Learning Languages for Travel – A Few Words About a Few Words

Learning Languages for Travel is a great way of getting in touch with locals. Here’s how to learn some basic vocabulary for your trips by using babbel.com

Finger turning a mini globe
Travelling around the world is so much more rewarding when you have at least rudimentary knowledge of the local language.

Considering that at least in Germany babbel.com is advertising a lot, to my surprise, I don’t know anybody actually learning with this online tool. Anybody but me that is. And I will tell you why I love using it.

I’m just coming back from a very hard language course in Rio de Janeiro that I took on the occasion of my education leave. Hence, I’d like to encourage you to get a basic knowledge of the language spoken in the country you are travelling. Even it’s it just a couple of basic words and expressions.

Man selling Cangas on the Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
Agree, agreed: Learning Portuguese about one mile from the beach of Copacabana might be a bit more entertaining than learning it at home in front of your computer – but it’s way more expensive, too.

Coming back from a country where not too many people speak some basic English, I’d like to sort of urge you to get a basic knowledge of…you got the drill.

Practicing is not Learning

No kidding, nobody will ever learn a language using babbel. Learn in the sense of I speak it, I read it, I understand native speakers.

Depending on which language you are dealing with on babbel, you hardly learn any grammar. You get to listen to very few whole sentences. You hardly ever engage in any form of conversation. Practically every key to having command of a language is missing.

a few words about learning a few words. bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels
Depending on the language you are practicing, there are some basic dialogues. Before they abolished the individual vocable database, you were able to keep this additional vocabulary there, too. Let’s hope they re-install this great feature soon.

When I told my Portuguese teacher in Rio de Janeiro that I was practicing my basic knowledge of the language on babbel, she only rolled her eyes. Well, she is an excellent teacher with very high standards.

But – and this but does not only have a capital B because it’s at the beginning of this sentence, this but is a but with a capital B because there’s the other side of babbel: It’s a great tool for you savvy traveller who wants to say thank you and please and good morning and pleased to meet you and bread and water like the local people do! And for this basic knowledge of a language, babbel is just great because it has exactly what you need.

Group of people at Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, the Melting Pot of Asia
Instant friendship (and a blurry picture): A simple “selamat malam” (= good evening) impressed these lovely ladies from Jakarta, vacationing in Kuala Lumpur, so much that they insisted on lots of information – and a couple of pictures.

Start Small’n’Simple

It starts with a really basic vocabulary such as good morning, good night, thanks etc. You are practicing these with pictures on little tiles; makes you feel like a toddler learning to speak.

But since the system is based on your brain relating to these pictures and thus visualizing the word and its meaning as well as on lots of repetitions, it actually works and makes remembering really easy.

a few words about learning a few words. bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels
Using these little pictures makes it easy to grasp. But take it from me: Every time someone asks you “A quelle heure?”, you’ll see these colorful clocks before your inner eye.

But exactly this effect is at the same time an obstacle: Try to remember the stupid word without the picture – you’ll feel like having a hole in your brain; you know exactly what it is…but what is it again?

Anyway, I will not discourage you, when you learn only a handful of words and expressions, it works really well.

How It Works

So before you try it out, here are some information: Surprise – you need to set up an account. There is a free trial of the first lesson and this might even be all you need. But watch it: If you happen to have a thing for languages, you get hooked pretty fast. For a trip to Bali, I started with the free Indonesian lesson. As a matter of fact, I got immediately addicted and wanted more and more.

You can choose how long you want to learn. The monthly costs are between 4,95 € if you subscribe for a year and 9,95 € for only one month. With the paid version you have access to all kinds of topics. Some are really useful being designed for travel and meeting the people.

I practiced Indonesian for maybe about one month and learned really a lot.
But actually everything beyond the standard pleasantries was pretty useless and, as I explained above, out of context. Also, without the corresponding pictures, you remember only a part of what you have practiced.
Remember: You have practiced, you didn’t learn.

However, the useful pleasantries are absolutely worth it. People in Bali, in Malaysia, and Singapore were amazed that I was able to say a couple of words.

bonjour – buongiorno – dzień dobry

Babbel offers 14 languages: English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Turkish, and Indonesian.

