Maximize your learning while traveling

How to learn while traveling? (Wait, wasn’t this a vacation?)

After spending a whole month jumping back and forth through my language repertory like a game of hopscotch, it’s been a bit hard coming back to Mexico and using only three of them each day. (No, I’m not showing off. I’m a translator, remember?) One of the most awesome parts of this trip to Europe was the daily mental workout of polishing several languages I don’t use every day, which had me thinking that short-term travel can also be very beneficial for your learning process, as long as you’re willing to make your vacation an hiper-productive study session!

I decided I’d like to try and strip what I’d done in Europe down to the basics, and share it with you. In the end, here’s the best three pieces of advice I came up with:

1. Speak up, speak of, speak at, and listen!

These are four compound parts of the approach you should take to each conversation you participate in. So…

… speak up! The number one, absolute, capital no-no for a language learner is obsessive self-consciousness. If you’re entering a conversation with the preconcieved idea that you’re going to make lots of mistakes, then you’re more likely than ever not to open your mouth in the first place. Remember, you need to make mistakes to learn from!

… speak of! Pure logic: you’ll always be more comfortable speaking about things you know how to describe. So whenever you’re traveling, make it a point to share information that is closer to you and you’re likely to be better at explaining. In theory, this will provoke one of two answers in your interlocutor: they will either reply with their own knowledge and experience regarding the subject, or inquire more about what you know.

This doesn’t mean you can’t discuss topics you don’t know much about, but keep in mind this will keep you moving in the “how do you say this” cycle over and over again, which is a more unbalanced type of exchange, not really a conversation. In this case, I find that having good descriptive skills helps keep the balance a lot; for example, if you don’t know the word for pool billiards, you can always resort to “you know, the game that’s played with a stick, colored balls, and a green table”. (Notice how “game/play/stick/balls/ green/table” are all basic vocabulary in every language?)

… speak at! You have no idea how many conversations I accidentally started just by asking “is this seat taken?” in my target language. Many times this magically evolves into “that seems like an interesting book”, “where are you from?”, or “have you been traveling long?” and then it becomes a conversation (a short or long one depends more on the other person)—the only condition is to take the first step yourself. It may be a bit scary to talk to strangers, but most people will be more than happy to converse with you when they notice you’re trying to learn their language.

… listen! When I was learning Japanese, I noticed that I was so intent in speaking well and making a good impression that by the end of the conversation, I couldn’t remember what the other person had talked about. I know I said you need to make mistakes to learn from, but do not make this one mistake. You’ll be missing out on valuable new information if you do, and may actually run into the dead end of not knowing what to answer at some point. Remember to listen intently—not loosely like you would in your own language, but as if you were listening to information your life depends on.

2. Be patient with yourself

In my experience, unless you use your target language on a semi-daily basis, starting to use it during your vacations feels more like crashing into a window than slipping into a new language. Your brain feels jarred, and you get two words out of every ten.

This piece of advice is particularly aimed at beginners and low intermediate students: do not expect to tune in immediately. You will feel completely lost for some time (the span of which is inversely proportional to your level in the language–the lower your level is, the more time you’ll need to adjust), and you will feel you can’t follow the pace of any conversation, but seeing as your brain needs time to adjust, this is just natural. If you’re patient with yourself and keep your ears open, before you notice you’ll be picking up on greater chunks of information, but if you give in to frustration and return to your mother tongue, you will have taken a humongous step back.

3. Choose who and where

This falls more into “negotiation tactics” than anything else: always remember that people may not actually have the time, will or patience to help you on your language learning journey, and strive to know when it’s better not to use the situation as a language learning opportunity. Be mindful of the circumstances of others, and you’re sure to find yourself in all sorts of interesting encounters. On top of furthering your knowledge of the target language, you may even come back home with a few new friends to keep in touch with.

You don’t have to sacrifice your fun time to learn a language. Just tune your brain to be more receptive, and you’ll be reaping all sorts of benefits from your vacations!


Have you ever traveled to learn or improve a language? Improved a language accidentally while traveling for other reasons? I’d love to hear about your experiences with languages while on the move, so leave a message in the comments!