Hey. 你好. Qué pasa? Nzuri? Bon.
Over the past few years I’ve seen the dividends of all my language study from my twenties. Often on the road I get the chance to chatter in a foreign language, which often leads to people asking me, “Bren you speak Spanish too? How many languages do you speak?”
The truth is I speak far fewer than I would like, and nowhere near as well as I would like; one fluently (English), one pretty well (Spanish), two broken (Chinese, Swahili) and one not well at all (French). But even that scruffy résumé has served me really well on my travels. Just a few words in another language has opened doors to some incredible experiences.
Language has fascinated me ever since I started travelling – that we all say the same things in such different ways. This led to me spending much time and money during my travels to learn language and reduce my dependency on English. Funnily I always thought language was fun for everyone – like video games and eating ice cream. It didn’t occur to me that many people actually don’t like learning language. Which explains why so many never do.
Today’s post will hopefully change that for some of you. Language doesn’t need to be a mammoth task, and it doesn’t require months and months of studying to be able to say a few basic things. I’ll take you through a few tips and hacks that will have you holding your own in just a few days. Once you experience that and have your first conversation in another language, however broken it might be, I promise, travelling will never be the same again.
Why learn the local language
For me it’s mostly about respect. The world is a big place and England is only one country in the top left corner. Not everyone in the world speaks English or even cares to try. Yet every day I see travellers confused and frustrated that locals in other countries don’t understand English.
Would it not be weird if someone walked into your coffee shop and said “一杯咖啡和一碗沙拉“, and then got angry when you couldn’t understand them? Yet we English speakers seem to do that all the time.
It goes both ways. If you respect the locals by trying to communicate in their own language, they will respect you back for the gesture. You will make more friends, have more interesting conversations, be welcomed into more communities, and be given more opportunities to experience local life.
Even if you only learn to say “nice to meet you” and “thank you”, you will be surprised how far that will take you.
How to learn a language quickly?
Here is my basic breakdown, divided into difficulty:
- Numbers (1-100)
- Basic nouns
- Basic verbs
- Numbers (100+)
- Basic adjectives
- Basic adverbs
- Verbs in the present tense
- Basic sentence structure (Noun + verb. e.g. “eat apples”)
- Verbs in past and future
- Fuller sentence structure (.e.g. “John likes to eat red apples”)
- Everything else
If you are trying to learn the bare minimum before a trip, I recommend sticking with Level 1. This will give you the best chance of communicating without learning anything complex. Level 1 only requires memory and no real understanding of the language structure, but will still give you the tools to say many everyday things. That’s perfect! And you can do it in a couple of days. Level 2 will take you longer but is not difficult. Level 3 and above is where a little more “study time” is required.
A 7 day plan:
Let’s say it’s a week before your trip. Obviously I’m not going to teach you to become fluent in 7 days. That’s impossible. There are people who’ve spoken English their entire life and are still horrible at it. But if we learn smart we can definitely learn to say a lot in that time.
Here are a few interesting things to consider:
- Even if you speak broken, almost everyone will still understand you. For example, in a restaurant, you don’t need to say “May I please have a bowl of fruit?” You could just say, “Please, bowl, fruit” with a big smile, and you’ll get exactly what you want. I’m not saying you should aspire to speak broken, I’m saying you don’t need to be perfect to start.
- If you like chicken, you’ll probably say that word quite often. And if you don’t like shrimp, you probably won’t say that word at all. So you need to personalise your learning, rather than just learning generic lists. This cuts your learning time exponentially.
- Most words you learn in a typical language course are useless. For example you might learn the word “elephant”. How often do you say the word elephant? Maybe once or twice a month. Whereas you say the words “eat” and “toilet” probably every day, and the words “why” and “because” every second sentence. So in reality you only need to learn a few words, much less than you would expect. Just 100 words will get you much farther than you would imagine!
What I’m getting at is learning a language should be highly personalised, like going to the gym. A grandfather who is 100kg overweight and a 14 year old girl will have totally different training plans. It is the same with language. You can improve your progress exponentially this way.
Consider this as an example; my Swahili is slightly better than my Chinese. Why is this strange? Because I spent an entire year studying Chinese full time at a university in Shanghai, with professional teachers, exams, textbooks, countless hours of study, homework, class every day. With Swahili, I’ve only done around 50 hours of self-study while in Tanzania. How does 50 hours of self-study get better results than an entire year in a top university?
The answer; learn smarter. In my Chinese course we had to learn long lists of completely useless words, like mainframe and parliament. Not only that, I had to learn to write and read them in Chinese characters. That led to hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours spent learning words I might use once or twice a year. Imagine how silly it was that I could write the Chinese character for embassy, yet couldn’t order a simple cocktail at the bar.
