Learning the local language for expats and digital nomads
Fitting in language learning in your life as a digital nomad or a long term traveler is not an easy task. Learning a new language is a big undertaking which requires time and money. However, incorporating learning a new language with your planned travel schedule, makes a lot of sense. In this article I’ll talk about the benefits of learning languages while traveling as a digital nomad, how to decide what language to learn, tips for getting started, and methods to keep in touch with the language and continue improving it, even after you moved to a new place.
Travel creates some positive urgency for learning the local language since you know you will be using it extensively soon. Personally, I give languages a big importance in my life since the benefits they provide me with are incredibly rewarding. I speak Hebrew, English and Spanish fluently, and can get by in Arabic. I’m now working on leaning Russian and hope to go back to practicing Chinese soon. I’m fascinated by languages so much that I co-founded LingoLearn.com, an online language school where you can learn over 20 languages with a private tutor in a virtual classroom.
So why do I think you should start learning languages while traveling as a digital nomad?
The Benefits of Learning a New Language
Magical random moments with Locals. Your day to day communications and social life will gain greatly from knowing the local language. Even if you are not fluent, there is still a lot of opportunities for fun interaction with locals which will allow you to venture and communicate, instead of just just hanging out with tourists who speak your language. Some of the most interesting people you will meet along the way, for example, the elderly and people who are not tech savvy only speak their local language. Therefore, speaking any level of the local language will make a big difference allowing you to communicate and share moments with the local population.
Deeper connections and local friends. Other than just random encounters with locals during your travels, taking your language learning to an advanced level can greatly expand your social circle and allow you to meet and hang out with local friends while traveling. The better you speak a language, the more opportunities you have to end up with a new lifelong friend, or even a relationship. Some of my best friends in South America with whom I maintain contact until today could only have happened because I speak Spanish fluently.
Save time and money. The more you know the local language, the more you will a savvy traveler. You’ll make less mistakes while booking transportation and accommodation and will be able to communicate while asking for direction. Knowing the local language will also allow you to shop around, compare and bargain for better options. This will result in making you happier, feel more independent and in control and reduce travel fatigue and frustration which in many cases results from not being able to communicate well, or misunderstandings due to language gaps. Although learning a language can sometimes sum up to quite a financial expense, the money and time it will save you will most likely far outweigh the costs you have invested in learning the language.
New activities to Explore. Knowing the language can help you find for exciting new activities that are usually only accessible to locals. The ability to read ads, local magazines and communicate with locals can result in some unique opportunities that tourists cannot usually tap into.
Staying out of trouble. When you speak the language, you look less like a tourist and attract less attention as a foreigner who are usually an easier target for troublemakers. Knowing the local language will not only avoid getting you into dubious situations, but allow you to deal with those better as they occur by the ability to communicate and ask for help.
Networking. It’s much easier to find new business connections and opportunities while traveling, when you know the local language.
Sign of respect. When locals see that you took the time to learn their language, they’ll be more welcoming and appreciating. I personally think that even you are not aiming to become a fluent speaker, the bare minimum that is expected from travelers is to know a few basic words such as hello, please, thank you. It takes minutes to learn a few basic words, and will make a real positive impact.
Keep your brain active. Your brain is a muscle which deserves exercise. Just like you spend time every day jogging or swimming to stay fit, learning a language will keep your mind sharp and has actually shown to increase the size of your brain!
How Much to Invest in Learning a Language?
When contemplating if learning a language is worth the effort, here are some of the factors you should consider:
The more people and countries speak it, the better. Knowing that a language is popular and widely spoken will increase your motivation to learn it, since you’ll have plenty of opportunities to use this skill in the future. A good example for such a language is English, of course. Spanish is also great since it is spoken in many countries and Chinese makes sense since it is spoken by many people.
The more you like it, the better. Learning a language is a long and difficult process. If you don’t love the sound of it, it’ll be hard to persist.
The more connected you are to the country where they speak it, the better. If you have business connections, a family or friends, it makes a lot more sense for you to invest the time to get proficient in a language.
The less English they speak in that country, the better. Meaning, if people hardly speak any English in Russia, for example, it makes more sense for you to learn Russian, as this will be your only form of communication there. If a local population speaks perfect English, it takes a lot of the motivation to learn the language, as you can easily get by without it.
The more similar languages you know, the better. For example, if you want to learn Spanish, and you already speak Italian, it’ll be a lot easier for you and you’ll advance a lot faster. Languages come in families and share the same origins as others, so picking a language that already builds on previous knowledge makes perfect sense!
