Off to parts unknown? Traveling to a country where you don’t speak any of the language can seem rather daunting, but learning a bit of the language beforehand can make a world of difference.
You don’t need to be at all fluent in order to get by – often just a few words is enough to make a connection with locals and improve your experience.
In this article we’ll cover three apps you can use as a foreign language crash course in the weeks or days leading up to your overseas trip.
Table of Contents
- Learning a few phrases makes a world of difference.
- How much of a new language should I learn before a trip?
- 3 apps to help you pick up a language before a trip
- 1. Rosetta Stone – Everyday vocabulary, verb conjugation, and grammar
- 2. Pimsleur – Useful travel phrases
- 3. Quizlet – Memorize, memorize, memorize
- Bonus: Anki
- Don’t feel insecure – have a sense of humor!
- Build your own foreign language crash course and impress locals on your trip
- Start learning today and get ready for an amazing trip
Learning a few phrases makes a world of difference.
If you’re in a frequently visited country or an area that receives lots of tourists, chances are pretty good that most people will speak at least a little bit of English. That doesn’t mean you should rely entirely on English, though. People always appreciate it immensely when a foreigner can speak a bit of their language – even if it’s just a phrase or two.
We visited Sarajevo, Bosnia, recently and spoke to people using our basic knowledge of Croatian (since Bosnian and Croatian are mutually intelligible). People were so excited that we made an effort to say, “Hello, table for dinner please,” and, “Thank you so much!” Nobody cared that we could only say a handful of words; they were just happy we were trying.
How much of a new language should I learn before a trip?
If you’re planning on going overseas for a short period of time we’d recommend at least learning the absolute basics – enough to:
- Greet someone
- Ask if they speak English
- Find the nearest restroom
It’s okay if you start learning just a few days before your trip. In fact, we recently went on a last-minute trip to Istanbul, Turkey and didn’t have much time at all to learn Turkish. We spent our time in the airport and on the plane quickly memorizing the absolute necessities. It wasn’t perfect, but we learned enough to greet people, say “delicious!” at meals and say “thank you” and “goodbye!”
If you have enough time, however, we’d recommend starting a month or two before your trip. If you start early, you can learn a few hundred words and phrases before you depart. Plus, you’ll get a better idea of how to pronounce the names of foods, streets, monuments and sights. Just an hour per day is more than enough to prepare yourself for the experience of a lifetime.
3 apps to help you pick up a language before a trip
If you’d like to learn the absolute basics of a language before visiting a foreign country, we recommend studying for one hour per day, beginning about a month before your departure date.
In our Language Learning for Busy People article, we write that time-constrained learners should focus on three “pillars” for maximum results: vocabulary, grammar and everyday speech. You can follow a similar structure for your foreign language crash course, though you’ll probably want to focus more on vocabulary and everyday speech, and less on grammar (you don’t need to study a grammar textbook before your trip, but you should at least know the absolute basics).
If you have one hour per day to learn before you leave for your trip, try this routine:
- 30 minutes on everyday speech activities
- 20 minutes on vocabulary building activities
- 10 minutes on grammar
Use the following three language learning apps in your daily study routine for best results.
1. Rosetta Stone – Everyday vocabulary, verb conjugation, and grammar
Rosetta Stone is one of the oldest and most widely used language learning programs in the world. With 25 world languages and frequent discounts on their Lifetime Unlimited subscription, Rosetta Stone is a popular choice among frequent travelers who want to develop listening and speaking skills across a wide variety of language options.
Learn vocabulary related to travel situations
In our experience, Rosetta Stone is most helpful when used for learning new vocabulary in your target language.
The app’s course curriculum is divided into “Units” that focus on different topics. If you’re completely new to your target language you can start with Unit 1 “Language Basics” to learn a few basic greetings and vocabulary words.
If you’ve already studied your target language in the past, feel free to skip ahead and focus on a Unit that’s relevant to your trip.
For example, if you studied Spanish in school but haven’t reviewed it in years, you could start with Unit 13 “Tourism and Recreation” which will teach you some useful vocabulary and grammar that you might use when exploring a destination on your trip.
Build memories as strong as steel
Rosetta Stone is chock full of real-world images to help you build strong memories of the new vocabulary you learn. Every word and phrase you learn is paired with an image, which helps your brain attach more meaning to the things you learn. It also makes the language learning process a bit more enjoyable since you’re able to see world destinations and imagine yourself in various scenarios as you learn your target language.
Additionally, every word and phrase on Rosetta Stone includes audio recordings from native-speakers. The speed is perfect – they aren’t too fast, but they also aren’t so slow that it sounds unnatural. The recordings are crystal clear and easy to understand. We found it helpful to repeat every phrase aloud, trying to mimic the tone and cadence of the native speakers.