When I started learning Swahili I wanted to be smarter. Because I didn’t have exams or teachers, I got to decide all my own material. I used my experience of studying Spanish and Chinese to help me strip the language down to the bare essentials, and create the most efficient language course, designed specifically for me. Not only did I learn faster and better, it was a lot more fun as well. Once I was able to converse about basic things, my vocabulary and understanding rocketed quickly just from everyday conversation.
The plan below will introduce you to this approach; how to get to a basic conversational level in just 7 days. I’m going to go through the steps using two languages; first, Spanish, as it’s a language familiar to many. But I’m also going to do this demonstration in Italian.
Why Italian? Because I’ve never learned a word of Italian in my life, I have no Italian friends and I’ve never even been to Italy. So this will be a perfect simulation of starting a language from absolute zero.
Note: This also that means some of my Italian below might (definitely) be wrong, so any Italians reading please chill. You can feel free to correct me in the comments too 🙂
Day 1: Numbers
Numbers are important because you use them for almost every activity (room numbers, bus fare, shopping, table for four, etc). Also it’s a nice, easy thing to start with.
We learn 1-10 to begin with. Anybody can do that in any language.
For most languages, 1-10 takes you a long way. For example, in Chinese if you can count to ten you can count to 99. And if you learn three more words (“hundred”, “thousand”, and “ten thousand”) you can count to a million. If you’re learning French however, counting to 100 is like an epic academic quest for enlightenment. So it all depends on the language. But we’re just worried about 1-10 for now.
So the first thing you will learn is:
If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, Google Translate has an audio option, too:
Counting to ten is a cool first thing to learn because you can kind of sing it to yourself over and over, in the shower, in the car, wherever you want. It’s like your new ABC’s. It sticks with you too – I can do it in maybe ten to fifteen different languages now, just from memory.
In reality you should be able to learn to count to ten in any language within 15-20 minutes. A nice surprise for me here was that Italian numbers are so similar to Spanish, which I did not know before! That made it an easy start.
Leave it there for Day 1.
Day 2: Greetings and basic words
Greetings are probably the thing you will use the most so it’s good to learn the most common ones. Whenever you walk into a restaurant, greeting your waiters at breakfast, the receptionist, even taxi drivers and strangers on the street. Also for Day 2 it’s a good idea to throw in some basic words that you will use all the time (please, thank you etc).
Here is a list of starting suggestions. I’d also encourage you to add your own!
|How are you?||Como estas?||Come va?|
|Good morning||Buenos dias||Buon giorno|
|Good night||Buenas noches||Buonanotte|
|Please||Por favor||Per Favore|
You may also be wondering where and how you find out all the translations for these lists. I’m just using Google Translate, but Google will give you all kinds of free online dictionaries etc. The resources online are endless – it shouldn’t be difficult.
I made a similar wordlist for Swahili recently and just asked a Tanzanian friend to sit down with me and translate everything – took maybe half an hour, so that’s another way to do it.
Day 3: Basic verbs
To populate this list, think of the verbs that you do every day. Don’t include verbs like “paint” and “sail” because you probably don’t do those things every day (unless you’re a painter or sailor). Remember, we’re trying to narrow things down to the most usable words. Limit your list to 20. Here’s a good starting list:
Bonus points: After you learn this list of verbs, you would get a lot more mileage out of them by learning how to conjugate. That just means instead of learning the verb in infinitive form (to eat) you could also learn how to say “I eat”, “You eat” etc.
For example in Spanish, the verb to eat is like so:
And a quick Google tells me that in Italian it is:
If this all sounds like gibberish to you then don’t worry, just learn the verbs as they are and speak broken to begin with. People will understand you. Also many of you would have studied conjugated languages in high school and already know how this works, so go ahead and spend a bit of time learning the basic forms (I, you, they). Of course this doesn’t apply to all languages.
Day 4: Basic nouns
Now it’s time to learn the objects we use every day. Food we eat, items we use, that kind of stuff. Here’s a good list to start:
|Food||la comida||il cibo|
|Drink||la bebida||la bevanda|
|Room||la habitación||la stanza|
|Restaurant||el restaurante||il ristorante|
|Bus||el autobús||il bus|
|Coffee||el café||il caffè|
|Tea||el té||il tè|
|Juice||el jugo||il succo|
|Beer||la cerveza||la birra|
|Supermarket||el supermercado||il supermercato|
|Brother||el hermano||il fratello|
|Sister||la hermana||la sorella|
|Taxi||el taxi||il taxi|
This list is the most open to customising. It’s important to learn things common in your life that may come up in conversation. For example if your favourite sports are boxing and surfing, add those words in. Learn how to say the name of your home country. If your favourite food is chicken and chips, add those too. If you’re a lawyer or engineer, add those, and so on.
Likewise you need to account for where you’re travelling to. If you’re going somewhere to surf, learn the words for ocean, beach, surfboard. If you’re going hiking, learn the words for boots, mountain etc.
This is what effective language learning is about. Instead of memorising any old word list, create your own. If you’re not a pilot and none of your family or friends are pilots, don’t learn the word for pilot! Minimise your workload.