You can choose whether you want to repeat the words over a microphone or only klick on tiles or type the words.

Besides Portuguese, I’ve practiced Indonesian and Turkish, and the choice was surprisingly different. Turkish offers a much wider range of lessons including much more grammar and even short dialogues. Indonesian is basically a long list of vocabulary and a couple of sentences.

Unfortunately, they abolished my favorite feature where you were able to add your own vocabulary to your personal database. I hope they will re-install it since it was so helpful and fun.

You Don’t Need to Be an A-Student

But anyway, even as it is now, it’s a great and easy tool. If on your next trip you want to impress and get right into people’s hearts, give it a try, it’s so much fun. Try it out right now!

People learning online
Learning online can be great fun. However, nothing can replace personal interaction.

And remember: The best way to actually learn (!) a language is to….travel! 

Therefore, I learned Italian in Milan, Rome, and Florence, Turkish in Izmir, Portuguese in Rio de Janeiro, and Arabic in the capital of Morocco Rabat.

So, if you have any questions regarding travellers’ communication, I’d be very happy to hear from you.

How about you, do you learn some local vocabulary when travelling?

How do you do it? What are your sources?

Pinnable Pictures

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Note: I’m completing, editing, and updating this post regularly – last in January 2023.

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40 Replies to “Learning Languages for Travel – A Few Words About a Few Words”

  1. I have been surfing online for more than 3 hours today, yet I by no means discovered any attention-grabbing article like yours. In my view, if all webmasters and bloggers made excellent content material as you did, the net will be a lot more helpful than ever before.

  2. I also found learning the phrases useful for conversing with other english speaking travellers, they are all very interested with the Vietnamese I’ve learnt and want to learn some themselves.

    1. Yes, Vietnamese is certainly an interesting language to learn – but then…I’m interested in learning basically every language 😀 😉

  3. I've never used Babbel before, but I'll certainly give it a look. I tend to get basic phrases from the guidebooks, but I do always try and learn some basic phrases and I have rudimentary French, Spanish and German so I try and get by a little. It is polite to do when visiting a new country!

  4. I have not taken any language classes in maybe 20 yrs or more and that time it was French. As much as I loved learning the grammar and pronunciation I always felt very awkward when I tried to pronounce the words correctly. I realized that it was probably the same way non-English speakers feel when they know the language but refuse to speak it. As far as possible I try to learn greetings and thank you in the language of the place I visit. If there is a communication barrier I find it helps to speak Afrikaans because then they feel more competent to speak English to me.

  5. I love learning languages before I travel but I prefer resources that I can pay a fixed price and use at my leisure, taking a few months and then coming back to it if I want. The subscription novel isn't appealing to me. But I like that they have some free offerings too.

  6. This sounds pretty cool. I know we have a program that teaches languages through the library system. I have learned a bit using it, especially in limited situations. But I understand your teachers disdain about not trying to learn the whole language.

  7. Wow I learn a new language tool today and I thank you. Yeah by travelling we can learn many things including new words and language. I even learned basic Hokkien words during my frequent travel to Hong Kong.

  8. It is really useful to learn a few basics of the language of the region that you are traveling to. Nowadays with the proliferation of technology and apps it is quite convenient to learn at the least a few common phrases. Of course the best way to learn a language is to travel.

  9. Glad to be introduced to Babble. I think it just might make the locals warm up to me quickly for they love it when you can speak their language. Of course, practicing it with them is also, what makes it better. Thanks for the post

  10. I struggle with learning languages. I tend to over think the lessons while I'm learning and apply everything to English. This post is good to keep in mind. I also have tried Babbel but I mostly use Duolingo now.

  11. Thanks to you, you've laid it out so well making it so easy for everyone to understand and work through.

  12. I love Babbel to learn a few words before I travel somewhere. Duolingo is also a great app for this!

  13. It is indeed important to be conversant with the language of the country you are visiting, even if it's just a couple of words. I love knowing how they greet especially!Haha…anyway, sounds like your adventure was fun!

  14. Looks like you had a lot of fun during your trip. I have tried learning new languages but till now I have failed. I will certainly use Babel on my next trip.