The easier it is to learn it, the better. Languages vary in difficulty. For example, Hungarian is very hard to study, while Spanish is relatively easy.
We will conclude by saying that without deciding on the level you want to reach, your efforts of learning a new language will not amount to much. You will probably need to strategically plan the time allocations, methods and money you wish to invest in order to increase the chances of reaching the level you aspire to. I personally prefer to either know only the very basics, or take it as a serious project and try to achieve full proficiency.
General Tips for Learning a New Language
Focus. Learn one language at a time, and keep the others on “maintenance-mode”. This means that you should do the bare minimum to not forget the other languages you know, while putting all your efforts in learning the new one. Actively learning more than one language in the same time will confuse you and delay your efforts.
Incorporate it in your life. Once you’ve reached an above-basic level, try weaving in the language in your daily activities and habits. I switch to reading magazines in the language I learn, and even hire people who speak the language to work with me on my projects.
Concentrate on what’s important. In the beginning, you only need to know the critical grammar and the words that are relevant for travel. Don’t be a perfectionist, and focus on what you need the most for your day to day life. With time, as you master those words and basic sentences, you can build upon them and reach the next level. I recommend documenting the new important words and grammar you learn in a notebook and go over it when you can.
Don’t be shy. Use every chance you get while traveling to practice the language. Sometimes people will make fun of you, there’s nothing you can do about it. You need let go of your ego and be willing to make mistakes, as practice is the only way to advance.
How to Learn and Improve a language While Traveling
- If you don’t have the time for a full scale course, find a private tutor and meet them frequently for one on one lessons. This will also contribute to your social life as you will have a new friend.
- If you have more time and money, register for a full course that will not only allow you to have a structured process of learning, but will also enrich your social life meeting other students and teachers. If you have the time and money, you can join a total immersion program, which includes staying with a local family to practice with.
- Go to a smaller city, where the locals don’t speak English well. You’ll simply have to “learn how to swim” by trial and error, but before you do, try getting to a level that will allow you to communicate the basics, since starting from scratch in a place you can’t communicate with people can be quite challenging and frustrating.
- Find friends with a low level of English. When two people speak different languages, they usually settle on the language that’s easiest for both to understand. That’s a good reason to try to reach a level that will allow you to switch the conversation to the language you are learning. Better yet, the total immersion and one of the most efficient methods of learning a language is by starting a relationship with someone with whom you can practice it!
How to Get Started learning Remotely before arriving to your destination?
When figuring out the best way to learn a language remotely, it’s important to say that we are all different, and there is no one method that is the most effective. I enjoy learning by listening, others like reading, while some prefer writing or speaking. You need to know yourself and what works for you. Motivate yourself to spend the time to learn before arriving to your destination, since you will not be able to practice and communicate until you learn the basics. That means you will lose a lot of time you could have been practicing with locals while trying to figure out the basics. Here are some of the recommended tools for learning a language:
- Pimsleur– it’s a bit expensive but it’s my winner. Those are basically high quality audio kits with hundreds of lessons that you can listen to while walking or driving.
- 50 Languages– another good audio solution that is lower in quality in comparison to Pimsleur, but free!
- Duolingo– it’s a free app that allows you to practice your language with different exercises gradually increasing the level of difficulty according to your performance. There are other apps out there with similar features such as Babbel and Memrise.
- Downloading podcasts – most languages have many podcasts for beginners. Try to search for “learn ….” on iTunes, and you’ll get plenty of results.
- italki– A website which connects students with teachers of many languages, which is relatively cheap.
- Lingolearn– a structured online course plan, which may be a bit more expensive but also structured with a virtual classroom and teaching materials. The success of this method is based on the commitment you created with the teacher, and by purchasing a package which pushes you into completing your course.
How to Maintain your level after going back from your travels
- Keep on using the apps and services mentioned above, most are allowing to reach very advanced levels.
- Keep in touch with the friends you have made by writing and Skyping.
- Incorporate the language with your work. Hire virtual assistants and team members with whom you have regular talks, try to work on projects which connect to the language you have learned.
- Opt for books, newsletters and magazines in the language you want to maintain.
- Listen to radio and music and watch movies.
Languages are an incredible thing to know and learn, so try and venture outside your comfortable native tongue. Technology can be great with helping you while you travel (like Google Translate), but it will probably take a few good years before it will offer a real substitute to being proficient in a language, especially when you want to have a genuine conversation with locals. Learning languages while traveling as a digital nomad can be both fun and beneficial and will make you grow as a person, so don’t miss out.