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How to Learn Foreign Languages

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 [...]

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.


Filed under: Female Travel, Language

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  • JSkarv March 22, 2011, 6:15 am

    Hey Wade, very off-topic but I thought your mind, with its wide angle lens-view of things would have already touched on this. I am absolutely confounded by the idea of putting money into an employer-based(traditional style) pension. If I pay in all that money I get a small tax break here and there, then when the pension comes due, I do not get any increases in my monthy pension in accordance with inflation. Nor, my friend, do I have the principal I started with to try and grow further. I simply and stuck with a lousy monthly payment that does not add up to much after 10-15 years of inflation. Plus, if I want access to all of the money for the purpose of some purchase or wim, I am not ALLOWED. What gives with pensions? Are they simply fishing nets thrown out by the very intelligent, already exceedingly wealthy investment bankers? Please describe how I’m wrong if I am, so that I may have faith in the social norms again.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 22, 2011, 9:57 am


      You are sending this question to a guy who has never been employed for over four months continuously. I have no idea about anything to do with pensions. Though I do know that there are a ton of old guys from the USA who claim to be living the “good life” in topical countries all over the world off of their pensions. Drinking beer with these guys is probably the closest I have ever come to touching any sort of retirement plan. My pension plan is to invest in this website and related projects until they bring in enough of a return to retire on haha.

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    • Bob L March 23, 2011, 12:34 am

      “I am absolutely confounded by the idea of putting money into an employer-based(traditional style) pension. ”

      ALL decisions related to long term investment are based on what are your goals, what are your predictions, what is your risk tolerance (over simplified I know).

      Putting money into a “traditional” style pension is unusual these days (in the USA anyway). 401K plans are popular in the US, I don’t know anything about the rest of the world on these issues. A 401k plan is a way of investing towards retirement with tax incentives to make it worth while. Even looking back in recent history, if you were planning on working at a fairly steady job for a LONG time, these company retirement plans often made sense (often, but not always). Other than the 401k plans and such though, for anyone that does not plan on working in the same field or same company for MANY years, these plans seldom make sense unless they are some how transportable to other retirement strategies. Sure, if you work at a place where it is part of the job, it may make sense to contribute, but you have to look at the agreement. You may not even have the choice to not contribute.

      So, maybe these things don’t make sense for you. But you bring up a good subject. Life is long (hopefully), and variable. Things seldom go as you plan. What are you doing right now, so that the 60 year old you will not be pissed that you did not do something different?

      Will you expect some Government take care of you? (remembering that any Government money comes from people who worked hard and tried to save for their future) Did you contribute to whatever system your Government has? If not, do you feel OK stealing from those that did contribute? Have you put something away EVERY year for your old age? Have you even thought about what would happen to you if you got sick and could not work for a year? Two years? What plans do you have for the next year? Two? Ten? 50?

      Do you REALLY want to trust whatever Government with your welfare?

      Life is full of choices. If you are reading this, then there is a fair chance that you are an intelligent and thinking person (intelligent, educated and thinking do not automatically go together). If so, then you realize that every decision you make in life has consequences. These are not always realized immediately and are not always clear. I have talked to many people that have regretted the choices they made when they were younger. Some did not save enough. Some did not spend enough time with their family. Some worked too much, or not enough. Whatever your age, YOU will not change much, but your habits, your situation, your needs and your wants may change dramatically. There is no universal answer to these questions, but if you are asking them, then you are ahead of many of the people on this planet.

      As for your specific question (OK, I strayed some here), the answer comes down to “it depends”. Some are good, some not. Some are good for some people but not for others. It really depends. You need to look at all the details for YOU.

      Now, again, straying from the subject, straying to an area I am not necessarily good at….. Your best bet in life, whoever you are, is to protect, and increase your potential. Work to improve your ability to earn money by learning new skills. Work to improve you ability to adapt to life’s changes. Work to improve your connections (people contacts). Learn how to enjoy life no matter what happens. Learn to do things for others. Learn lots of things. Practical things. “NON” practical things too. I have met couples who did not have kids, where both partners were making six figure salaries, but they owed more than they were worth and were crying poverty, one paycheck away from bankruptcy. I have known single mom’s, who were getting no help from anyone, who started with minimal education, that were raising their kids on their own, and doing well. I have met people who’s health was so bad, with only expectations of it getting worst, that they should have been depressed beyond belief, but they were happy, an inspiration, doing everything they could on their own asking nothing from anyone and even doing things for others.

