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5 Ways to Improve Your Language Skills While Traveling

I am a self-professed language nerd. I started soaking up French at the ripe age of seven or so when I found my mother's Berlitz Reader. I went on to get a degree in French and study in Belgium.

After that, I looked around to see what other languages I could gobble up. Spanish came easy. Then Italian. But I don't get much opportunity to practice my Italian in San Diego (and I feel sorry for the Italian waiters at the restaurants I go to since I subject them to my practice every time!).

What's interesting is that I feel my skills level up as soon as I arrive in Italy. Here's what I do to make the most of improving my language skills while traveling.

1. Watch TV

I watch a fair amount of Italian programs on Netflix at home, with the added bonus of turning on Italian subtitles rather than English, but watching TV in Italy is even better. Even the commercials are good learning tools!

I don't even try to understand everything. It's impossible. I let the words wash over me and pick out what I know. Watch things with different cadences; news reporters speak fairly slowly and are easier to understand. Movies and reality tv gives you the chance to hear people how they'd speak in real life, slang and colloquialisms included.

2. Eavesdrop

I have my ears turned on everywhere I go. I hear old men bickering about soccer and women scolding children. I turn over phrases I hear and look up what I don't know. Occasionally I hear a joke I actually get and smile quietly to myself.

3. Listen to Music

Music is sometimes easier to understand than television when learning a foreign language! There's a lot of repetition and most songs don't go that deep. I found an Italian song that was completely in the future tense, so that was a good lesson!

Music videos are fun to watch, too! You can see the singers express what they're saying, and it's amusing to see how music culture differs in other countries.

4. Mutter to Yourself

Though I travel alone, it probably doesn't sound like it to anyone listening because I'm constantly talking to myself! I'll repeat a phrase I heard or work on pronouncing something correctly over and over.

I'm pretty anal, so if I know, for example, that I'm headed to the pharmacy to ask for cold medicine and I'm not confident in what I need to say, I'll practice it over and over until I can remember it and say it well.

When you hear something, repeat it. It'll be easier to remember.

5. Practice!

I get that speaking a language you're not fluent in can be uncomfortable. It will be for a while. I'm pretty okay at Italian and I think I speak at a third-grade level! But you won't get better unless you practice. I find that locals are pretty understanding when we Americans bumble over their language. At least we're putting in the effort. Learn how to say, "Sorry, I'm an American. I don't speak [language] very well," and you'll at least get a sympathetic smile.

Here are great opportunities for you to practice your language skills:

  • At a restaurant or cafe

  • At the grocery store

  • With the hotel staff

  • On the train

  • At a museum

You're not likely to reach native-level fluency, so cut yourself some slack. But if you're serious about learning a language, put the work in. Find a conversation partner at home. There are also online tutors you can hire to chat with. Start a conversation group (I did this in San Diego). Be kind to yourself when you make mistakes. And then pat yourself on the back for how far you've come! Brava!

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