Spoiler: It’s more than just using an app before bed
The benefits and power of learning a second language while traveling can’t be overstated. But I’ll give it a shot.
In this post, I’ll share some insights I’ve learned from my own experiences, as well as some tips for others who plan on combining travel with language learning.
For context, I’m from the US and I spent a year in Italy to get my Italian citizenship recognized and to have a new experience (call it a one-third life crisis). One of my goals was to visit all 20 Italian regions. I started learning Italian about 5 months before moving to Italy, and prior to that had studied Spanish for about a year. In short, I was 29 with barely conversational Spanish and now was starting another romance language – what could go wrong?
Anyway, after traveling all around the boot and meeting everyone from dialect-speaking locals to fellow international travelers, I’ve picked up some insights along the way that I want to share.
Everything from talking to strangers, unique local experiences, making new friends, and more – these are all benefits that can come from learning a language while traveling.
Talking to Strangers
This isn’t easy for everyone. Take it from an engineer who is deep-down a socially awkward person – I’ve found that the hardest part of talking to a stranger is simply starting. If you can have something to grab onto (figuratively-speaking), it makes it easier. Language-learning is the perfect foothold. If you’re learning a language, even at the early stages, and you overhear a group of people talking in or even just about your target language you’ve got an in.
Just play a little dumb, approach the group, smile, and say “I overheard you guys doing an English-Spanish conversation exchange – mind if I join?” Even if they’re not doing a formal language exchange but just chatting about learning Spanish, they will invite you in. Especially if they’re from South America – they’re so friendly and almost always open to hang.
Beyond the Apps
I’m not anti-app. They’re great tools. But more on that later.
When I started learning Spanish, I was proud of how well I was doing on Duolingo. “Look at me. A 70 day streak. 8,000 XP. Send me to Sinaloa – I’m ready!”
Cut to me in a Mexican grocery store in my hometown asking the guy behind the counter in Spanish why there’s no Valentina’s hot sauce on the shelf. He gave me a very thorough response. I walked back to my car still not knowing why there was no Valentina’s hot sauce on the shelf, but with a new understanding that people in real life talk faster and differently than Duolingo led me to believe.
Like most topics, learning by the book and applying the lessons learned to real life can be challenging and seemingly impossible. Learning a language while traveling will accelerate the growth of your practical skill-set for your target language. This is because you will likely be encountering others who speak or are learning your target language. I can’t guarantee this if you’re traveling in Argentina and trying to learn Cantonese – but learning Spanish while traveling in Italy? Sure.
This applies to both learning for fun and learning for necessity. Either way – I quickly learned that real-time conversation uses a different part of your brain. The previous statement has not been evaluated by a neuroscientist. Luckily, traveling is the perfect opportunity to get exposed.
While living in a small village in Umbria, Italy, I had an Amazon delivery guy call me, unable to find my apartment, and his truck couldn’t drive down the narrow alleys. As if understanding
fast-spoken Italian in person wasn’t hard enough, now I had to be able to understand an irritated and impatient delivery guy over the phone – with no hand gestures or other body language to help me out. It’s just another level of difficulty on the phone. I felt so bad. I literally had to run down to the town square and find someone to talk to the guy on the phone and tell him where to meet me. In the end, I got my delivery, and made my first acquaintance in the town – turns out she also had family that lived in Connecticut – who knew?
Connecting with Locals
Talking with locals about their culture and their lives in their native language is the single best way to connect.
My first time to Italy was in September 2021 with my cousin Mike. We went to our ancestral town near Salerno, where our great-grandparents lived over 100 years ago. Not only did we want to explore our roots, but we also wanted to get some documents that we would need for our path to Italian citizenship. I’ll keep the story brief, but it was an incredible day of meeting distant relatives, the mayor, and other overwhelmingly-gracious people in the town. At this point in time, the extent of my Italian was “grazie” and “ciao”. We were lucky enough to have two English speakers in the town who could translate for us – without them, the whole day would not have happened.
Fast-forward about a year, and I went back to our ancestral town. This time with my dad and aunt, so they could see where their grandparents came from. At this point, I was the translator. I was able to converse and translate well enough with the locals. After they showed us the town
cemetery where our distant-distant relatives could be found and the house my great-grandfather grew up in, we were invited into their homes for coffee and gelato. Language-wise, it wasn’t seamless. I still struggled at times, and the thick regional accents made it more challenging – but compared to the year prior, I was satisfied.
Not only will locals appreciate that you have put forth the effort to learn their language, they will be more excited to share other parts of their culture with you.
Making New Friends
If you travel and put an honest effort into learning a language at the same time, you will make friends. I can guarantee this.
While on my gap year in Italy, I was at a train station in Pisa going back to Florence. I was one of a few people waiting on the platform and suspected I was about to get on the wrong train because the train tracking app and the train status board at the station disagreed (this happens, FYI). I asked a woman near me in Italian if this platform was for the train going back to Florence. She didn’t speak any Italian, or English, and it turns out she was from Argentina and spoke only Spanish. Being excited by the challenge and testing my limited Spanish, I got my train question resolved.
