summer travel language tips
Image via Flickr

Heading off to an exotic destination this summer? You’ll need to bring your passport, your various travel-sized toiletries…and, preferably, at least a basic concept of the language. Which can be a daunting task if you’re leaving in a just a few weeks — but it is possible. It’s just not possible the way you were taught in school.

While trying to learn multiple languages as a part of his career as an opera singer, “Fluent Forever” author and polyglot Gabriel Wyner discovered that cramming vocabulary and trying to memorize a lot of different words and sentences actually wasn’t the best way to learn a language. Instead, he says the best way to learn a language is to focus on the sound and the pronunciation.

“It’s much harder to memorize words you can’t pronounce well,” says Gabriel, which is divergent from the traditional classroom technique — a method that takes years. Gabriel’s, meanwhile, takes months. “If you can’t hear the sounds of a language, you’re basically screwed from the start.”

Even if you don’t have a few months, you can still start familiarizing yourself with new languages in ways that will actually stick with you with Gabriel’s language tip.

“Language learning is a memory game, and the first obstacle to playing is pronunciation,” Gabriel explained on his Kickstarter page, which is helping him fund is new pronunciation app. Learning how the words sound and feel in your mouth — rather than how they look on a page — is actually the best way to start learning a new language.

“If you can start a language by mastering pronunciation first, you’ll have a much easier time remembering words and grammar.”

Beginning with pronunciation will also help, Gabriel says, when you’re surrounded by native speakers, because rather than listening to the handful of vocab words you memorized, you’ll actually be hearing familiar sounds.

So how do you start with pronunciation? Ideally, you’d work with a native speaker, or a program which can help you think about pronunciation and try to get a good read on what you’re hearing. Gabriel is currently working to develop his app, which will offer responsive feedback and pronunciation learning, though it likely won’t be out until later this year.

In the mean time, Gabriel, you have to actively listen, with feedback. The best way to do that is using a digital teaching system, like Anki. Anki, which is Japanese for “memorization,” offers pronunciation flashcards, which provide feedback and allow the user to acquire different decks of cards. For his CreativeLive class, Gabriel made specific decks, which are available with the class.

Another option is to make your own analog flashcards — but, instead of just including a word on one side and its translation on the other, Gabriel recommends including a picture (which you can draw, it doesn’t need to be pretty), and the pronunciation, whether written in the phonetic alphabet, or just written in a way that you understand, as based on the pronunciation guides available online (Forvo is an especially good one). This way, you’ll learn vocabulary — but you’ll also be learning how to form the words.

If you’re jetsetting this summer, rather than trying to cram a lot of vocabulary into your mind, take some time to immerse yourself in the language of the place you’ll be visiting. Watch movies in the language (with closed-captioning on), listen to radio programs in the language, and listen to pronunciation differences in the language. Then, practice with flashcards which focus on the sounds of the language, rather than the words themselves. It might sound strange at first — and you’ll have to get used to talking to yourself — but when you’re able to listen to conversations around you and feel like you’re actually learning, it’ll all make sense.

To further your language education with Gabriel, check out his CreativeLive class, Become Fluent in Any Language. Bonne chance!