Do you want to learn a new language to improve your traveling experience, but don’t want to spend money on classes or expensive language learning applications? That’s how I felt in 2019 as I embarked on my first big journey abroad to South America, without knowing a lick of Spanish. But I was determined to learn anyway.
When I got to Ecuador, I quickly realized that learning a new language would take more than just a Spanish phrase book and a few Duolingo lessons. Learning a new language takes immersion, regular practice, and — let’s face it — enjoyability. Otherwise it just feels like a chore. Over the months I spent in 2019 and even after I left South America, I incorporated many free and fun strategies into learning Spanish, which brought me to a level of comprehension that I’m now really proud of.
To be upfront, I did take a month of Spanish lessons while I was in Peru, which jump started my understanding of grammar and pronunciation. However, you can learn so much about a language using workbooks (checkout your local used bookstore), free online lessons, and a ton of the resources I’m about to share with you.
So if you’re like me and you want to learn a language while you’re traveling on the road, know that you’ve got loads of free resources and strategies to work with. Read on to find out some of the best ways to learn Spanish or any new language while you’re traveling.
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Study verbs and vocabulary using the free Quizlet app. You can study word lists that other users have already created, or make your own. Practice your language skills using different modes: digital flash cards, matching games, fill-in-the-blank, and tests.
Use the Duolingo app to practice your grammar and new vocabulary everyday. The free version is fantastic, but the paid version has some nice perks including an ad-free experience, downloadable lessons for offline practice (great for traveling), unlimited skill test-outs (to skip to the next lesson), and unlimited health so you don’t have to watch a ton of ads in order to continue practicing.
Use the Drops app daily to improve your vocabulary. The free version allow you to practice new vocabulary for five minutes every day. The premium version allows unlimited practice time each day, is ad free, and you can choose to practice any section at any time instead of going in the app’s order. There is no grammar in this app, so use it as a vocabulary supplement.
Follow instagram accounts that share content in the language you want to learn. This is a fun immersion strategy. I follow several Spanish accounts on Instagram to practice translating everyday posts. Here are a few that I enjoy: @72kilos @culturapositiva @uychica @netflixes @lavecinarubia
Language Learning with Audio
Listen to free audio language lessons via library audiobook or Spotify. You can do a search in Spotify by typing in the language you want to learn and then pasting in one of the following album recommendations:
Listen to Podcasts that teach you lessons or allow you to practice listening to stories in your desired language. Tip: If you listen to a podcast that is mostly conversational, slow down the playback speed to 1/2x in order to hear the words more slowly. I recommend these podcast series for Spanish and other languages:
Find or make a playlist of songs in the language that you want to learn. This is a fun way to incorporate immersion into your daily life, and find new music to love. I have a playlist of Spanish songs that I made on Spotify, but you can also find playlists on YouTube, Pandora, SoundCloud, or MixCloud.
Learn how to sing songs in the language you’re learning. Hands down, this is the top tip I get from people who have learned a second language. Make sure that you choose a song that you can listen to over and over again because you’ll be doing that a lot. Focus on pronunciation and understanding what the lyrics mean when you say them. You’ll learn more about flow and sentence structure in a fun way.
Language Learning with Video
Use YouTube to find free language learning lessons. It’s a great way to find grammar explanations, dialogue exchanges, and whatever type of vocabulary you’re trying to learn. If you’re learning Spanish, I recommend checking out The Spanish Dude. He’s great at explaining grammar.
Watch movies and TV shows in the language you want to learn, but use a strategy. Learning to read a language versus listening are two completely different things, and this method helps both types of learning. For example, if I was learning Spanish, I would first first watch a movie or episode with Spanish audio and English subtitles. Then I would watch the same thing a second time but with both Spanish audio and Spanish subtitles. I would also pause any parts that I don’t understand and take down notes for words or phrases to practice. Finally, I’d watch it for a third time with Spanish audio and no subtitles to try to understand as much as possible without reading.
Bonus for Spanish Learners with Netflix: These are some of my favorite Spanish Netflix series and recommendations: Elite, Money Heist (La Casa de Papel), La Reina Del Sur, Locked Up (Vis a Vis), The House of Flowers (La Casa de Las Flores), Siempre Bruja (Always a Witch), The Queen of Flow (La Reina Del Flow).
Language Learning through Social Exchange
Go to a language exchange meet up in the city where you reside. These meets ups are often hosted at bars or coffee shops. If you can’t find one in your area, consider starting your own! Here are two websites that I’ve used to find language exchanges in the areas where I’ve traveled:
Sign up for an online language exchange and practice with someone who speaks the language you want to learn. Warning: ladies, I‘ve heard that many men use these websites solely to meet women, so maybe consider only pairing up with other women. Here are some free and recommended language exchange sites: The Mixxer, Conversation Exchange, Easy Language Exchange.
If you visit a country that speaks the language you want to learn, commit to only speaking that language with locals. It doesn’t matter if you speak in broken pieces or if they can speak your native language. It’s all about trying and using what you know. You can’t improve your language skills without practice, no matter how painful in the beginning.
Language Learning with Pen and Paper
Keep a notebook of common phrases you’d like to learn, and practice those everyday. Start with phrases such as “How much does it cost?” or “My Name is…” and then work your way up to more complex phrases that would be helpful.
Regularly write about your day, stories you’d like to share, descriptions of people you know, the plot of your favorite movies, etc. Anything that will get you to practice words and phrases that you want to know in real life. Remember that the grammar doesn’t have to be perfect… you aren’t being graded, you just need to train your brain to start thinking, reading, and writing in a new language even if it’s not perfect!
Add sticky notes to objects in your home and label them in the language you are studying. This may not work if you are staying in a hostel or have a ton of roommates, but if you can get away with it, start in the kitchen by labeling things like refrigerator, oven, microwave, bowls, blender, etc. Then continue this in the bathroom, living room, your own room, or wherever you feel comfortable.
Tips for Learning a New Language While Traveling
In general, practice speaking out loud whenever you study your new language. Do this with your apps, audio lessons, and your notebook phrases. Pronunciation is just as important as any other element in language learning.
Some people will tell you that they learned a new language in three months. (They didn’t.) Some people will tell you it’s easy. (It’s not.) Some people will say that they just used one application and now they’re fluent. (That’s not truth.)
So be patient, don’t compare yourself to the progress of others, and most importantly, have fun with it. I love testing my progress by watching shows in Spanish and listening to new songs and writing to my Spanish-speaking friends in their language. The best part is that I can do this anywhere in the world as long as I have a connection to wifi. I’m so thankful for the digital age that we live in, which makes language learning a whole lot more accessible and fun!
What language do you want to learn? What have been your favorite learning strategies so far?
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