A few people collect foreign languages like old cars, but
many of us struggle abroad because of the language
challenges. The following are our tips for learning enough of a foreign language to
survive or how to manage if you don't.
The topics included are:
-Our varying approaches to the language problem
-"Rick Steves' Phrase Book & Dictionary" for the western European languages
-The "Teach Yourself Starter Kit" audio series
-Using the environment as your tutor
-Asking for help
-Electronic dictionary & conjugator
-Writing it down
-Studying on the bike
-Our top pick for one second language in Europe: German
How we cope with a given language barrier varies with our prior experience with the language, the inherent difficulty of the language for English speakers, and how long we expect to be in the country. Our poorest performance is with languages that are utterly baffling to us like Greek, Turkish, Icelandic, and the Slavic languages. Where those languages are spoken we heavily rely on English, Bill's improving German, or writing words down on a sheet of paper in lieu of speaking. Our minimum resource is the several pages of vocabulary and pronunciation tips in the back of our Lonely Planet guide book for the given country. We may or may not have a separate phrase book, with its usefulness being highly dependent on its format.
Except for the most difficult languages, we strive to speak and recognize at least 40 words. Those carefully chosen words are the basics like: "hello, please, thank you, excuse me, left, right, straight ahead, toilets, hotel, campground, bicycle, 1, 2, 3, and bread." Our 40 words allow us to maneuver on the sidewalk as pedestrians, ask for directions, locate lodging and to do basic shopping--anything more is gravy. Again, we are using our guide book's vocabulary section and perhaps a phrase book for our tutoring.
For French, German, Spanish, and Italian we apply ourselves to speaking at least a handful of complete sentences. Between us, we have some prior experience with the first 3 of those 4 languages and the similarities between Italian and Spanish make Italian within reach. For these more accessible languages, we pick-up additional compact and appealing learning aids as we find them.
But regardless of the country or language, we are quite clear that the ability to communicate is more than knowing the language. We can have a satisfying exchange or get answers to our questions with no shared language if we and the other speaker are motivated and resourceful. Being willing to try to communicate is more important for everyday situations than an extensive vocabulary.
Rick Steves' Phrase Book & Dictionary
The details can make or break the usefulness of a phrase book and I've given up trying to use more than one that I've purchased abroad. But I love my "Rick Steves' Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary". The weight of the paper and print size make the pages easy to read; his phonetic system is more intuitive for me than others; and he gives the phonetics for entire phrases so I can relatively easily spew out a sentence or short paragraph when needed. The layout of the book takes some getting used to but of the half dozen other brands I've tried, this is definitely my favorite. The Spanish book is my first of his books but I'll be buying the others. His series includes individual books for French, German, Italian and Portuguese plus a combined book with French, Italian and German. Our Spanish book cost $8. Be sure to buy before you leave the States as I haven't seen his books distributed abroad.
The "Teach Yourself Starter Kit" Series
The "Teach Yourself Starter Kit" (www.teachyourself.co.uk) is the first self-teaching system that I've been able to stick with. I like it because it is stripped down to the bare bones and emphasizes speaking in traveler's situations instead of classroom settings.
The 7 week Spanish course requires practicing with a CD about 10 minutes a day and includes pre-made flashcards and 2 small booklets. The emphasis is on speaking, not writing, but their approach works well for visual learners like myself and not just auditory learners . The course only teaches 9 verbs and drops the familiar-you form so you learn 4 forms of each verb instead of the usual 6. And the course focuses on traveler's vocabulary, skipping the "Hello, my name is...." which almost all courses begin with and we virtually never use as a travelers--"Where are the toilets?" comes up much more often.
We bought this UK-produced course in Spain and found it painless to integrate into our traveling day. The audio on the CD's was a huge help with pronunciation and the low demand of the course left us with enthusiasm to fill-in other words on our own. This CD-based course combined with the "Rick Steves' Phrase Book & Dictionary" put us on a lighthearted, fast-track for learning traveler's Spanish. It left us eager to learn more and to practice speaking rather than frustrating us with too many details.
