How and Why to Learn a Foreign Language

There is no doubt that we travelers have a deeper experience of the place we are traveling when we are fluent in the local language. Without this fluency, much of what we experience in a foreign land is mysterious or misinterpreted. Greetings shouted in the streets, poetic graffiti on the sidewalks, overheard conversations in cafes — the non-fluent are closed off from these everyday artifacts of culture, unable to absorb the full spectrum of meaning that constantly surrounds us. Thus, unless we learn the local language, we will continue comprehending only a small margin of what we could be, and our interpretations are bound to be distorted.

Furthermore, it is not only the bombardment of meaning in the environment we are missing. We are also at a loss when it comes to the most practical everyday things. What we order from the menu is a mystery because we don’t understand the words, or the taxi driver is upset with us and we don’t understand why, or we are unable to ask directions to the train station.

One of the worst losses is the inability to understand and connect with people. One can understand another on a superficial level with facial expressions and hand gestures, but without a means for communication, the other person’s feelings and thoughts are inaccessible. Not to mention all the cultural proclivities and worldviews that are contained in a language’s unique expressions and turns of phrase.

All of that is lost if we are not conversant in the local language. Regardless of how deep we believe ourselves to be at penetrating a culture, we will forever be confined to the surface unless we begin to study and learn the language. It is the DNA of the people who speak it. The more conversant we become in that language, the more their world opens.

One can understand another on a superficial level with facial expressions and hand gestures, but without a means for communication, the other person’s feelings and thoughts are inaccessible.

And this is not to mention the apparent health benefits of knowing another language. According to a recent study, bilinguals suffer dementia onset an average of 4.5 years later than those who speak only a single language, a benefit that applies not only to those who suffer from Alzheimer’s, but also people with frontotemporal and vascular dementia. According to the authors of the study, “The constant need in a bilingual person to selectively activate one language and suppress the other is thought to lead to a better development of executive functions and attentional tasks with cognitive advantages being best documented in attentional control, inhibition, and conflict resolution.”

With so many benefits, you should ask yourself why you aren’t pursuing another language now. The richness that comes from being able to communicate fluently, or even to some degree, in the land where you are traveling is immeasurable, but to reach this level takes hard work, dedication, and a serious commitment of time — often many years, especially if the grammar of the language you’re seeking to learn is largely alien when compared to your own.

You must ask yourself what you are willing to sacrifice in return for the ability to speak your desired language. Many of us drain away hours each day on the internet, reading news stories that have little bearing on our lives, or procrastinating on Facebook. But imagine how much you could learn if you spent just an hour each day studying language. Your abilities would increase rapidly, and the more they increase the more thrilling the task of learning becomes.

Many of us drain away hours each day on the internet…But imagine how much you could learn if you spent just an hour each day studying language.

For those travelers who are looking for more than just a cursory journey through a particular place, who want to travel not only to a people’s land, but also into their culture, learning the local language is certainly the best route.

Where to begin

Advanced Language Class

The first step is to select the language you want to learn. There are a few practicalities to consider when making this decision. To begin with, you should consider your level of commitment and the resources available in your immediate environment. Say you live in Texas and want to learn Swahili. Okay, well, why? If you’re answer is just because, then your level of commitment might not be that strong. When the going gets tough, you are bound to abandon the task because knowing Swahili does not add much to your life.

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Perhaps a few of your friends speak Swahili. That’s better, but you’re unlikely to be speaking Swahili with them very often. If your spouse speaks Swahili, that’s a little better. You’ll always have someone around to speak Swahili with. But if they also speak English fluently, then it is unlikely that you’ll be talking much in Swahili.

But say you plan to live or spend long periods of time in a Swahili-speaking African nation. Here the situation is different. You have better incentives to learn. Plus you will often be in an environment where Swahili speakers surround you. In this case, you are far less likely to give up on your language-learning project. It is a sound choice.

What’s on offer

Intermediate Language Class

Now you must consider your options for learning in your particular location. If your language is Swahili, what sort of Swahili classes are offered in your community? Do native speakers teach them? Are there advanced as well as beginners’ classes? If not, what sort of classes are offered online? Are there Swahili clubs that meet in your area? Are there Swahili speakers that you will be able to interact with on a regular basis?

All of these questions are important if you plan to learn a language far from where it is spoken natively. The situation changes if you are currently in a Swahili-speaking nation where classes and Swahili speakers are readily available.

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The best route is immersion

Language Class at Zico House

The best way to learn a new language is by immersing yourself in a place where it is spoken. If your native language is English and you want to learn Spanish, the best way to do this is relocate, at least for a while, to a place where only Spanish is spoken. This will force you to learn. If you don’t learn you will be completely isolated, unable to buy things or ask questions or interact with anyone. In this environment you will learn almost regardless of what you do, and you will progress quickly, far more quickly than you would at home spending an hour each day looking at a Spanish textbook.

In this environment you will learn almost regardless of what you do, and you will progress quickly, far more quickly than you would at home spending an hour each day looking at a Spanish textbook.

Thus, the second option you should consider is how easily you can relocate, at least for a time, to an environment where you will be immersed in your chosen language. If you’re in Texas and want to learn Spanish, well, no need to move. But if you’re in Alaska and want to learn Tibetan, then that’s a little more difficult. You would have to relocate to Lhasa, which is extremely difficult due to restrictions placed on foreigners, or to a Tibetan refugee settlement in India. Neither are easy tasks. The difficulty of such relocations should be considered if your desire is to become fully fluent in your chosen language.