  15. I've never used babbel before but it sounds perfect especially for travelers who would like to learn a few words or sentences to help make their travel easier. I think it's definitely convenient.

  16. I love Babbel. When I was doing an introductory Spanish course at a local college Babbel really helped me out. Here in the UK quite a few people have heard of and are using it so I think it's definitely getting more popular. I can see how your teacher may have taken issue with it though lol. As Suman says it's definitely easier to learn a language when you immerse yourself in the culture, but these apps are really useful as well.

  17. I have never heard of it but may well use it I love to travel and I always feel somewhat guilty that I can not and do not even bother to learn a few basic words of the country I am visiting this is a great reminder that I am never to old to learn

  18. I knew this app but I haven't used it much. I speak 5 languages and so does my hubby so between us we got it covered, lol!

  19. I'm not familiar with Babel, but I've used Duolingo for language learning. Nothing substitutes for first-hand practice, though.

  20. I think everyone should be multilingual. To be able to communicate with anyone where ever you are. We are a multicultural time and most of us take it for granted that English is spoken by most countries either as a 1st or 2nd language. Great blog

  21. Learning a new language seems like it would be pretty difficult. I have a hard enough time learning my own language. I do see the value in trying to learn a few language essentials before visiting another country.

    Jingle Jangle Jungle
    #AtoZChallenge Unofficial participant

  22. I'll have to check this out – I'm thinking of learning Icelandic before I come back to Iceland again 🙂 I completely agree though, it's so important to know a few basic phrases when travelling. I actually have blogged about the topic myself – here's my post: httpss://alwayscarryon.com/2017/03/01/using-a-foreign-language-abroad/ x

  23. Ohhh, hahaha. No I don't want other language. I am studying Finnish language now, which is the worst thing a human can study. It takes all my strength.

    1. Really?! To what is it related – Hungarian, I think, right?! I find it difficult to learn languages that have very little in common with languages I already know – like Turkish that has suffixes instead of prefixes which is super-unusual for us. Or Arabic where hardly one word is similar to the same in another language – I mean even 'telephone', a word you get to understand in every other language I know, is 'hatif'. But I wish you well with your suomi ?

  24. Good to know, will definitely try babble. But, I feel its easier to learn a language when you are actually in a country interacting with the locals. I have met a lot of people coming to India and they must have picked up words using apps available online but thats not how we speak in general. So agree with you on that one too.

    1. I really want to draw a line between picking up some words in order to be polite and friendly or learning a language. These are two totally different intentions – and babbel is great for the first one.

  25. This is a great guide. I really love how you laid everything out so easily for us to see and understand. Thanks 🙂

    1. Depends – as soon as I'm really fluent in a language so it's stuck in my head, I can not use it for a couple of years and still be fluent. If I'm on a lower level – like up to B1 or B2, yes, I do forget a lot if I don't practice.

  26. Babbel is also advertising a lot in Italy and I was wondering how was it. Thank you for your honest review! Just like you, I think you need to learn at least some basic grammar, if Babbel can't even do that… it's no use!

    1. It depends on what you want: If you just want to be able to greet and say some pleasantries, it's a great tool. If you really want to have command of a language, you won't get that just learning with a tool – whether it's the internet or an old fashioned book.
      But practicing with babbel might be a spark that lightens the passion for a language so that you keep learning (happened to me with Turkish – and Indonesian for that matter).

  27. Learning languages while you're traveling is the best way and you learn more then at school or online – I know from my experience. When you're every day with locals and they don't speak English – you are forced to speak their language.

    1. That's exactly what works with me: I have to be forced – then I'm learning really fast and really good. That's why I always wanted to stay in guest families when taking classes abroad: being forced to express myself in their language.

  28. I love learning other languages but I find it hard to do in a class or studying at home. Your right, traveling is the best way to learn langauages. 🙂

    1. Learning in groups drives me nuts, individual classes are great, but very costy. Travelling is like a free language class, especially when at the same time you read books in that language and watch tv or movies. Actually, that's how I became fluent in Spanish – eventually it helped with Italian and Portuguese. So: happy travels!

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