We carry a laptop computer with us on our travels so we already had the needed hardware for the CD's. For most travelers it would make more sense to spend 2 months working through the exercises before traveling and use a phrase book to quench your thirst for more information. That way you'd have the course behind you when you arrived in the country and would already know your way around your phrase book. (Powell's Books and Barnes & Noble carry some of the products in the "Teach Yourself" series.)
Using the Environment as Your Tutor
When it comes to learning a little bit of a foreign language, my forte is definitely using the visual environment--the billboards and signs--to build my vocabulary. I want to communicate more quickly than I can learn verb conjugations so I prefer my own verb-less "Noun & Point" system. I learn the nouns and rely heavily on pointing at objects to fill-in the missing words. Of course, that doesn't work as well on the phone, but almost all of our traveling communication is face to face.
Signs and billboards are great prompts as they are the words actually used in the region and are often accompanied by descriptive graphics. Sometimes the words in phrase books aren't what are really used, as we found in Czech Republic for the word for "train." So, scrutinizing signs and their associated symbols makes a great starting point for selecting relevant nouns to learn. Each night I check our phrase book for the exact meaning and the pronunciation of my newly gathered nouns. For me, that keeps the learning practical and easy.
Multi-lingual food labels and menus are another way to collect the words most important to you. Usually the ingredients or descriptors are listed in the same order in each language so you can readily get rough translations. I record important new words in my handheld computer so I have them available. Even if most of your food comes from eateries, a study session in the food market can quick generate your "Definitely Yes" and "Definitely No" ingredients list for your next look at a menu.
Our latest discovery was a quick way to learn numbers. We had the basics of the Spanish numbers down but we were still very slow and clumsy with them. One afternoon we started saying out loud any number we saw on the road and since we were climbing up steep hills, we had plenty of time on our hands to contemplate them. The road had an abundance of route number markers, speed signs and single digits on small posts. We stopped a couple of times to check our accuracy and pronunciation in our phrase book and both our skill and confidence skyrocketed with the environmentally-cued drilling.
In less than an hour we were onto the car license plates that each had 4 digits. We first called out the single digits, then 2 pairs of numbers and then all 4 digits as a single number. I was stunned that evening when for the first time I understood all 4 digits of a spoken price--before playing our road game I was lucky to capture the first digit. We can hardly wait to move on to another accessible language and play our number game with it. Bill even did some numbers in both Spanish and German just to keep his German active and his mind agile.
Asking For Help
We are also getting bolder about using the people around us to teach us their language. Usually we limit our requests for help to one word per person. Even if a hotel or store clerk doesn't speak English, we can often solicit their help in learning the proper word for an object or in correcting our pronunciation. Our room number in a hotel and a produce item in a market are easy words to ask for. And clarifying the proper pronunciation for our destination town for the day is a huge help in asking for directions once out on the road as well as reinforcing the pronunciation rules.
A couple of times we have paid for an hour of tutoring--once at a language school and once from a college student working at an internet shop. Each time we prepared a list of the words we need help pronouncing and the phrases we need constructed. A critical phrase for us that doesn't show up in the books is "Do you have a safe place to keep our bikes overnight?" Getting the idiomatic phrase for that concept is a huge help in selecting lodging and keeping our bikes secure. Another one that seems unnecessarily difficult to get across is "We need to pay for using the telephone in our room," so we ask for help with that phrase also. Of course at the language school the teacher couldn't resist conjugating a few verbs for us and teaching us to introduce ourselves.
Electronic Dictionary & Conjugator
We have dictionaries and verb conjugators for several foreign languages on our handheld computers. Bill started using these electronic reference books several years ago when studying French and found them worth the price. The expensive Collin's products are his favorite dictionaries, which run $35-40 each. The conjugators are from Beiks Ltd costing about $15 per language. Both product lines can be purchased from the web. The conjugator gives you all possible verb forms in all the tenses used in the given language. I use the dictionary far more than the conjugator but both are especially helpful in dealing with situations that go beyond the realm of phrase books. Coming up with the right word when dealing with a pharmacist or doctor can be critical, as well as simpler situations like asking for packing tape or a 9 speed bike chain. And the electronic dictionary is invaluable in deciphering the less obvious words in museum exhibits and on food labels.