Teaching yourself

Now that you’ve considered which language you want to learn and why, as well as your options for relocating to a full-immersion environment, you should now consider what options and techniques are available for you to learn on your own.

Many of the world’s most-spoken languages offer a wide array of language-learning books or interactive software that allow you to teach yourself. Browsing your local bookstore will give you an idea of what’s on offer, or a quick Google search will bring up plenty of options available online, a number of which can be downloaded for free. Pick one or two and dedicate yourself to their system. If, after a month or two, you find that you’re making only minimal progress, seek out another program. Check online for reviews of each system.

Outside of what these programs offer, a highly effective means of increasing language vocabulary is note cards. Each time you encounter a new word, write it on a note card with its English translation on the back. Say you’re learning Spanish. At first, have the Spanish side of the card facing you. When you have mastered its English equivalent, flip it over and shuffle it back into the pile, so that the following morning the English translation is facing you. When you know the word both ways, remove it from the pile and add more. Also, read each word out loud, to get the pronunciation in your mouth. You can also carry the cards around with you, to practice on the train or in waiting rooms. With this method your vocabulary will be increased immensely.

Language exchanges

Spanish Tutoring Center

Once you reach a conversational level in your chosen language, it is then best to seek out language clubs, or other people interested in doing a language exchange. Most major cities have language clubs, many of which meet on a weekly basis so that learners and speakers can come together, eat dinner, and interact in the language they love or wish to learn or teach. Spanish clubs, French clubs, Chinese clubs — there are many available, and an online search might bring up a few in your area. You can also consult the forums of online websites such as, where many such clubs and meetings are listed.

Another option is to arrange a one-on-one language exchange. As a native English-speaker, you have an enormous advantage here, as there are so many people from other languages who are looking to learn or improve their English. Websites such as or Craigslist are great places to arrange such languages exchanges, as are ads posted at nearby universities.

If for some reason you’re unable to arrange a one-on-one language exchange with someone in your area, you can try arranging one online via websites such as Here you’ll find a list a people online at any given time who want to converse in a particular language, or do a language exchange. It’s very easy to connect with them. All you need to do is verify that their online in the chat room and press a button and you are connected, practicing your desired language with a living human being, often on the other side of the world, without leaving your bedroom.

All of these are great techniques to learn on your own, but if you’re seeking fluency, you will eventually need to put yourself in an environment where your desired language is spoken natively. If your language of choice happens to be French or Swedish, this can be extremely costly. Luckily, going to Paris to learn French is not your only option.

Best places to learn on a budget


When choosing where to take a language course in an immersion environment, language purity and budget are the two main factors to consider. Language purity is a pretty straightforward decision. Although no language dialect is objectively any better than any other, it is important to study in the dialect you plan to be speaking. For instance, if you plan to live and work in Egypt, you should learn Egyptian Arabic, as learning Moroccan Arabic will do you little good.

The second factor to consider is your budget. If you have loads of cash at your disposal, then living in Paris and studying Parisian French at $65 an hour for a private lesson may not sound like such a bad idea. But most of us don’t have that sort of money. In that case, paying $11 an hour for a private French lesson in Senegal sounds much more appealing.

For one-on-one language study, here are a few alternative destinations you might want to consider for some of the world’s most-widely spoken languages.

Spanish: Ecuador – Although Ecuadorian Spanish is not as pure as the Spanish spoken in Colombia or Spain, the Latin Spanish you learn in Ecuador is only slightly different, and the price of one-on-one Spanish classes is one of the lowest in the world, averaging around $5 per hour, with decent budget accommodation as low as $5 per night. You’ll find loads of language schools at every major town in the country.

French: Senegal – Senegal inherited the French language from colonial times, when France ruled it. Today it is the country’s official spoken language, meaning you can experience an immersion environment at a fraction of the cost. Expect to pay $11-$25 an hour for private lessons, and around $500 per month for budget private accommodation.

Arabic: Egypt – The Arabic spoken is different regions can vary to such a degree that it would be better to talk about ‘Arabics’ rather than a single monolithic Arabic. But if you’ve decided to take on this difficult language, the obvious place to study is Egypt, given that Egyptian Arabic, so to speak, is the lingua franca of the Arabic-speaking world and can be understood nearly everywhere due to the ubiquity of Egyptian films and music. For private lessons, there is a pretty wide range in what you’ll pay, going as low as $10 and as high as $60 per hour. For budget accommodation, expect to pay around $400 per month.

Russian:  Kyrgyzstan – You may have to travel to an obscure, tiny landlocked former Soviet Republic in the middle of Central Asia to get here, but considering the money and hassle you’ll save by studying Russian outside of Russia, Kyrgystan is definitely worth it. Russian is one of the official languages of Kyrgyzstan, with a large amount of city-dwellers speaking it as their main language of business.  In addition, Russian in Kyrgyzstan is more by the book, as many Kyrgyz do not learn it until they enter school.  For a one-on-one, intense immersion program in Bishkek, expect to pay around $4 per hour, with monthly accommodation ranging from $200-$400 per month.

To learn more about learning while traveling, check out the following resources:

manifesto - value interactions


Photo credits: US NavyJames EmeryMigrant Workers Task ForceShane GlobalShane GlobalTulane Public Relations



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