How to Learn a Foreign Language Before You Arrive

Ah, language. The way that all people over the age of two communicate things as simple as hunger and as complex as love. It is also one of the largest obstacles that many people face while travelling to a foreign country and one of the top-ranked reasons (after finances) that stops people from taking that dream trip.

How to overcome this? Learn the local language of course!

Local Thai Village Stay
Local Thai Village Stay

While it is also a good idea to brush up on your charades so that you can mime to the shop-keeper your need for deodorant, learning the local language can lead to less embarrassment in the long run. Yes, that did happen to me.

Of all the things to forget on a trip to Thailand, I forgot me deodorant. I was directed by the friendly staff at the front desk to a local pharmacy that carried such items, but after about 20 minutes of searching the shelves, I still hadn’t located the way to a less smelly me. I little bit of charade playing later, I was directed to a shelf containing small glass bottles of liquid deodorant…no wonder I couldn’t find what I was looking for!

Thankfully, In our age of technology, learning a foreign language has never been easier. Apps, programs, and other devices make it simple, although they do all take time. It is best to start at least three months prior to your trip for best results, although longer is better.

Language Essentials

Talking with an Elephant Trainer
Talking with an Elephant Trainer

But I leave in a week! I can’t possibly learn a foreign language in a week! No, you probably can’t. Focus on the basics! Here is a list of ten essential words to make sure that you know. They are listed in approximate order of importance, so start at the top and work your way down. Use Google Translate to look up the words in your desired language.

  1. No
  2. Yes
  3. Toilet
  4. Help
  5. Please
  6. Thank you
  7. Where?
  8. More
  9. When?
  10. How Much? (ok, technically two words here.)

If you have extra time, learn how to count to 10 as well. This is particularly useful in a country where bartering is standard practice, although you can also just pull out your phone, open the calculator app, and type a price onto it. Most shop owners will understand the numbers.

Official Courses

Check your local university or college for local language courses. Many universities offer evening and weekend classes. Some even offer free sessions where you can help someone learn English while they help you learn their local language.

Web Courses, Apps, and Programs

Explore Machu Picchu
Explore Machu Picchu

There are literally dozens of programs available to help you learn any number of new languages, including Klingon. No, I’m not joking. You can take a course in Klingon if you want. Not the most practical, but it could be fun!

Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone is a useful but extremely expensive way to learn a new language. Each course will run approximately $250. It does give you access to video chat with native speakers of the language, voice recognition, and a gradually progressive program that builds upon your knowledge each lesson.

The price tag is a little bit detrimental for casual learners, however. I have used demo versions of the app and it is quite effective. This would be the perfect solution for someone who wants to understand the culture, language foibles (is it a cart, a trolley, a stroller, or a pram? That’s just English!), and wants to become fully fluent in their desired language. Rosetta stone offers users a complete understanding of grammatical constructs, instead of simply trying to memorize all of the different verb endings for the words you would like to use.


Perhaps the most popular program, Duolingo is completely free to use. While you aren’t likely to become completely fluent in your desired language through using this program, it is sufficient to learn the basics to get you through a trip and enjoy a few conversations with the locals.

I used Duolingo to learn some Spanish prior to our Peru trip and after about a month my Spanish was sufficient for the most basic conversations. I did occasionally misunderstand what I was being asked and made the occasional mistake, but I could have simple conversations.

The early stages of learning here are appropriate for conversations with toddlers.

“This is water.”

“I have bread.”

The complexity does progress until you are speaking in full sentences and able to express more complex ideas.

Language Zen

This is the newbie on the market. Seeking to strike a balance between Rosetta Stone and Duolingo, LanguageZen claims to be faster than both. Having experimented with the program for the past few weeks, I certainly seem to be progressing faster (for all that I continue to hate verbs).

Currently offering only Spanish, they are soon expanding to other languages. They offer learning through music and progressive lessons, with hints and voice recognition available.

Practice Makes Perfect!

Experiencing Local Culture in Peru
Experiencing Local Culture in Peru

There are several ways that you can practice a language, keep it fresh in your mind, or simply get used of hearing sounds that are different from what you are accustomed to.

  1. Listen to music
  2. Switch your Netflix or DVD to a different language and turn on subtitles
  3. Use web-streaming to watch news or TV in the local language at your destination
  4. Listen to streaming radio
  5. Find a local and have a chat!

Make sure that you set aside some time each day to practice. 5 minutes a day will keep newly learned words fresh in your mind, although a minimum of 10-15 minutes each day is recommended.