Write it Down
Once you've settled on an effective way to say something, write it down so you can refer back to it. I stash key phrases on my handheld computer so it is there a couple years later--much better archiving than scraps of paper. I have single phrases, full sentences and even a few scripts. My longest script is for reserving a hotel room in Spanish by phone and it includes: "Do you have a room for 2 people for 1 night. How much is it? Is the tax included? Is breakfast included? Does it have heating? We have 2 bikes, do you have a safe place for them? We will arrive on -- day and leave on -- day." And if I'm doing the transaction in person "May I see the room?"
Of course, some languages are just too overwhelming to pronounce more than a few polite words, so we rely on having people read notes we have written. Again, we use phrase books and bilingual speakers to generate our basic scripts for securing lodging. Write your letters big so they can be read by people who don't keep their glasses handy, perhaps leaving in a blank for the price to be written in. We also sometimes write down the names of towns we are heading to as our slight mispronunciations can be catastrophic in some areas. And of course in those countries we do a lot of pointing and grunting in the markets and when obtaining directional help.
Studying on the Bike
We had amazing success with learning the basics of Spanish in 2004 by combining appealing resource materials with being more creative about using our study time on the bike. Bill has diligently memorized 5 new German words a day for hundreds of days of travel but found our new approach with Spanish much more effective.
We jokingly referred to our new strategy as "Sandbox Spanish" or "Circus Spanish" as the emphasis was on keeping it playful so we would stay with it. We took turns selecting 3 to 6 new words each day but always looked for a gimmick--something to amuse the mind. It might be a short sentence where almost all the words began with "P;" 3 or 4 words that differed by only a letter; or creating a translation for a cliché or phrase like "easy come, easy go" or "for better or worse." We always tried to capitalize on the brain's natural love of jokes, puns and humor to facilitate the learning and then pushed ourselves to create sentences with the new words. Our goal was to keep speaking and use the new words with an emphasis on communication rather than correctness.
We were stunned at how rapidly our working vocabulary rose into the hundreds of words in only a few weeks and it was primarily because we kept it fun. Our struggle to make sentences would send us to our electronic dictionaries at lunch time to locate critical vocabulary words we were missing. Some days we'd learn 15 new words because we needed them-- because we wanted them for our little conversations and stories we were crafting as we rode. I imagined it was like an alternative educational system that is student-curiosity-driven as we were learning what we felt a need for and as a result both our retention and the volume learned soared.
I also think there was some magic to doing our Spanish practice sessions on the bike. I suspect that our relatively low intensity road riding made our minds more receptive to learning and less subject to boredom compared with the usual study situations. Road riding (as opposed to a stationery bike) demands alertness to maintain balance, keep an eye on the traffic, and watch for changes in the road surface but under good conditions there is still a lot of brain power left unused. Since almost all of our riding is done at a modest level of exertion, that remaining ability to focus doesn't get 'snowed' by endorphins. Regardless of the reason, we were stunned at the progress we made by doing most of our Spanish practice while riding.
German as a Second Language
If you are traveling broadly in Europe, English and German are the 2 most useful languages from our experience. American movies, the internet and the formation of the EU have all supported the spread of English, though outside the tourist areas it can be hard to find a willing English speaker.
French is not spoken widely out of France, though it shows up in corners of Belgium and Switzerland and a few other places. Spanish and Italian are also pretty much confined to their countries, though learning one makes it easy to get by with the other. German however is spoken in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands and is the traditional travelers language in the eastern European countries like Poland and the Czech Republic. German speakers are avid travelers, so their language shows up in unexpected places, like Croatia and the resort areas of many countries. And we were shocked that more than one person working in a field in Turkey spoke German because of their recent history as a guest worker in Germany. Bill had taken up French in anticipation of our our travels but quickly switched to reviving his high school German because of its greater usefulness.
That's it for how we've learned to get by abroad with the language problems--please email us if you have other ways of managing or favorite resources that we've missed.