When we lived in Germany many years ago, my mom carried a pocket phrasebook around wherever we went and it served her well. Not having any knowledge of the German language, it was actually a lifesaver!
Things have changed a lot since then, and while phrase books are still a great tool for travelers, today we have even more fantastic resources for breaking the ” travel language barrier.”
Learning language for travel has never been easier, a fact that those of us who dream of world travel should be very excited about!
If you’re a native English speaker who’s dreaming of world travel and wondering how to travel to a country with a different language, then I have some solutions.
These 7 tools will give you a bit of confidence so you can relax and enjoy your trip, and they cover everything from learning the bare minimum to becoming a proficient speaker in a new language.
*Disclosure:This post contains affiliate links at no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission. I only recommend products I would use myself and all opinions expressed here are my own.
My 7 favorite options for how to learn a language for travel
Language and travel go hand in hand! There are over 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, and as you jet your way around the planet you are likely to encounter a new language. In that case, you may (should) want to learn a bit of said language.
How can I learn language for travel?
- (1) Google Translate
- (2) Pimsleur Audio Courses
- (3) Duo Lingo
- (4) Flash Cards
- (5) Television and Movies
- (6) Language Translation Devices
- (7) Blogs
We’ll discuss each of these resources in greater detail in this article, so keep reading!
Why is Language Important for Travel?
What are the benefits of learning a foreign language for travel? The simple answer is so that our “trip of a lifetime” will go as smoothly as possible.
Here are 3 reasons why learning a little of the language will make your trip better:
#1 You’ll increase your chances of getting a warm welcome if you know a few words
Look, you don’t need to be proficient in a language to visit a country. Some of us really enjoy learning as much of another language as possible, while others just want to know enough to get by.
If you do nothing else, I encourage you to learn what I call the niceties: please, thank you, hello, goodbye, etc.!
If you can at least show that you are trying to honor the local language and culture, you will significantly increase your chances of getting a warm welcome from the locals. Let’s be honest, when you are in a foreign place, a stranger’s smiling face can make a big difference in your day.
The first words I learned for my trip to Slovenia were “hello”, “please”, and “thank you” and each time I used them they received a smile as reply. Even just a few words can make a big difference in how you are received.
#2 Logistics are easier if you know the language OR know how to quickly and easily translate
Here are a few of the scenarios that I have personally encountered where I wish I had either known the language or had translation assistance:
- asking for directions (walking, public transit, driving…this one comes up OFTEN since you generally aren’t familiar with the area when traveling.
- unexpected problems. On our last trip to Germany we showed up to check in but there was no one there to let us in the building! Just a cleaning lady who I was able to flag down who didn’t speak English. My newly learned German language skills came in handy there!
- asking for assistance. Once we needed help buying train tickets but the man behind the counter didn’t speak any English! the lady in the bakery…no English! needed to know if we were on the right train platform, no one in the area spoke English!
#3 Reading menus, signs etc.
Reading menus and signs is something that you’ll likely address several times a day while traveling abroad. Most of us won’t become proficient enough to get a good grasp of these if we are just passing through for a week or two. My best suggestion here would be either Google Translate or the dedicated translation device, both discussed later.
The tools in this article will help you smooth out these situations so that you can just concentrate on having a good time!
Not only are these great resources for learning an official language before you travel, you will also find some of them helpful in your travel planning process too!
I use Google Translate A LOT in the process of learning the German Language. It can be used in coordination with the rest of the great tools discussed in this article. Let’s talk more about Google Translate.
(1) Learning Language with Google Translate
Google Translate is an invaluable tool for planning foreign travel, communicating in the local language, and a great way to learn those basic words and phrases for free!!!
One of my favorite features of Google Translate is the pronunciation feature. Something I always struggle with. Just look for the “listen” icon.
Google Translate is available for desktop as well as mobile users. We’ll discuss them both here.
Google Translate for Desktop
I couldn’t even begin to plan international travel to non English speaking countries without Google Translate for desktop. It really is a game changer. I can navigate the web, select websites in any language, and with the click of a button Google will translate the text into my language, wonderful…magical!
You can use Google Translate for Desktop to translate text as well as spoken language (just use the little microphone icon!) and translate full documents!
To use Google Translate for desktop, simply go to Google Translate , select your language and off you go!
Google has an extensive list of languages for travelers. With over 100 languages there is a very good chance you will find what you are looking for.
In addition to popular languages like Spanish, German, French and Italian, they also offer a broader list of languages like Arabic, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Romania, Irish, and Russian and as you can see from the photo below MANY more.
works best for:
beginners and pre-trip planning, used in conjunction with written material for help with pronunciation
Google Translate App for Mobile Devices
Use the Google Translate App for your phone wherever you have cell service, wi-fi, or download offline translation of your chosen language!!!
I recently downloaded Spanish for offline translation and in a few instances on my last trip to Mexico found it to be incredibly helpful.
