04 February 2020

Language and Travel: Top Tips for Learning as You Go


In a previous article, we shared the story of our optimistic team member who was unprepared for the challenges of a Spanish-speaking holiday – but then realised she had a few more skills than she had given herself credit for.

What she neglected to mention was that she had also seen the positive side of showing up on holiday with a few well-honed language skills – this time, in German. While her German was not much use in South America (aside from a very friendly chat with some German travellers while visiting a winery!), whenever she visits Germany, she appreciates quite how valuable even some basic conversational skills can be.

In this article, she’s back to share some tips that highlight just how helpful it is to have some language know-how on your side.

Find a language-learning buddy

I love going to Germany. Pretzels and bratwurst in a sunny Munich beer garden can be one of the loveliest ways to watch the sun set, and Germany’s beautiful old towns, buzzing markets and bold art galleries can take your breath away.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not fluent in German. I wish I was! But I have been making my own steady way through developing my language skills over time, and I try to practice my German whenever I can.

It helps that one of my closest friends – and travel buddies – is also at a similar level of German to me. We both take the opportunity to practise together (when we remember), and we both try to visit Germany at least once a year to exercise our language skills. We push ourselves into new situations too, so that we can push the limits of our existing skills and learn some new vocabulary.

When I was in South America, I didn’t have that same level of practical support. I was travelling with someone who was as equally ill-prepared as me. We were able to share the frustration (and embarrassment) of our limited Spanish communication skills – and to reflect on how to do better next time – but we weren’t a lot of help to each other. We couldn’t teach other new things or chatter away, even haltingly, in fledgling Spanish – which made it hard to practise what little we did pick up.

Build your vocabulary every chance you get

In Germany, every café, bar, church, museum and shop seemed to be full of interesting words – little nuggets of practical interest that helped to reinforce my learning. With every visit, I realised that I was starting to recognise increasingly complex or unusual words, from ‘Kartoffel’ (‘potato’) to ‘Spargel’ (‘asparagus’) and beyond. Museum displays became increasingly illuminating as I started to recognise words in context and to translate whole blocks of text in my mind as I read.

This comfortable level of semi-fluency felt like a distant memory while in South America. Every new word was indeed a revelation, but none of them came easily – they had to be pried from memory, or translated and then memorised. Without having put the time and energy into learning and reinforcing many key words of vocabulary, I struggled to interpret menus and make sense of instructions. Especially disappointing was that most museums had to be researched in English first in order to have a hope of appreciating the historical treasures inside, making the museum-going experience a bit of a chore instead of an educational experience. And I had nobody to blame but myself!

Appreciate the value of conversation

Being able to join in with a conversation when you meet new people is amazing, and it can really complete your travelling experience when you’re in exciting new lands. I remember vividly a time in Germany when my friend and I started chatting to a group of musicians who were touring the country. Before we knew it, they were sharing the history of the area, chatting about their families and trying to encourage us to sing along with them – in German! We had a fantastic experience and learnt so much about the local culture, and we were able to experience it directly rather than read about it remotely. Our German skills came along leaps and bounds that weekend!

While I did manage to chat briefly to some of the people in the communities I visited in South America, the conversation was stilted, with awkward breaks while I scrambled hopelessly for the best way to communicate. The experience in Germany was by no means fluent, but it was relaxed and comprehensible, and whenever we went off-track we quickly found our way again. I really noticed the difference in South America – it took the human element out of the equation to some extent, so I knew I was missing out.

Next time, I’ll remember to go prepared so that I can make the most out of every adventure – and be able to chat about it in Spanish afterwards!

Language skills can give you a personal and professional edge

If your business sees long-term potential in an overseas market, investing in language learning could help smooth the path towards a positive professional relationship. Our team member’s experience shows how beneficial even a basic but practised degree of language competence can be, so imagine the difference that some focused attention to your language skills could make to a future business opportunity!

Learning a language with your team could be both a team-building experience and a way to create a team of language-learning buddies to practise with. If you want to find out more about how we can help your company develop its professional network through language, contact us today.

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