4 Ways to Quickly Learn a Language Before You Travel

a person holding a small globe in front of some mountains

Travelling to a place where the language is foreign can be a daunting experience.

There’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to express yourself. – you can’t ask for directions, can’t order a coffee and can’t fully appreciate the culture.

Of course, you can’t expect the locals to speak your language either.

If you truly want to immerse yourself and appreciate the culture of your destination, it’s time to learn the basics of the language…

…but don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it seems.

PLanning to learn a language before you travel is just like picking up anything new.

You have to be motivated and interested in the topic – and there’s no better motivation than the excitement of an upcoming trip.

If you want to make the most of your journey, it’s important to know how to learn a language effectively before you travel. 

Here are some suggestions tips on how to learn the essentials quickly:


1. Unlock Your Mind with Comprehensible Input

You may think of language learning as boring linguistics and grammar lessons. Dry vocabulary repetition. Anxiety-filled speaking exercises. But none of these methods work. The most effective way to acquire language is through “Comprehensible Input”. It’s a language learning theory that focuses on learning through understanding. You’ll have an easier time committing key phrases and words to memory if you grasp their meaning.

You’re probably familiar with this natural language learning phenomenon in your native language. You hear a sentence but one of the words is unfamiliar to you. However, you still know its meaning from context. That is the core of comprehensible input. As long as you understand the overall message, you will progress in your language learning.

You also want your language studies to keep you on your toes. Challenge yourself to keep learning new words and phrases. Raise the difficulty of your exercises if you become too comfortable with your current knowledge. This way you can learn a language effectively, and without too much difficulty. Perfect when you’re prepping for a trip in a short period of time.


2. Practice High-Frequency Phrases and Words

A pile of language learning books

You won’t need useless vocabulary on your travels. Focusing on words and phrases you’re likely to use will not only make your studies more effective, but it will also be more fun to learn.

Most people only use a small percentage of the words in their language. It’s the 80/20 principle.

Basically, 80% of the language you use daily comes from around 20% of your native language. So, practising high-frequency words can quickly improve your ability to communicate as you’ll be targeting words you’ll use regularly.

By understanding everyday writing and speech used by locals, you can easily navigate in a foreign environment.

Below is a list of the most commonly used words in the English language to get you going. This is a generic list and would clearly not be the most commonly used words in every situation, but it’s a good place to start.

Also, think about where you’re most likely to be using language. Train stations? Cafes? Hotels? This will allow you to quickly develop a common list of words which are relevant to these environments rather than lots of other words (animals, colours etc) which may not be needed until later.

Nouns

  1. time
  2. person
  3. year
  4. way
  5. day
  6. thing
  7. man
  8. world
  9. life
  10. hand
  11. part
  12. child
  13. eye
  14. woman
  15. place
  16. work
  17. week
  18. case
  19. point
  20. government
  21. company
  22. number
  23. group
  24. problem
  25. fact

Verbs

  1. be
  2. have
  3. do
  4. say
  5. get
  6. make
  7. go
  8. know
  9. take
  10. see
  11. come
  12. think
  13. look
  14. want
  15. give
  16. use
  17. find
  18. tell
  19. ask
  20. work
  21. seem
  22. feel
  23. try
  24. leave
  25. call

Adjectives

  1. good
  2. new
  3. first
  4. last
  5. long
  6. great
  7. little
  8. own
  9. other
  10. old
  11. right
  12. big
  13. high
  14. different
  15. small
  16. large
  17. next
  18. early
  19. young
  20. important
  21. few
  22. public
  23. bad
  24. same
  25. able

Prepositions

  1. to
  2. of
  3. in
  4. for
  5. on
  6. with
  7. at
  8. by
  9. from
  10. up
  11. about
  12. into
  13. over
  14. after

Others

  1. the
  2. and
  3. a
  4. that
  5. I
  6. it
  7. not
  8. he
  9. as
  10. you
  11. this
  12. but
  13. his
  14. they
  15. her
  16. she
  17. or
  18. an
  19. will
  20. my
  21. one
  22. all
  23. would
  24. there
  25. their

Studies suggest that by recognising marker words in these expressions, learners can identify speech and grammar patterns, and by familiarising yourself with the core vocabulary of a language, you can understand more advanced and complicated language structures more easily.

Plus, as I described above, when you’re travelling, you want language you can use.