You’ll need to download the Google Translate App onto your phone whenever you have wi-fi. After downloading the app be sure to then download your desired language if you think you may find yourself in a situation without cell service or wi-fi.
Now you’re ready to translate text, spoken word, transcribe audio, even translate full conversations in real time! It’s one of my favorite features! So handy!
With the app you can even translate text in an image! Think signs, documents and menus when you’re traveling!
Here is a picture of a sign I took at the Austrian Border. Try to translate it using your newly downloaded Google Translate app…go ahead! I’ll wait!
works best for:
use during travel, you’ll wonder how you could have lived without it!
I have a full comprehensive tutorial for using Google Translate, just follow this link! Google Translate explained: a step-by-step guide to Google Translate
(2) Pimsleur Audio Courses: highly effective
It’s so nice that google does all that work for you, but what if you want to learn a little more of the language?
I originally found the Pimsleur Language course on CD from my local library. I loved the results I was getting so much that I ended up heading over to Pimsleur’s website and buying all 5 levels of German instruction.
This method of language instruction is HIGHLY EFFECTIVE. I have a two hour per day commute, and listen while I drive. I am close to finishing level 5 and am incredibly pleased with how much I have learned with this course.
Use this course as recommended (daily for 30 minutes per day) for best results. As I climb the levels it is frustrating at times but when I finally get command of those words and phrases I am struggling with OH THE SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT!
Learn a new language for travel wherever you are!
Pimsleur states that 75% of their language learners learn on the go. So now you can learn a new language while you commute! in the car, on the bus or train, maybe even on a plane! or even on the treadmill or your evening walk!
If you have as little as 30 minutes a day then you no longer have any excuses not to learn that language you have always wanted to learn!
works best for:
beginners, anyone wanting to progress through intermediate / proficient
The first week is free after your free first week pay as you go, just $14.95 for one language audio only. You can cancel at any time. For an extra fee you can get access to reading lessons, a voice coach, digital flashcards, and more. Learn more about learning a foreign language with Pimsleur audio courses at their website.
(3) Duolingo: language learning made fun!
Duolingo is an online language learning tool that offers a variety of useful languages. It’s free, and it’s fun! Duo Lingo has a desktop version, as well as an app. In fact, it is in my opinion the best language learning app for travel!
Duolingo is pretty effective on its own BUT used in conjunction with a more intense program, such as Pimsleur, will skyrocket your language instruction to a new level.
Reasons that I love Duolingo:
- It’s loads of fun; it’s like a game!
- You can learn to READ, WRITE AND SPEAK the language! fantastic! Exercises effortlessly flow between the 3 and before you know it you can read a little, write a little and speak a little! WIN!
“Duolingo lessons adapt to your learning style. Exercises are tailored to help you learn and review vocabulary effectively. A study has shown that 34 hours of Duolingo are equal to 1 university semester of language courses.”
works best for:
beginners through proficient
FREE! Yes, hard to believe but this incredibly effective tool is completely free.
(4) Old Fashioned Flashcards
Duolingo used to have a fun virtual flashcard site called Tiny Cards. Sadly, Tiny Cards has been discontinued.
Flashcards are such a great learning method that I was determined to keep working with them so I made old fashioned flashcards on index cards.
There are lots of places where you can get vocabulary words for your flash cards. Free options include library books.
tip: While we all need to learn those vocabulary words, don’t forget to make cards for phrases and full sentences to accelerate your “language for travel” success!
Remember those phrasebooks we discussed earlier. They are great resources for making your flashcards, you can learn phrases and full sentences in no time at all!
Take your flashcards with you wherever you go. You’ll be making progress on learning a new language while sitting in the doctors office waiting room, on a break at work or any time that you have a few minutes to spare!
Works best for:
beginners but the sky’s the limit!
minimal cost for index cards
(5) Foreign Language Television and Movies
Today most of us have easy access to foreign language television programs and movies.
Tip: find a show in your preferred language and then turn on the subtitles. I find that cartoons or news broadcasts are great for beginners.
Here are some ideas for where you can find them:
Subscriptions that you may already have and so can be used at no extra cost to you:
- Amazon Prime
- YouTube Videos
- Cable, Directv, Youtube TV, Hulu, etc. etc. etc.! wherever you get your broadcasting from you’ll find foreign language spoken on a variety of shows. If you live in the US then you should have no trouble finding Spanish language shows, you may have to look harder, or find another outlet for other languages.
works best for:
Elementary through proficient (once you have some vocabulary and basic knowledge under your belt.)
in most cases free with your existing subscriptions
Tons of program options but with an added fee:
- Lingopie! Binge watch your way to fluency! Choose from 1000’s of hours of compelling and original home-grown TV and movies. All shows come with 2 sets of subtitles. Click any word to get an instant translation. The more you watch, the more you learn. Current languages: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, English.
works best for:
Elementary users will immediately start recognizing words in the subtitles but this option is better for beginners than live broadcasts since users have more control over their pace.
try for free! After that subscriptions start at $5.99 per month or get a lifetime subscription for $199.00
(6) Language Translation Devices
There are innumerable ways in which technology just makes travel easier.