Speech recognition software helps you improve your accent
Most of the major language learning apps today offer voice recognition lessons. However, Rosetta Stone has the most advanced speech recognition software of any language app we’ve seen. Their TruAccent software was designed to help you match your pronunciation to that of native speakers. While most language apps simply tell you if you answered correctly or not, Rosetta Stone actually shows you which words you pronounced incorrectly.
In the screenshot below, we said “Cuesta nove euros,” mispronouncing the word “nueve (nine)” to see if Rosetta Stone’s voice recognition would be able to recognize our error. The speech recognition technology is pretty accurate and it recognized our mistake, showing us the area within the phrase we need to improve.
The app includes dozens of voice lessons to help you improve your pronunciation and accent. Plus, saying a new word or phrase aloud builds stronger memories and helps you retain it longer. If you just read and listen, you’ll be able to recognize things in your target language but you might not be able to produce words and phrases.
By focusing your efforts on Rosetta Stone’s voice lessons, you can develop correct pronunciation and improve your ability to actually speak your target language.
For more detailed information about Rosetta Stone, check out our review at the link below.
2. Pimsleur – Useful travel phrases
Pimsleur is an audio-based language program that uses a listen-and-repeat approach to teach you useful travel phrases. Each lesson is about 30 minutes long and focuses on teaching a new conversational dialogue.
Since the lessons are entirely audio based, it’s a useful way to learn while commuting, doing household chores or even on a plane to a fun overseas destination!
Phrases for travel situations
Pimsleur doesn’t teach you very much grammar or vocabulary, instead focusing on words and phrases you’re likely to use in everyday conversation while abroad.
For example, the first lesson dialogue teaches you five phrases you can use as a foreigner overseas. After just 30 minutes you’ll be able to understand and say every one of them.
Here are the five phrases included in Lesson 1 of Pimsleur’s Spanish Unit 1:
A: Perdón, señorita, ¿entiende inglés? (Excuse me, ma’am, do you understand English?)
B: No, señor. No entiendo. (No, sir. I don’t understand.)
A: Hablo un poco de español. (I speak a bit of Spanish.)
B: ¿Es usted norteamericano? (Are you North American?)
A: Sí, señorita. (Yes, ma’am.)
Pimsleur teaches you very formal phrases
Keep in mind that Pimsleur always teaches highly formal ways of speaking, so the material you learn on the platform might differ from what you hear from regular people. For example, the above-mentioned lesson includes the phrase “¿Es usted norteamericano? (Are you North American?)” Nobody would ever actually say “North American,” it seems like Pimsleur is just being extra polite about calling someone “American” since Latin America is technically part of America. In everyday life, however, the majority of Spanish speakers in Latin America will refer to someone from the United States as “americano/a (American)” or “gringo/a (foreigner)”
If you’re interested in learning informal or everyday words, try typing them into Reverso’s Context dictionary, which offers context sentences in 17 languages:
Emphasis on speaking
Pimsleur’s audio lessons follow a listen-and-repeat approach whereby the speaker introduces a new word or phrase, then asks you to say it aloud, word-by-word. The narrator will frequently ask you questions to make sure you don’t forget, which is very useful. Learners are encouraged to repeat the phrases aloud after the speaker so that they develop stronger pronunciation and feel more comfortable speaking.
The narrator frequently asks you questions about the lesson material you’ve covered (“Now, do you remember how to say ‘Excuse me’ in your language?”). It’s okay if you have a bit of trouble remembering the word or phrase – it’s a normal part of the process. You can always pause the playback and practice saying each phrase a few times, or even add particularly difficult words to a flashcard deck for later review.
If you focus and actively participate in each lesson, the words and phrases you learn will become almost like a reflex response – when someone says something to you on your trip overseas you’ll find yourself automatically saying “Sorry, I don’t understand!” before you even realize it!
To learn more about Pimsleur, take a look at our Pimsleur review.
3. Quizlet – Memorize, memorize, memorize
Quizlet is a handy flashcards app you can use to create custom flashcard decks, then memorize your vocabulary through game-like practice activities. We’ve recommended Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur for learning vocabulary and everyday phrases, but you’ll also want to use flashcards to speed up your memorization and more effectively review any material you have trouble remembering.
Learn a handful of new vocabulary words every day
The biggest challenge to learning a new language before an overseas trip is just the sheer amount of words you’ll want to know. If you’re visiting a country or region where the locals speak very little English, it’ll be especially important that you know enough vocabulary to make yourself understood.
With Quizlet, you can create flashcard decks to help you learn new words every single day. If you have a month before your overseas trip, for example, you could set a goal of memorizing 10 new words every day (and also spending 15-20 minutes reviewing the flashcard decks you previously learned).
You can choose to learn vocabulary from the apps you use, for example if you see a particularly useful phrase on Rosetta Stone and want to memorize it, or you can look up specific words that you think you might need. We always take some time to learn vocabulary for the basic necessities, such as food items (water, chicken, salad, rice, pasta, etc.) and directions for taxi drivers (take me to this address, turn right/left, keep going, stop here).