For this list I’d set a word limit of about 25-30 words. At this point would be a good time to go back and start revising all your words from Day 1-3. You can forget them quite quickly.
Day 5: Common words
This list is all about words that come up in general day-to-day conversation. Did you know just 100 words in the English language make up 50% of all written material? There are maybe 250,000 words in the dictionary, but a small collection of 100 words make up 50% of your average book.
Unfortunately that doesn’t help us with our cause much; most of them are words like “be” and “the” and “that”, and obviously going around saying “be that the” in another language won’t do much for us. But the concept is a good one to follow. What are the keywords we most commonly use in general conversation?
|Sometimes||a veces||a volte|
This list is super important because many of these words will come up in day to day interactions. Asking for directions, asking questions, explaining things to people, pointing to things on a menu. You’ll be surprised how often you use the word “sometimes” or “there”. No matter which level of language you get to these words will always be useful – learn this list well!
Day 6: Basic phrases and replies
The interesting thing about languages is they are routine in many ways. For example, if someone asks “How are you?”, 90% of the time the reply will be “I’m good” or “I’m fine” (except in Australia, where they’ll say Yeeah yeah bloody good mate just watching the footy yew!)
Likewise in Swahili if you say “Mambo” to 100 people, 99 of them will reply “Poa”.
One thing new language speakers do is learn a bunch of words and phrases like “What’s the time?” and “How much is it?” but never prepare themselves for the answer! If you are anticipating an answer you will have a much higher chance of understanding it, even if they say it fast or mumble it. You will also be able to put together an answer if the same phrase is said to you.
Here are a few good examples to start with:
|How much is it?||Cuanto cuesta?||Quanto costa?|
|It’s twenty pesos/shillings||Veinte pesos||Venti euro
|What is your name?||Cual es tu nombre?||Come ti chiami?|
|My name is Batman||Mi nombre es Batman||Mi chiamo Batman|
|How old are you?||Cuantos anos tienes?||Quanti anni hai?|
|I am 20 years old||Tengo veinte anos||Ho vent’anni|
|Where are you going?||A dónde vas?||Dove vai?|
|I’m going to…||Estoy llendo a….||Andrò a…
|What are you doing?||Qué haces?||Cosa fai?|
|I am…(eating)||Estoy (comiendo)||Sto (mangiando)|
|Where is…(the dog)?||Dónde esta…(el perro?)||Dov’è… (il cane)?|
|It is…(inside the house)||Esta… (en casa)||È (in casa)|
|Do you like it?||Te gusta?||Ti piace?|
|Yes, I like it||Si, me gusta||Sì, mi piace
|How is it?||Cómo es?||Come è?|
|What’s the time?||Qué hora es?||Che ora è?|
|It’s 2 o clock||Son las dos||Sono le due|
|Who is he/she?||Quien es el?||Chi è lui?|
|She is (my sister)||Ella es (mi hermana)||Lei è (mia sorella)|
|I would like…||Quisiera…(por favor)||Vorrei…(per favore)
Day 7: Practice!
And that’s it.
If you learn everything above, you would have actually learned a few hundred words, will be able to say many basic day-to-day words and phrases, and will probably understand quite a few things said to you.
Take notes, write down the parts that you struggle with, revise revise revise.
Remember language is largely a practice and usage skill, meaning the more you use it the better you will get. Your knowledge also compounds, so while it may seem highly difficult at the start it will get much easier as you learn more words and phrases.
We’re also skimming the fat on a lot of work that goes into language. Most language schools try to educate you on all four skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking), and we’re instead focusing 90% on speaking. That’s going to decrease your learning time a lot without much downside at all (unless you plan on reading the newspaper every day or writing an essay).
Also remember, the above lists are just examples. Remove or add words/phrases to make the lists most usable for you, so they represent the things you most use/say in your everyday life. These lists are not complete – they are there for you to build on.
How much time will you need? The above shouldn’t take you more than 1-2 hours per day. I translated all the lists above into Italian in less than 30 minutes. It helped that it was so similar to Spanish and French (I didn’t expect that) but most romanised languages you should be able to do in similar time. Non-romanised languages like Thai or Chinese will take longer but not painfully so.
After that it’s just about putting in time. Keep it in a doc on your phone or if you’re old school like me write it on a notepad. Everything above will fit on one page. You can read it on the train or while you’re lying in bed at night. Remember there’s no super IQ needed here – it’s mostly just memorisation so anybody can do it.
The last and most important tip of all is: Speak! As soon you touch down in the country, use it every opportunity you can. Learning everything is useless if you never use it. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes (nobody is expecting you to be perfect), make it fun and use a few more of your words each day. I’ll admit it’s intimidating at the start, but after a few days you won’t be able to shut up.
Just a handful of hours and I promise you, your next trip will be a completely different experience.