Gaining foreign vocabulary for travel

I’m always mystified when I meet travelers who don’t know a single word of the language for the country they’re visiting. No one expects you to be fluent, but at least learn some of the important words like “thank you.” And with all the technology available at our fingertips, there’s really no excuse to not have at least some local vocabulary for your visit. Here are just some of the tools available to you.

Vocabulary--Russian in Vietnam


For trying to learn how to communicate a bit more, there are some great websites that are very user friendly. My two personal favorites are Livemocha and Duolingo.

Livemocha is a bit more involved and is a paid site. If you’re interested in signing up, make sure to check the discount sites like Groupon and LivingSocial. I used the latter and found a major discount for them.

The site uses a multimedia approach to language instruction including videos with native speakers so you can hear the accents and what a phrase actually sounds like when used. In addition, you have opportunities to do role plays which you record and submit to native speakers for their critique.

You can use points you earn through various methods for getting feedback or help from an instructor, too.

I like their community approach, and it’s really helpful to be able to have a native speaker evaluate my accent and grammar and give me helpful advice.

Duolingo is free. While less intensive than Livemocha, I really like their approach. You will listen to recorded sentences from a native speaker and usually have the option to slow them down as well. It’s nice to be able to listen for each word slowly followed by hearing the same phrase repeated in a normal pace like one would hear in a store or something.

This site uses a natural language learning technique. I was a bit dubious at first, but since we’re going to Vienna I figured I’d try it out for picking up more German than I already know. So far I’ve been pretty impressed. During the units, after you’ve translated something or answered a question, you can connect to a discussion forum within the website. I have found it very helpful for understanding, for example, why a word becomes neutral (versus masculine or feminine) when it’s a plural.

Because of its simple design, Duolingo is also easier to use on a mobile device which makes learning a lot more flexible.

Livemocha offers more languages than Duolingo, but I would suggest Duolingo as a first approach.

Translation sites and apps

Google Translate is one of my best friends for travel. While it may not always be spot-on for translations, it’s pretty handy for looking up basic terminology. For many languages, you can click on the speaker symbol and hear how a word is pronounced (in the red circle).

If you are signed into Google, you can also store words you’ve translated in your own phrasebook (green circle). If you aren’t sure what language a word is from, just type it in, click Detect language (blue circle), and it will translate it and tell you the source language.


Obviously, no machine translation is going to be perfect, but it’s a ginormous help.

For your smart phone, there are lots of dictionaries you can download that will work offline. When I’m going somewhere new, I usually download a bilingual dictionary so I can look up things while in the grocery store, restaurant, etc.

These don’t always have every word, and the dictionaries may not be helpful when you have a whole phrase to look up like “I’d like a carafe of water.” For this, I use a free app called Talking Translator/Dictionary (I have an Android phone and am not sure if this particular app is available for iPhones). You will need to be connected to WiFi or 3G, but it’s a very simple translation app that has a huge range of languages available. I think it actually taps into Google’s service.

Like Google’s translation service, it also offers a feature so you can hear how to pronounce something. Alternatively, you can translate something, hold it up for the person you’re talking to, and hit the speaker icon so they can hear how something is properly pronounced. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used this feature alone!

learning vocabulary

Tips for learning

Some people learn languages more easily than others. If you have already learned at least one foreign language, your brain is already primed for learning additional ones, so it will be easier to pick them up. For some people, it’s an absolute chore. If you fall into the latter category, don’t worry! Even just knowing a few words, or having a list readily available, can make a huge difference. If you’re traveling with kids, teach them a few basics as well. I love seeing someone’s face absolutely light up with joy when Tigger says “thank you” in the local language. I usually always make sure he knows “thank you” and “toilet” in the foreign language.

Generally speaking, people are so happy you’re trying that they will be patient and helpful. But even if you do end up running into a few jerks, at least you tried! And that means something. I’m significantly amazed when I run into an expat who has been living in a country for years and can barely communicate at all, or even worse than I can!

  • Use word association. Connect words you’re learning with things that will help you remember them. Orange (the fruit) is the same word in several languages. While I’ve been working on my German, I find some of their articles to be confusing (der, die, das?) So I try to find something that will make it easier for me to remember. So, die Zitrone (the lemon) becomes “Die lemon!” for me. It’s silly, so it’s memorable. Kind means child. “Be kind to children.”
  • Use it! I know it can be embarrassing, believe me! But learn to laugh at yourself. Don’t be shy. Just use as much of the language as you can. People may correct you, they may laugh (so hard that they almost fall off their chair), they may switch to English, or they’ll figure it out and just go with the flow. No matter. The more you use it, the more comfortable you’ll be.
  • Don’t focus too hard on perfecting the pronunciation at first. It’s more important to learn the right word and usage (the word for “excuse me” may change depending on the context). Most of the time they can work out what you meant even if it wasn’t pronounced correctly. Caveat: This doesn’t work with tonal languages (like Mandarin) as the same word pronounced differently could actually have 8+ different meanings.
  • Likewise, don’t kill yourself over proper grammar. I needed an irrigation syringe for my ear. Instead of walking into the pharmacy and saying “I need an ear irrigation syringe” in Romanian, I said basically “syringe irrigator ear.” She knew exactly what I meant. If you’re aiming at fluency, you’ll have time to perfect your grammar. But for travel, often just having the basics is more than enough for communication, and they’ll be appreciative you even bothered.
  • If possible, try to do as much immersion as you can. Read books or news articles in the target language. Listen to music and watch TV programs, etc., in the target language. It really helps develop your ear. If you use Chrome as your browser, this extension can be really helpful, too. While visiting a page with this extension, it will translate some of the page into the target language. When you hover over the sentence, it shows you the English version. It takes some extra time, but it can be quite helpful, especially if you’re trying to develop fluency.
  • While trying to learn more words, it can be helpful to label objects around the house in the new language. It acts as a type of immersion. When you want a plate, say aloud the target word for plate, or say “I want a plate” aloud in the new language.
  • When reading articles or websites in the target language, try to read it aloud. This really helps your fluidity with the language, can help improve your accent, and helps you put things together more easily.
  • Some good basics to know: thank you, please, goodbye, taxi, bus, train, restaurant, water (you may need to know the words for water with or without bubbles/carbonation), toilet, help. Obviously, the more you know the better.
  • Dedicate at least 30 minutes every day to learning and practice.