      Hmmmm, we WERE talking about retirement plans right? Well, I guess this was all about retirement PLANS. You have to try to plan as best you can for what you want, but be ready for when things don’t go as you planned, as they often do. Financial, health or other wise.

      Bob L

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      • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 23, 2011, 9:27 am

        Bob, you should be a clandestine online counselor haha. This framing of perspective is right on.

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  • Bob L March 23, 2011, 1:04 pm

    That’s what happens when I drink too much coffee and can’t get to sleep.

    Bob L

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  • Kušķis March 25, 2011, 3:51 am

    Where did you get that map? Its very inacurate. Baltic countries Latvia and Lithuania doesnt share same language and never had. They are somewhat similar, but not that much.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 25, 2011, 9:05 am

      That map is of language families not individual languages.

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  • Ed November 15, 2011, 9:25 pm

    great article, I have always used mp3’s before i visit countries right up until getting there, then go drinking with the locals and talk talk talk! simply the best way to learn a language, they will always be happy to correct you even if they find it amusing. another good resource i used to use is byki, (before you know it) a language learning programme which is very user friendly and allows you to slow down pronunciations of words until you get them right I believe it’s still free! http://www.byki.com/ someone once told me having a second language is like having a second soul, which i find interesting, because when you immerse yourself in a new language and start thinking in that language and even dreaming in that language you start thinking in a different way, difficult to explain but think about it!

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    • Wade Shepard November 16, 2011, 1:39 pm

      Hello Ed,

      Thanks for that link. I downloaded their free Spanish version and like the system. The only problem is that the free version is a little too basic for me at this point. Debating on paying the $70 or so bucks for the advanced version — but I’m sort of broke right now haha.

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      • Ed November 16, 2011, 5:18 pm

        never pay for that kind of thing man, I’m sure there will be other stuff out there I just used to use it to brush up my basics, MP3’s are always good, then get talking with the locals!! PEACE

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        • Wade Shepard November 16, 2011, 6:09 pm

          Yes, I usually just talk with people, but my Spanish is good enough that I can communicate fine, but I still make minor mistakes all the time. As I’m understood, people often don’t correct me so it is becoming difficult to get to the the next level. I’m trying to find a good computer program to bash away my grammar errors as I’m too broke to even hire the cheapest of language teachers haha, and I have a little too much on my plate each day for language exchange (where half the time I teach English). You’re right though, there is no need to pay for such a program when there are free language learning resources everywhere. I’ve been studying grammar recently from reading and translating, but, man, it is difficult to apply this in the conversational setting — it’s as if a person’s speaking and listing facilities are in another part of the brain as reading capabilities haha. Which is why I like the program that you suggested, as it combines listening with reading and bridges the divide.

          Also, I’ve never been able to get anywhere in a language from instructional books — they are far too abstract and the situations outline way too far removed from reality to be useful. I’ve never worked out a system to use them properly. The two foreign languages that I’ve advanced in — Spanish and Chinese Mandarin — were done from lots of talking, vocab lists, and lots and lots of notes. I’m hoping in the next couple of months to up my Spanish from conversational to OK (good or fluent take years and years of constant practice, and I don’t think I’m ever going to be in a region of the world long enough to allow for this).

          The first language my daughter started speaking was Spanish, and she is progressing in leaps and bounds. I’m fearing that she is going to be better than me one day so I’m trying to extend my head start out as far as I can.

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          • Bob L November 16, 2011, 10:39 pm

            Just a thought. Go to a university. Audit a few classes. Then find a student who would like to refine his English skills. Trade time, maybe buy him a beer or two. One day, he speaks English and you critique the next day, you speak Spanish and he critiques. Maybe a professor would be a better choice. You ‘taint no kid no mo’……

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            • Wade Shepard November 17, 2011, 12:01 pm

              Good call here. Practice, practice, practice!

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