When Your Phrasebook Won’t Save You: Learning New Languages for Travel

When I went to Brazil last December, I wasn’t too concerned about Portuguese. After all, I was meeting my Brazilian friend, Raquel – getting around would be a cinch. It would’ve been wise to practice just a little bit of Portuguese for that half hour when I was simply trying to board the right bus at the Rio de Janeiro airport. Sure, I knew how to ask “Where is the bus to Copacabana?” – Raquel had given me that much – but I had no idea how to interpret any of the answers I was receiving.

Thank goodness for the English translation, or I might’ve just leaned out the window.

As I look at my map of the world and begin plotting my next trip, I’m currently eyeing the Camino Frances, a walk that begins in the south of France, and then continues through Spain. It’ll take me through countryside and towns, and while the walk is covered by hundreds of pilgrims every year, I’m already plotting ways I can pick up the essential French words I’ll need to travel effectively – at least, more efficiently than my Rio de Janeiro aeropuerto fiasco. What would the easiest way to learn how to order a meal in French? A bed at a hostel?


Use French websites for accommodation, restaurants, transportation, etc – and employ Google Translate to help.

Browsing hostels in French (and booking!) is a great place to start. From there, I’m getting a grasp on basic words like nuitées (nights), a  (hostels- literally, “hostels of youth”), dortoirs (dorms), and chambres privatives (private room). Sure, most hostels will speak a little bit of English, but knowing these basic French words will guarantee I won’t be stuck for three nights in a dorm when I wanted four nights in a private room.


Une bière, s’il vous plaît? Yep, got that down.

Don’t be too proud to admit you really don’t know the language.

I took two years of Spanish in high school, and had started brushing up on it prior to my trip. I’d be fine, I assured myself. Yeah, right. While in Iguazu Falls, I knew I’d have to ask my hostel to call a shuttle to pick me up and take me to the airport. That request seemed simple enough. I figured I knew enough basic nouns to squeak by, and my pride got the best of me as I embarrassed myself. The receptionist at the hostel looked at me blankly as I struggled to form a cohesive sentence, and I began to wonder if I’d be stranded in Iguazu Falls forever. (I tend to get overly dramatic when I’m overseas.) I may have taken two years of Spanish, eight years ago… but I’d had no practice “in the field”. 


Practice the basics with a free online course – thanks, BBC!

The BBC offers free online language tools to help familiarize yourself with a language before taking the plunge. In their Language section, you can grasp the basics in nearly 40 languages, including French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Chinese.


For advanced scholars and overachievers, read a book in that new language.

If you’re REALLY advanced and booking your hostel in French isn’t enough of a challenge, the next step is to take a stab at reading a book you’re familiar with in the new language. A lot of people prefer the Harry Potter series, as they’re simple to understand… or perhaps, even Twilight – and then you’ll be able to converse with the locals about pop culture, since you know the French word for vampire (which is “vampire”. Learning a new language is easy, isn’t it?!)

How do you pick up a few words in the language of a country you’re visiting?


This post contains an advertisement, but ideas and opinions are my own.

Author: Laryssa

Laryssa has spent 6+ years working on an assortment of film and television projects. She writes about her experiences to help (and amuse) others. If she's not working, she's either traveling, reading or writing about travel, or planning travel. Follow , Twitter, or Facebook.

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