Know Before You Go

Chelsea Landry
January 16, 2024

Every traveler has a varying opinion on how much of the local language you need to learn before any given trip. Some insist that your prep should be minimal, and that English is spoken everywhere, while others contend that it’s downright rude to not learn before you leave.

The reality is that there a number of factors that influence whether or not you need to learn a new language before traveling abroad. I tend to fall in the second category, valuing time and effort put into learning the local language as a sign of respect to those you’ll encounter while you’re abroad. 

In general, whether you have weeks, days, or even just a few hours before your trip, there are some easy ways to learn the language of wherever you’re headed!

Check out the list below for some easy ways to prep before you leave!

If you have weeks before your trip...

Join a Meetup group

Depending on where you live, you may find several options on for local language learners in your city! Spanish, French, Italian, German and Chinese language Meetups exist in my area, but in bigger cities or college towns, you may find even more options. 

This is a great way to practice some rusty/pre-existing skills, or just gain more exposure to hearing a foreign language out loud. You may even find a member who’s willing to tutor you before you leave! Most Meetups are regular, so you’re chances of really being immersed in the language work best if you can attend every week.

Use an app like Duolingo

You’ll start with some basic words and phrases, working up to short sentences and eventually into regular conversation. The app makes learning fun and interactive with features like Streak Count and lesson grading, so using the app never feels like work. 

Of course, you can download the app in the days or hours before your flight, but this one is even better with several weeks’ worth of practice. The app features tons of languages, from more common languages to the more obscure, such as Welsh, Hungarian and Swahili.

If you have days before your trip...

Download a podcast, like Coffee Break Spanish

Coffee Break Spanish, and other podcasts, are a fun way to learn a language in short spurts of time.

Use your commute time and lunch breaks in the days before your trip by downloading podcasts like Coffee Break Spanish. Like Duolingo, the Coffee Break podcast series will start off with the basics and build over time. 

So the more you can listen to this one, the better! There are several languages to choose from. You can buy lessons online from Radio Lingua, but free versions of the series are available in the Podcast app on your phone.

Use your network

Don’t be afraid to bribe friends for pre-trip drinks if you think they can help sharpen your language skills!

Mine your network for friends who might be native speakers and ask for their help over a pre-trip drink. If you’ve been using an app or podcast to prepare, this is a perfect time to practice your work. 

Even without advanced work, your friend is pretty likely to offer key insight on what to expect upon arrival and can help with things like pronunciation and local learning slang.

If you have hours before your trip...

Buy a guidebook

Sometimes, old-fashioned guidebooks are the best way to go.

Perhaps you left your language prep to the very last minute? Head to the airport bookstore during your layover to grab a guidebook or pocketbook, and circle key phrases. There should be several brands to choose from, and the Lonely Planet series is nearly ubiquitous. 

Beyond “hello” and “goodbye,” make sure you’re looking up words and phrases that are relevant to you, like “vegetarian” or important landmarks near the hotels where you’re staying.

Now’s the time for Google

Google Translate, though not always precise, is a good way to prepare last-minute. Like going through the language guidebook, write out phrases you’re bound to use often, and enter those into Google. 

Record the answers so you can access the info while you’re not on your phone, and keep it handy for quick reference.

Most of all, make a real effort to learn the language and connect with the local community on your travels! No one expects you to be fluent by the time your plane leaves, but a little effort goes a long way when connecting with others.

Chelsea Landry
Chelsea lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and is a graduate of the University of Michigan. Currently, she works in philanthropy as a Program Associate for the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation. She's new to travel, and attended the U30X "Explore Ireland" trip in 2017!


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