We chatted a bit on the train back to Florence. We connected over the fact that I speak Spanish with a slight Argentinian accent (because my Spanish teacher is Argentinian), and we were both traveling solo. She seemed cool, friendly, and normal, so I sheepishly asked if she wanted to get dinner back in Florence to which she agreed. There’s that lovely South American “open to hang” mentality again. We had a lot of fun conversing over dinner, despite me saying “can you say that again but a little slower?” more times than I would have liked, which ultimately added to the fun.
Anyway, dinner in Florence turned into a weekend in Venice with my new friend, Carolina, where we met up with another friend of mine, Sara, who lived on the island and gave us a tour around the canals on her boat. Sara speaks Italian and French natively, plus English and Spanish fluently – thank god (but also, you’re making us all look bad, Sara). That night, Sara was finishing up a jazz vocals course that she was teaching, and she invited me to bring my guitar and play some tunes with a piano player for her students to sing their “final project” songs.
So with Sara, Carolina, and a room full of strangers, we played some swing tunes in a beautiful apartment overlooking the canals. Then we all went to a great Venetian restaurant, and after more than enough squid-ink risotto we played music in the restaurant with a couple guitars until they kicked us out. While we were in the middle of a song, I had one of those moments – you know – when I looked around and thought, “what the hell am I doing?”
What should have been a dream was in fact a very real, incredible experience. This all happened because I was willing to test my far-from-perfect Spanish (and because I met awesome people). You can also meet new travellers from all over the world on the Hostelworld App while you travel.
Tips for Language Learning while Traveling
Language Learning Apps
I love language learning apps. They’re no magic bullet, and as mentioned before, you won’t become fluent relying on apps alone. But they are an excellent way to keep moving forward, even if only a little, every day.
I’ve used both Duolingo and Babbel. Duolingo gives you a more casual and gamified experience, while Babbel is a bit more structured, comprehensive, and academic. Duolingo is free with an optional paid premium plan, while Babbel only offers paid subscriptions. Both are worth trying.
It’s important to remember that the apps should be seen as just a supplement. These apps are all exercise-based which gives you time to think, which doesn’t happen in real-time conversation. So what else can you do?
Online Lessons and Conversations
Whether you’re in your home country or traveling, as long as you have a good internet connection there’s no excuse to not be able to practice with conversation. I’m a big fan of italki, an incredible online platform where you can find both amateur and professional teachers for one-on-one video lessons. This is a great place to start even for beginners, because you can filter by skill level. Prices vary depending on the teacher. I can’t recommend italki enough for people starting out – it did wonders for me.
If you are at least somewhat conversational in your target language, the next way you can keep the conversation practice going while traveling is with conversationexchange.com. This site helps people all over the world find a conversation exchange partner. Easily filter and find someone who’s a native speaker in your target language (even down to the country or city if you want to be specific), and see if they are learning your native language and write them a friendly message! I’ve done several of these while traveling – 30 minutes of Italian and 30 minutes of English.
Conversation Exchange Meetups
On sites like Meetup.com, you can find conversation exchange (sometimes referred to as tandem) events, where someone will host a get-together for people interested in speaking with others in their target language. Usually the organizer will greet everyone, give them a name tag, and everyone writes what languages they speak or are learning. Then find someone with a common target language and chat it up! These events are very informal and are more of a hang than anything. They will usually take place at a casual bar or restaurant. I’ve found them to be fun, casual, and great places to make friends while practicing a new language.
Practice with Locals
This is the most fun part! Once you get your chops up enough, you can try talking to locals. Personally, I love being in places where I’m the only English speaker. It’s kind of a weird language-learning adrenaline rush.
Want an easy talking point with the locals? Ask them how the accents spoken in their town/region may be different from other parts of the country. Ask for examples. In Italy especially (which is known for large regional language differences), the locals absolutely love talking about how they speak differently than in other parts of the country.
This can be intimidating, but this is when you’ll grow the most – both with your confidence in general but also with your language learning. I probably wouldn’t start with a group, but maybe an individual. It’s ok if you fall on your face a few times. That’s part of the process. Keep at it, and when you get that first “you speak [insert language here] well!” it will be very rewarding.
Look How Far You’ve Come
While traveling, you’ll meet some truly gifted people who know 8 languages and seem to have picked up a 9th since you met them 2 days ago. Admire, compliment, be impressed, ask questions, but don’t beat yourself for not being at their level.
I’ve accepted that I’m a slow learner with most things. I’ve learned to compare myself to my past self, not others, as much as possible. The “me” that went to my ancestral town in Italy in September 2021 couldn’t speak to anybody except two people who also spoke English. A year later, I could not only talk with the people in the town, but I could share and extend the moment to my dad and his sister so that they could experience long-lost familial connections in a way that none of us expected to ever happen.
So where are you going next? What language will you learn in the process? If I can create these language learning experiences, then anyone can.
You can find more of my work including Italian culture writing and travel recommendations at Quasltaliano.com. Additionally, find out more about getting Italian citizenship at becomeitaliani.com.