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Just Enough To Get By: Learning The Language Minimum

Traveling to a foreign country soon? No matter how hard you try, chances are, there’s no way you’ll be able to study the language enough to come anywhere close to being fluent. But you don’t really need to be fluent, especially if you’re only staying a short while. You can learn just enough to get by and make a good trip of it.

How Much Study Time You Need

For learning survival phrases, you don’t really need a lot of time. I’ve known people who literally memorize “just enough to get by” during their flights to the foreign country and managed to build a sufficient vocabulary to make their way from the airport to the hotel communicating with locals pretty decently.

If you want to get around town after your first night, though, you’ll probably need to invest a little more time learning new phrases. We recommend doing at least an hour of work each day for at least a week, memorizing crucial phrases and sentences for general interactions. Just make sure you practice speaking them as much as you can — both to improve your pronunciation and sharpen your recall.

Learn To Say “Do You Speak English?” In The Local Language

Make this the first thing you learn. Learning how to ask people if they speak your language will be very helpful to you. For one, there’s always plenty of English speakers in most any place now, so there’s a good chance you’ll come across one or two that do. For another, it never hurts to ask.

Why not just ask in English? In all honesty, it’s rude. You’re a visitor and you’re forcing locals to speak your language? The least you can do is learn how to ask in their language. People are likely to be more amicable this way.

Put Priority On Important Words

Think “urgency” when deciding on which words and phrases you will learn. Let’s say you’re running late for the most important job interview of your life. On the way out the door, you realize you haven’t eaten breakfast. Would you really stop, go into the kitchen, and fix yourself a sandwich before leaving? Unless you’re dying from hunger, getting a bite isn’t really that urgent at that point. You get into your car and it won’t start. Do you call the mechanic to get serviced or find another way to get to that interview quickly? Of course, you go for the urgent thing. You decide to call a cab and tell the driver to hit the gas hard, promising to tip generously. On the way, you notice a stain on your pants. Do you go back home to change or do you simply plod on?

The same thing holds true when choosing the words and phrases you’re going to learn. You want to focus on what’s essential for the trip — the ones you need to actually survive while there. For example, learning the equivalent of “where” (so you can go, “where airport?” and “where hospital?”) is considerably more important than learning local greetings and pleasantries. Sure, learning how to say “Good morning” is great, but wouldn’t you rather memorize “I’m lost, please help” first?

In a nutshell, make a point of prioritizing those that you will need most during the trip. There’s a reason why they’re called “survival phrases” — there’s a good chance you could get in serious trouble if you don’t learn them.

Stick With The Essentials

Don’t bother venturing outside the essentials. For your purposes as a very short-term tourist, mastering the essentials will be more fruitful than gaining an expanded vocabulary. The more time you give to studying non-essentials, the less time you give to mastering your barebones survival skills. And that can hurt you in the end.

There are too many potential situations that you can get into as a tourist. Trying to account for them all within a short time frame isn’t just overreaching, it’s practically impossible. You’ll be shooting yourself in the foot that way.

Learn The Gestures

Gestures and body signals are usually easier to learn than language, so do some research on the common physical gestures in the culture. In some countries, nodding your head might mean a negative answer, while it means a positive one in yours. That kind of confusion can get in the way of even the most basic communication situations.

Learn how people talk. Do they prefer you to be in their face? Or to keep your space? This can vary from culture to culture, so brush up on how it works in where you’re going. Doing so can remove a lot of awkwardness once you’re in the country, trying to ask strangers where that massage parlor with the blonde girls are. Or even when asking something less risqué.

Outside of the gestures you learn, make frequent use of hand signals, as most of them tend to be universal. More times than not, they’ll allow you to communicate things you couldn’t otherwise put into words.

Learning Materials

If you have a language software on your computer, there’s a good chance it includes a whole section for survival phrases. Look for that, print out the suggested items to study and memorize them. Don’t bother doing the step-by-step lessons for now. At this point, you’re not really trying to learn the language — you’re just looking for a patch-up job to help you get by for a short period.

A phrasebook will probably be handy, especially a small one that you can keep in your jeans pocket. Forget dictionaries. You want to learn phrases you can use on the spot, not individual words you’d have to string together.

If you can find a phrasebook app for the target language, that’s even better, as you can have the reference in your phone for easy access the whole time. A tip for those using smartphones: don’t rely on online phrasebooks, as you never know the kind of internet access you will get abroad. Even if they have 3G and LTE networks available, it could cost you huge amounts, so always look for a phrasebook that will work seamlessly offline.

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