I can’t imagine having traveled before I had the world, quite literally, at my fingertips. I did it but I can’t quite remember how and I’m glad I don’t have to anymore!
Google Translate is great but unless you have cell / data on your phone some of the key features are not available. Enter designated language translation devices!
These devices offer many of our favorite Google Translate app features but before you purchase a device I recommend that you make sure that it doesn’t require data or wi-fi to do its job. If it does you’d probably be better off just using Google Translate since it is free, although also limited without date or wi-fi.
Vasco V4 Language Translator Device has a SIM card and built-in wi-fi. It was developed in the European Union (usually quality products) and translates 108 languages.
*** works best for ***
*** cost ***
(7) Blogs: learn language free with Blogs!
Blogs are great for learning EVERYTHING and ANYTHING!
International travel is more fun when you can communicate in the local tongue, so have a little fun with it!
In fact, I quite enjoy this article on How to Say Hello in 150 Languages!
works best for:
Now that you have learned a bit of your preferred ” language for travel ” you might want to practice by doing a little bit of reading! Here are two of my favorite avenues to do that.
Lingua is a site where you can practice reading the following languages:
English, Polish, Finnish, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Danish, Norwegian, French, Turkish, Czech, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Russian. They offer free, as well as premium, exercises and reading practice lessons.
Free. For $9.90 you get ad free access to more text and audio files, listening exercises.
Do a Google Search. Don’t see your preferred language or wanting more options? Just Google “practice reading __“
Children’s books are a great way for beginners to practice a new language. The last time I was in Germany I stocked up on children’s books. They are harder than you might think!
check your local library for free options
We can’t conclude an article about getting by in a foreign speaking country without at least giving mention to phrasebooks. Some of us are old school, we love books and are suspicious of technology, and guidebooks are still very effective tools.
It’s hard to go wrong with a phrasebook. They are pretty basic so should all have what you need to get by. If you want to be sure to find a good one I would head over to Amazon, do a search of what you are looking for, and then sort the results by average customer review. The best phrase books will appear at the top of your search. I’d ignore the “sponsored” results. That’s just someone paying to get their product at the top of your search. Happy Hunting!
Now that you have your phrasebook, go make some flash cards!
Best language to learn for travel
My travels focus heavily on Europe. So, what is the best language to learn to travel Europe?
Well, there are over two dozen languages spoken in Europe. It would be hard to pick one European language that would carry you throughout the majority of Europe. Believe it or not, the best language to learn to travel in Europe is English!
That’s right, English is the most useful language for travel, and the most useful language in the world. There will be times during your travels when you are going to struggle with the language but if you’re an English speaker you have an edge because so many people around the world speak English.
You may be surprised to know that English is the most spoken language worldwide, just ahead of Mandarin Chinese. In addition to the 373 million people who speak English as a first language (native speakers), there are another 1 BILLION people who speak English as a second language! (citation: Wikipedia, List of Languages by total Number of Speakers)
In case you weren’t keeping track, that’s 1.45 billion English speakers worldwide!
So even if you don’t speak the native language just relax. Chances are if your in a real pinch, someone will probably be around who speaks English!
Most useful languages to learn for travel:
Need more options? These are the top languages, besides English, spoken worldwide: (total speakers including native and those who speak it as a second language) so if you want to cover a lot of bases then these are the best languages to learn for travel.
- Mandarin Chinese (1.1 billion speakers) running a close second to English, Mandarin is a good “best second language” to learn if you plan to travel to China.
- Hindi (602 million speakers)
- Spanish (548 million speakers) widely spoken in South America, Puerto Rico, Spain, Costa Rica, and North America, South America, and Central America
- French (274 million speakers) in addition to France, French is also spoken in places like Belgium, Canada, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Mali, Monaco, Niger, Rwanda, and many island nations.
- Modern Standard Arabic (274 million speakers), is the main language of the Arab world, great to know if you’re headed to the Middle East.
Over half of the world’s population speaks one of those 6 languages, so if you are interested in learning a top foreign language for travelers one of these is a good bet!
I hope you have been able to find some solutions to your questions about how to travel to a country with a different language and I hope that you found these tools for ” learning a language for travel ” helpful!
If you do nothing else learn the niceties at the very least! Please, thank you, hello, goodbye etc.! Anyone can do it and it will pay off in the end.
Now, I should get busy learning a little French for my upcoming trip to France! Bon voyage and Au Revoir!!!
Planning a trip? You might find some useful information on my Know before you go page.
Want to hear more about my travels around our amazing planet and get more travel tips? You may be interested in my General Travel Page where you’ll find some of my best travel tips, and be sure to submit your email address to my subscriber sign up at the end of the page to be the first to know when a new blog publishes!