Linguistics 101: How to Master a Foreign Language


I love to travel. And I know for a fact that I’m not alone. Just glancing through the various Facebook travel albums and Instagram feeds that belong to my friends instantly reveals beautiful, filtered (and non-filtered) images ranging from Balinese sunsets to Hawaiian sunrises, tea time in London to rooftop dinners in New York, and everything else in between.

As an experienced traveler, I’ve discovered that while you can pretty much get by these days without having to learn the local language of the country you happen to be visiting, why wouldn’t you want to at least pick up some phrases and vocab terms? A lot of people I know claim, “Well, everyone speaks English nowadays,” and while that is true, there are so many benefits associated with learning some of the local lingo when traveling.

For one, you establish yourself as more than just a tourist. Not only are you able to protect yourself from being taken advantage of and make yourself privy to “local’s prices” or at least reduced prices when shopping at the local market, but you are also allowing yourself to connect on a deeper level with the host culture. Visiting another country is more than just the glossy postcard exterior – there’s a deeper and more beautiful layer hiding underneath the surface – it’s up to you to unearth it. Here are a few learning tips that will help you master the next language you decide to study.

Practice with the locals – Raise your hand if you took at least three years of high school Spanish but had no idea what anyone was saying when you took your first trip to Mexico. So I’m not the only one? Author and entrepreneur Mark Manson recommends conversing with people who are better than you in the language that you want to learn. According to Manson, “An hour of conversation is as good as five hours in a classroom.” Unlike in school where they placed emphasis on memorizing, language learned actually needs to be processed, and it’s amazing how much faster the words will stick when you have social experiences and emotions tied to them as opposed to simply memorizing them from a textbook.

Intensity over Length – Language requires repetition, which is why we all struggled in Spanish class in high school and didn’t retain much of what we learned. Simply taking a class two to three times a week for approximately forty-five minutes a session isn’t enough commitment or investment into learning. Taking an intensive language course for several hours a day on a regular basis will yield better results.

Back to Basics – Manson advises starting with the 100 most common words of the target language and practice making sentences with them over and over again. Studies show that the most common 100 words in any language account for 50 percent of all spoken communication (pretty motivating, huh?) Chances are you’ll get a lot more use out of general phrases and commands than you will memorizing all of the kitchen utensils and cooking-related phrases that take up pages 43 to 47 in your language course book.

Immerse yourself – Going to China? Hit up Chinatown and spend several hours there, going into shops and eating at family-owned restaurants. Practice reading and speaking the language as you engage in activities like ordering food, shopping and bargaining. It will help prepare you for when you’re officially in the country and it will also ease the amount of culture shock that you may experience. Another fun method? Watching those bad soap operas (every country has them) as well as listening to a track list of the country’s current number one tracks. It’s fun to try to figure out what the heck they’re saying (while simultaneously retaining your laughter).

Find a language buddy – If you can’t find a cute guy or girl from the country you’re preparing to go to, you might want to try checking out one of those websites where people who want to learn English will trade practice time in their native language for yours. A cultural barter! Live Mocha is one website that lets members video chat with each other (and who knows? You just might meet that cute guy/gal on there.)

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