tourists, they should be catered to. If you use Paris for an example, you’ll realize that Paris does not live off of tourism! It’s the cultural center of France and if no Americans visited, they would hardly miss us.

I saw this first hand when ordering lunch at a small cafe. I managed to ask for a particular sandwich and a glass of tea but I could not understand the price. I politely asked, “parlez-vous Anglais?”

“Yes, a little,” she responded and told me the price in English. I paid, thanked her in French, received a kind smile and enjoyed my food.

Shortly after another young backpacker came in and asked for something using only English and didn’t even bother to try French. The same lady who was so friendly to me responded, “je suis désolé monsieur. Je ne comprende pas Anglais.” He made a couple more requests in English but eventually left frustrated and hungry. The lady looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and smiled.

To her, a few Euros were less important than the cultural pride. This attitude is very common not only in Paris, but anywhere that does not rely solely on tourism.

But surely you don’t have the time to enroll in a class and practice for several months before traveling.

So here is the real secret I promised:

Dr. Pimsleur

Never heard the name before? Well Dr. Pimsleur created a wonderful technique for learning language and has produced fantastic audio programs.

While the full versions with nearly 50 hours of training are quite expensive, there is a great alternative if you wish to get started and learn the basics, whether it be for fun or in preparation for a trip.

The insert Pimsleur Learn to Speak & Understand programs contain 16 lessons (each unit of the full program has 30, so you are getting about half of the free unit). The best part, they’re pretty cheap on Amazon.

Of course, they hope you enjoy them and decide to move on to the full course. If you do, I believe there is an upgrade program for purchasers of the intro versions.

Let me tell you first hand that these work very well and will prepare you for many common situations such as asking (and understanding) directions, ordering food, or exchanging money. Of course you’ll learn how to politely interact with people in that language and how to ask for help if you are unable to understand.

I tried several different French audio training tools before coming across the Pimsleur program. The other were ALL a waste of money.

Here’s the list of all the ones I have used and enjoyed success with:

Again, I am far from fluent in any of these (except French which I went on to study for a couple of years) but learning these basics will be very rewarding.

Sure. You can usually get by with English and hand gestures, but being able to speak a language can help in ways you’ve never imagined.

Have you tried learning a language before your trip? Post a comment and let us know how it went. Have a funny language story? Please share!

5 Replies to “How to Easily Learn a Language and Enjoy your Trip”

  1. I agree very much with your post that it is important to at least try. I do have a funny story about the bar where we got our morning coffee in Florence. The bar staff, while not unfriendly, were disinclined to make our lives any easier or to congratulate our feeble attempts at Italian. Lorenzo, who was either the owner or the manager, and whom we all called “the boss man” behind his back, worked the bar almost every day. His curly black hair was carefully gelled and he dressed in a series of immaculately ironed and starched shirts (all of them patterned) that never seemed to wrinkle no matter how busy he was. He plainly disapproved of our practice of drinking two cappuccinos each. And he was right; as delicious as his coffee was, it was very greedy and American of us.

    His acceptance of us was gradual. On our third day there, hetipped his head when we came in and offered a quiet “buon giorno,” which I considered progress. I decided to take this as a signal that we didn’t actually need to say what we wanted, but then made the gaffe of reaching for someone else’s cappuccino when Lorenzo made one and placed it at the end of the bar. The next day he raised his high arching eyebrows and severely corrected my pronunciation of “cinque” when I was paying our bill, making me repeat it until I got it right. I despaired of ever earning a smile.

    On one of our last mornings I decided it was time to seize control and win Lorenzo to my side. He had on a particularly spiffy tie – one with silver checks – and when I went up to fetch my cappuccino, I said “mille grazie” and then leaned over the bar and said “I like your tie.” I think he may have actually blushed. He said, “Thank you,” smiled, and then said, “It is a eep-notique tie.” Never had a cappuccino tasted so sweet.

  2. Hi monsieur,
    Je vois que tu continues sur le français bravo !!
    How are you ?
    when are you coming to visit me in Europe ?
    So far, I’m in Barcelona but I plan to visit Athens and Cairo so if you are interested let me know ??
    A bientôt
    Steph (you CS guest in July 08)
    Par la barbe de zeus !!!
    PS: love your blog and say hello for me to jenae

  3. This was great, Jeff! I laughed pretty hard at the Canadian-American part.

    Hm, when I get a job I’ll try one of those programs. They’re way less expensive than Rosetta Stone, thats for sure.

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