What techniques do you use to pick up new vocabulary before travel or when learning a new language?

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  1. Great, informative post, Talon.

    I’m big believer in learning at least a few words. Certainly “Please” and “Thank you” are tops on the list. And often on vacation you don’t need perfect grammar–you just want to get your point across. (I have found saying the word for “toilet” and rolling my eyes and squirming will typically get someone to point to the bathroom!).

    The most useful phrase for me is, “I’m sorry I don’t speak (whatever the native language is)”. Generally people are so happy that I’ve tried, that they go out of their way to communicate.

    In the past I’ve had great success in the past with the “[Language] in 10 Minutes a Day” series by Kristine Kershul, which I’ve used for Russian, Italian, German and French. It’s an old-style workbook, but addresses learning the language in a very natural format. The book stresses learning simple phrases and basics, and building your vocabulary upon that. It also comes with little stickers to put all over your house, like you mentioned above. (Pardon me, could you pass me a “taryelka”?)

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    • Sometimes I get around the “I’m sorry I don’t speak [the language]” by just learning how to say English in the local language. For example, here in Romania when people come up and start rattling off in Romanian and I have no clue what is being said or asked, I just sheepishly ask “Engleza?” They get the point. lol

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  2. The language sites sound great, and your advice is smart and to the point. (I was given two months of Berlitz before moving to Tokyo — hopeless, in other words; the only way to conquer the language barrier was to study a lot more once I arrived — and talk, no matter how embarrassing.) Nice post.

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  3. I have been using Duolingo near enough every day since August in a desperate attempt to learn Spanish. I still feel like I can’t really say anything 🙁 But I am sure this has more to do with my ineptitude with the language than the platform. I only learned German at school so I have no experience with romance languages, and Spanish makes zero sense to me. I think I need some kind of intensive course – which I guess could be fun.

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    • I found Spanish to be quite easy, and German often gives me a headache. When it comes to word genders, Spanish is so simple and obvious. French is pretty easy, too. German seems to have no real rhyme or reason sometimes. LOL But I do find it interesting how many words sound very similar to English.

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  4. Great tips, Talon! And I’m completely with you – who goes to a country and doesn’t learn how to say ‘thank you’ in the local language?

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  5. I speak Spanish fluently and teach upper level English (as well as the babies). My best advice is to stop fretting if you get it wrong – this helped me improve my Spanish immensely. One of my teachers told me that, to learn a new word, you must hear it 21 times and say it 7, so get repeating! I recycle and recycle vocabulary with my little kids every day and wonder how they don’t get bored!

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    • Yep! And it doesn’t take hours a day, either. I think one of the big obstacles for people is fear of saying something wrong. It’s usually no big deal. Sure, you might ask a waitress for a blowjob instead of a lemon, but in the end she knows what you really meant, and you gave them a good laugh.

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  6. We always try to learn at least hello goodbye and thank you wherever we go. It is amazing the positive reactions you get from these simple words and a smile

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    • Yes, indeed! In KL I had offered to take a group’s photo for them by a fountain. Afterward she said thank you in Bahasa and quickly corrected herself to English. I replied “you’re welcome” in Bahasa, and they all stared at me, their mouths agape. “You speak Bahasa?!” LOL Just a few words. It seemed to absolutely make their day. They always say thank-yous go a long way, but when they’re in the local language, it goes that much more further.

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  7. great article Talon. I totally agree and you’ve referenced some great resources.

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  8. LOVE these resources! Also, libraries often have language programs for free – rosetta stone, etc.

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    • Excellent point about libraries! We did that when we were studying Thai. Got some language CDs and put them in the car while we were driving to and from school and things. They’re great resources.

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  9. I write the words I am working on, especially if it is a language that has a different alphabet. I have always known that I am a visual learner, but I think there is both a component of the physical action and greater focus that accelerates my retention. You already include this with labeling items in the home, but I do writing practice along with audio programs and at separate times too. I like all your tips, though, and my writing of words may be focused on a more thorough long-term retention of the language than for traveling.

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    • Yes, everyone learns differently. It’s important to do what works best for you, and to try new things to see if one is more successful than another.

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