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How to Learn Foreign Languages

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In this correspondent question I ask Jasmine Stephenson from Jasmine Wanders to explain the methodology she uses for learning foreign languages while traveling.

“In your previous correspondent response, Tips for Solo Female Travelers, your first piece of advice was to learn the local language of the countries you travel in. I am just wondering what your strategy is for learning languages? Do you have any particular methods that you use? Any mental exercises? Suggested ways to practice and study? Do you take formal lessons or just learn on your own? There are all kinds of tricks and methodologies to learning language that are being promoted all over the place, and I am just wondering how you came to be able to learn Spanish so well relatively quickly?”

Language is a skill that needs to be practiced. I can spend hours poring over books and listening to audio CDs, but if I don’t actually practice it, I’ll retain nothing. For example, you can’t learn how to swim by reading techniques on different strokes or how to ride a bike by watching DVDs of people riding them. You have to practice!

World Languages Map

Indonesia was my first new language experience. On the plane ride there, I studied my phrasebook, and as soon as I got off the plane I was practicing. I made friends there quickly, and every day I would hang out with them and ask them to teach me phrases and words that I could use during my trip. And then I would practice with everyone, even those who spoke English.

[adsense]As I embarked on my Latin America journey, I had a really strong desire to get to know the heart of the people in this region, to hear their stories, to connect on a deeper level. I knew that this wouldn’t be possible without the language, so again I practiced Spanish as soon as I got off the plane. In Guatemala, I moved in with two Guatemalans and two foreigners who spoke good Spanish, so I learned a ton through all of them and our group of friends. I did take a couple of weeks of formal Spanish classes there, which helped, but in my opinion isn’t necessary.

Another point that I wrote about in my solo female travel bit is focusing on connecting with local people and not just hanging out with other English-speaking backpackers all the time. Unfortunately, the longer I travel, the less tolerance I find I have for this type of traveler. I want to know the people of the country I’m in, and not just visit the local sights with foreigners. But if I don’t learn the language, I only have access to people who likely have money, are highly educated, or work in tourism – a small segment of the population.

A website I recommend is Fluent in 3 Months. My friend Benny is a polyglot and writes a lot of posts that call you on your sh*t so to speak, and he smashes the excuses people use to prevent themselves from learning a language.

I learned Spanish by practicing, even when I felt stupid, when I messed up, when my verb tense was wrong, and even using hand gestures if I lacked a word. I also rarely use English nowadays, except when I run into a foreigner that needs help with something or Skypeing with my family. It’s called immersion for a reason!


Jasmine Stephenson has been traveling the world for many years and uses her foreign language learning strategies to break into the heart of a place and culture. Follow her journey and discover her other excellent travel strategies on her website, Jasmine Wanders.

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Filed under: Female Travel, Language

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