What are the best ways to learn a language while you are travelling? What are the keys to success when learning a language?
We’ve been teaching English as a Second Language since 2003, and over the last two years have been learning Spanish. We’ve seen what works and what doesn’t, and can recognise the same successes and failures in our own language learning. Here’s the gist of what we’ve learned.
Speak, speak and speak again
If you’re learning a language to travel, your main goal will be communication … speaking! No matter how much you read or how many grammar activities you do, or how much vocabulary you understand … if you want to speak to people, you have to speak.
Learn a few set phrases and through them out there. If you don’t understand the responses at first, that’s no real problem … just get started. Now you’re speaking another language!
Social networks for language learners
There are several social networks that can help you start speaking and get ahead with your target language before you leave home. The ones we have found most useful are:
Use repetition to get things flowing
We’re after some degree of fluency in using set phrases. The way to do this is through repetition at home — chanting, singing or — what I prefer — repeat the phrases over and over, until you can get them perfect and fluent, first time, every time.
Build little conversations with yourself, using these phrases. A typical example might be in a cafe:
How are you?
Good thanks, and you?
Fine. I’d like a coffee, please.
The bill, please.
Here you are.
Build up these common, functional phrases and repeat them until you can handle the situation with ease and confidence.
Flashcards and vocabulary
You can also use repetition to improve your vocabulary. I really like using flashcards to do this – playing with the words and building them into your memory. There are various smartphone and computer apps that use this to build decks of intelligent flashcards — SRS (Spaced Repetition Systems) are really good. However, there’s a few issues with using flashcards:
1. Do you want to recognise words, or speak them?
Your first job is to recognise words – look at the target language then remember the meaning in your mother language. This will help your reading, but certainly won’t help you speak … for that, you need to reverse the cards so you see your first language first, and remember the target language through that. Even better if you can replace your first language with an image.
2. There’s no use learning words by themselves.
Once you get to grips with the vocabulary you’re working on, use the new words in little sentences that you might use. Once again, fit them into functional sentences that you might use, or drill grammar patterns that you are trying to master.
Grammar is good, but speaking is better
Thinking about grammar … grammar is good. We recently spent two weeks at Expanish Spanish School in Buenos Aires and it’s really helped both of us get to grips with things we were struggling with. But … going to school or doing grammar exercises is only part of the equation: you need to get things off the page and make them come out of your mouth! Read out loud to work on your fluency and accent, and store up a few phrases as conversation starters.