If you manage to study 10 words/phrases per day on 20 days out of the month before your trip, you’ll have learned at least 200 words, if not more! 200 words isn’t enough for in-depth conversations, but it’s more than enough to get you through a weeklong trip in a foreign country.
Practice anywhere – at the gym, on the couch, or on an airplane
Quizlet has a neat “Autoplay Cards” feature that allows you to cycle through your flashcard deck handsfree. It’s especially advantageous for learners who want to multitask – lately we’ve been using the Autoplay feature while using the cardio machines at the gym. Who knew one could review 42 vocabulary flashcards while also burning 80 calories on the rowing machine?
Quizlet also lets you download your flashcard decks for offline studying. If you’ve waited until the last minute to begin learning a foreign language before a trip, Quizlet’s offline flashcards might be a lifesaver for you! Add a few dozen important words and phrases (hello, thank you, bye, etc.) to your deck and download it, then begin memorizing them during your flight!
New to Quizlet? We have a detailed review and guide below.
Quizlet is a useful app but it definitely has its limitations. If you’re a tech-savvy overachiever and would like to get a bit more out of your study time, we’d suggest using Anki instead of Quizlet. Anki isn’t at all user-friendly and it’s much more complex to set up, but the program offers an unrivaled learning experience.
Anki uses a spaced repetition algorithm to help you review your previously-learned flashcards at the exact optimal time, right as you’re starting to forget.
The app is designed to be used every day to learn new cards and review old cards. For example, you might learn 8 new Spanish-language flashcards every day and also review 50 previously-learned cards.
Anki offers advanced settings and a profound level of customization, which can be overwhelming for new users. If you’ve begun studying your target language with plenty of time before your trip, it might be worth the effort of learning to use Anki so you can get the most out of the program’s spaced repetition system. If you just have a few days or weeks left before departure, however, Quizlet is probably the best option for you.
Don’t feel insecure – have a sense of humor!
The biggest impediment to language learning is often the learner’s own insecurity. It’s something every learner faces at one point or another: you want to try out the phrases you’ve learned but you’re terrified of making a mistake or sounding dumb, so you freeze up and just speak English.
The reality is that nobody is going to judge you for mispronouncing a phrase or using a word incorrectly. In fact, the majority of native speakers will be overjoyed to encounter a foreigner with some knowledge of their native language – even if it’s just “hello” and “thank you.”
When we visited Sarajevo recently, we spoke to everyone we met using the handful of Croatian words and phrases we know (since the languages are basically the same). When we stopped for dinner at a restaurant downtown, we received outstanding service from the staff – they even brought out an additional table so we could face the sunset while we ate our dinner. We realized the next day we had spent all evening greeting people with a hearty “good morning!” but nobody seemed to care. They realized we were making an effort and that’s all that mattered.
From the moment you open your mouth, the locals will know you’re not a local
And that’s okay! Remember that it’s fine to be a foreigner with little knowledge of the local tongue! Nobody realistically expects travelers to be fluent in the local language when they visit, though you should do your best to at least learn a dozen or so phrases.
Embrace the fact that you only know a few words and show the locals that you’re making an attempt. Often, you’ll be treated much better than other tourists and you’ll open yourself up to connections and experiences you might otherwise never have.
Build your own foreign language crash course and impress locals on your trip
Before embarking on an overseas journey, take at least a few days to learn some basic travel phrases. Learn to say:
- Hello and goodbye
- Please and thank you
- How to ask for a table at a restaurant
- How to ask for the check when you’re done
We always use a language learning study planner to set goals and keep track of our learning time so that we don’t forget to study (see our guide here). The example below shows an example of a 7-day language study planner for learning Spanish.
Start learning today and get ready for an amazing trip
With just one hour per day over the course of a few weeks, you can learn more than enough to successfully communicate with people on your overseas journey. Speaking just a few words of the local language can open up doors you might never have known existed. As Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
Generally, we prefer to begin studying a language about one month before leaving on an overseas trip, one hour per day. That gives us enough time to learn the most important travel phrases as well as a few hundred vital vocabulary words.
The best way to learn is to divide your time between the three pillars of language learning competency: everyday speech, vocabulary and grammar (check out the complete guide below).
For example, if you have one hour to study every day we’d recommend focusing 30 minutes on everyday speech phrases, 20 minutes building vocabulary and 10 minutes learning the absolute basics of the grammar. We suggest using Rosetta Stone for building a solid foundation of useful vocabulary words and grammar structures, Pimsleur for everyday phrases and Quizlet for additional memorization practice.
So build yourself a study planner, set your study goal and start learning. By the time your plane lands you’ll be well-prepared for an unforgettable overseas experience!
– written by Drew Grubba for Smarter Language. Drew has ACTFL-certified proficiency in Swedish, German, Portuguese, French and Spanish. He’s also studied Mandarin Chinese, Norwegian and Dutch, and is currently learning Russian.
Disclaimer: SpanishDict is a property of IXL Learning Inc.