So, being able to remember phrases like, “where is the bathroom?” and “how are you?” will get you much further than being talking about colours, animals, and other random words many language learning programs try to teach you.

Experience tells us that you need less than 500 words (probably even less than 300) in a language for a decent day to day conversation and small talk. Of course, if you are planning to read Ulysses in French, you will need more words than that, but given most people fail to finish it even in English, it’s unlikely to be one of the first things you’ll do with a new language!

The majority of conversations end up revolving around food, drinks, sex, sport, politics and travel, so you can easily pick up the key words and phrases that will allow you to engage with people around you.


3. Use Spaced Repetition to Your Advantage

A lady staring at airport departures boards

Learning is hard because your brain is trying to forget. That’s not very useful when you’re trying to learn a language.

Instead of keeping a book underneath your pillow, try using spaced repetition as a learning technique to effectively commit your material to memory.

Giving yourself time between studying sessions is important for your brain. While resting and recovering you may forget some of the material you wanted to learn. But by reviewing material strategically, the information will slowly get stored in your long term memory. Revisiting the material periodically and at increasing distances from your last lesson will increase your knowledge. 

Without spaced repetition, you won’t be able to commit the language to your long term memory and risk forgetting words and phrases when you need them the most. But don’t get frustrated if you start to forget. That’s part of the learning process. Just keep revisiting those lessons to reinforce the memories.

Just don’t leave too much time between your lessons otherwise, you may completely forget the material.


4. Use Recommended Language Learning Apps and Platforms

There are a multitude of language learning apps and platforms out there.

Some are free, some are paid, but only a few are effective. If you want your language learning to be practical, you need a platform that uses comprehensible input, spaced repetition, and high-frequency phrases to teach you. With these apps, you’ll be at a comfortable level in no time.

WikiTravel Phrase Books

WikiTravel will be your best friend on your trip. This website features the most used expressions of 200 languages, so you can easily bulk up on high-frequency phrases before you depart. 

WikiTravel Phrase Books

LingQ

Learning about topics that interest you will keep your motivation up. LingQ combines spaced repetition with engaging material. You can choose from subjects like Travel, Food, Culture, and Books. You can also create your lesson plans with YouTube videos, Netflix shows, or news articles. Whatever keeps your interest up.

LingQ.com

OptiLingo

OptiLingo incorporates comprehensible input and spaced repetition systems into its foundation to help guide you to fluency quickly. The app’s own Guided Immersion program uses high-frequency phrases, so you can learn how the locals speak.

Optilingo.com

FluentU

If you’re a visual learner, FluentU can help you learn a language through videos and films. There’s a variety of content available through this platform that ranges in difficulty.

FluentU.com

Memrise

Memrise prides itself on teaching real-life language. You can familiarise yourself with accents, voices, and culture before your trip. You can also use their “mems” to create mnemonic devices that help you remember the words, making it more enjoyable as you go.

Memrise.com

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Useful Tools for Booking Your Sabbatical

Flights

I always use Skyscanner or Agoda alongside Google Flights to make sure I’ve got the best price. I use Google Flights to save a route and monitor price changes and a combination of Skyscanner and Agoda to get the cheapest tickets. 

If you are in the UK I would also highly recommend signing up for Jack’s Flight Club to get incredible flight deals sent to your email inbox every week.

Accommodation

When booking accommodation I always start with Booking.com as they generally have the best range and prices. I also regularly use Airbnb for longer stays and apartments in cities (use this link for £25 off your first stay). For a different experience try signing up to Housecarers for free house-sitting opportunities (get 10% off membership with this link).

Insurance

Travel insurance might seem like an unnecessary cost, but when a flight gets cancelled, injury occurs or you damage a piece of gear you’ll regret not paying in advance. I’ve used  World Nomads for two sabbaticals and (after badly damaging a hire car in Laos!) found the claim process to be simple and transparent.

Tours

Using local guides is one of my favourite travel tips. The easiest way to find a local guide is to use Get Your Guide who offer tours with local guides all over the world.

Gear

Check out my gear page for my favourite travel gear, here for a detailed 3-month packing list for men and women and here to find 38 great travel gifts.

Transfers

Getting from the airport to your destinations is an added stress after a tiring flight, so take the guesswork out and pre-book with JayRide.com. Their prices often beat the local taxis and I've found them to be reliable and easy to use.

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