Most everybody is aware of the great stereotype of the English-speaking tourist. When travelling, he or she does not bother to learn a single word of the country’s language, preferring to roar at ever-increasing volume ‘DO-YOU-SPEAK-ENGLISH?’ In Spain or Italy, the unlucky natives may be subjected to an even more ridiculous take on this (something along the lines of ‘Hallo-a! Speak-a you English-a?’).
This situation is, first of all, embarrassing for all involved. Secondly, it is quite plainly rude and shows the world that you simply could not be bothered to pick up a pocket dictionary, or even take a quick look online and find out the basic words to get your point across. You do not want to be this tourist.
I’m not saying you should aim to be fluent before you head off on holiday. Neither am I suggesting you use up all your freetime studying and feeling guilty when nothing goes in. What we’re aiming for here is a happy middle-ground, which allows you to avoid being ‘that tourist’ and avoid putting your food in it wherever you go. Some countries are surprisingly gracious towards tourists who do not speak the language, but many will go out of their way to be unhelpful and discourteous if you do not make a cursory effort to speak their language. This puts a damper on many holidays and can make things very difficult. Therefore it is also to your benefit practically to have a try.
What should I learn?
If you are very limited on time, these are the holiday phrases you will want to learn:
– Thank you
– I would like…
– Can you help me?
– Do you speak English?
This may not seem like much, but it is the absolute basics and you will be surprised how far you can get with pointing and gesticulating. You may want to add a game or two or charades to your training schedule, in this case.
If you have slightly more time, you may then want to have a go at learning a bit more vocabulary:
– numbers from 1-20
– telling the time
– reading a menu
– basic directions eg: left, right, turn
In the case that you find yourself with a bit of spare time after that, concentrate on learning vocabulary and listening to exercises online rather than trying to memorise phrases to speak. It is much easier to train your ‘passive vocabulary’ – phrases that you can recognise – than your ‘active vocabulary’ – words which you can actively produce when speaking.
What is the best way to learn?
As mentioned above, if you are only trying to learn a few phrases for your holidays to show that you’re making an effort, you do not need to learn any grammar or do any writing. What you want to focus on here is listening and repeating. There are several good online resources available in multiple languages that allow you to learn basic phrases and listen to them online. Two of the best are:
Write down the phrases in both the target language and in English and carry them around with you to look at multiple times during the day. If you have an MP3 player, copy your listening material onto that too and listen to it frequently. Good opportunities are while travelling, exercising or doing housework or cooking. Try imitating the phrases (probably not while you’re on the bus though) until you feel you’re getting the sounds right.
After you’ve been practicising these phrases each day for a week, get a friend to test you on them. Ask them to ask you for the translation of each phrase. If you can repeat them all easily in your target language, you’re doing very well. Keep up with this schedule until you head off on holiday. Still, be under no illusions: what you know will get you by and probably win you points with locals, but you will certainly not be able to actively communicate with people in the language. It is a very good idea to take a pocket dictionary with you on your holidays in case you get stuck or to prepare words you know will come in useful on vacation.
If you are aiming to learn more, make a list of your targets. If you want to learn how to say you are from England, your name and your age, then those are your targets. Maybe your targets are to be able to read a restaurant menu in the target language, or perhaps to be able to recognise the numbers 1-20. Aim to spend a little time learning every day.
If your goal is reading-based, spend most time studying vocabulary or reading basic texts. You should be able to find many online, including on the websites mentioned above.
If your goal is speaking-based, your time should be split between speaking and listening. The best option is to seek out transcripts of audio files, so you can listen and read the text at the same time. Read and listen many times until you can understand approximately 80% of what is being said.
If your goal is to simply learn more vocabulary, all of the above practice will help, but another tip is to write down the words in your target language of coloured slips of papers with the English translation on the other side. Every day, go through these flashcards, viewing each the foreign language or English side. Once you can easily remember what each word means, put those cards into a separate pile or box. Look at these approximately every once a week and the cards you have trouble remembering every day. The frequent practice makes a big difference to what you can remember. Try to think of words which you will need or use frequently on vacation or while travelling.
Finally, do not forget that pocket dictionary! No matter how much you learn, you may still be stumped once in a while. Overall it is handy to keep these things in mind:
-All progress is good. You should not expect to understand locals quickly or be disappointed if you forget words or don’t understand. It is a process.
– It is not important at this stage to sound ‘correct’. It is more important to get your point across.
– You don’t need to devote hours a day to learning: you can learn simply by plugging in your earphones and listening to audio files while you’re doing other activities or taking five minutes each day before bed to review vocabulary.
– Have fun and enjoy your holidays! Language learning is about communication and broadening your mind, not making yourself stressed!
Finally, happy holiday. Or…bon voyage, gute Reise, buen viaje and buon viaggio!