Learning enough of the language to get by on the flight over

In my travels I always try my best to speak a language fluently (or better), but sometimes this is not possible, since I may be only spending a few days in a country.

As well as this, you need to start somewhere if you want to eventually speak fluently, and “enough to get by” is how I like to start!

For example, I’ve just spent the week around New Year’s in Poland. This was actually for an Esperanto event (JES), but to get from the airport at Krakow to Zakopane and to talk to everyone outside of the event, I needed to be able to get by in Polish, which is a language that I’ve never learned before.

Of course, nobody was waiting for me with a sign at the airport or held my hand at the train station and interpreted for me when I needed to find where I was staying. Non-rich travellers have to take care of themselves, and this involves talking to locals outside of the tourist trade who may not speak English.

With just a few hours on the flight, I managed to learn enough Polish to get by and adequately communicate what I wanted to say for the basics of asking directions, getting the right train, and generally not being rude in forcing English on people who wouldn’t understand it (which turned out to be quite a lot where I was).

If you are in a similar situation with another language, you can try the following to make sure you learn exactly what you need for your short visit.

Triage – priority on important words

A hospital triage is where the sickest (or dying) patients are seen to first, and those with bloody noses and sprained ankles just have to wait. This is the same level of urgency you have to apply to what you’re learning when given a short time frame.

Because of this, you have to completely abandon grammar. Word genders, correct use of cases, etc. are almost never necessary for you to be understood. Grammar is the rules of tidying up a language to make it correct. Getting your point across does not require you to be correct.

If someone were to say in English “Where bus station?” or “These seat number 4?“, it may be incorrect and improper use of English, but the answerer will understand it – that’s all that really matters at this stage. The triage for learning enough to get by in a few hours requires priority to be given to learning vocabulary, and to be very restrictive in what you learn.

Only learn the essentials

There are too many situations you may come across to be able to cover all possible vocabulary, so the only things that are important to apply to memory are those that you’ll use most frequently and that are time sensitive (like “Help!”). Everything else, you can simply look up the word if you have a small dictionary or phrasebook in your pocket/purse, which you always should if possible.

The list of words and phrases I learn off for such a situation are quite limited: Where (not caring about is/are), that (for pointing and choosing), yes/no, one, and, hello, goodbye, please, me, excuse me, and very few other words are all you need to communicate yourself basically. Imaginative use of hand signals (or drawing pictures) and gestures are infinitely more useful.

Understanding the wording of their answer may not be necessary. I asked for directions several times in that trip in Poland and I didn’t understand a word of what they said, but hand gestures (at least in the west) are universal for such explanations and I could understand how many streets down (hand hops) to go and whether to go left or right (pointing).

When you need to speak English, don’t say it in English

Sometimes this isn’t enough and you really do need to speak to someone in English to get what you need.

As far as phrases go, “I don’t understand” and “Do you speak English?” are very important. I never actually say the English version of these; it can be quite rude to force English on someone without bracing them for it first, or asking politely. If they don’t speak English, they may just look at you confused when you start talking. Even “Do you speak English” might not be something they ever learned, or have long forgotten.

If they don’t speak English, but they understand that you do from your question, they usually produce a co-worker or smart teenage student that can talk to you. They will go to that trouble since you’ve gone to the trouble to say something in their language, and it’s usually appreciated, and they associate their language’s equivalent of the word English with that person, whereas they may not make the link when they hear you speak “noise”.

Whenever you do speak English, it must be slow and clear. I hear way too many native English speakers make themselves very difficult to understand to non-natives; a use of simpler vocabulary, clearly separating words and opening your mouth wide to exaggerate pronunciations when you talk works wonders. Repeating the same thing louder instead of rephrasing it with synonyms or different words just makes you look stupid and makes people like me roll our eyes at you.

What to study?

You can grab a phrasebook in the airport duty-free to study. I actually prefer Lonely Planet phrasebooks as my first book to study in the long term with a language, but for the basics they actually cover way too many situations. The Rough Guide series is a little better for this situation since their dictionary at the back usually has more words, and the amount of basic phrases at the start is actually enough to study on the flight over.

A pocket dictionary is not so useful because they usually use the international phonetic system, which I personally find very useful, but if you aren’t familiar with it, then you may pronounce the word too wrong to be understood. Good phrasebooks have English equivalent phonetics that help a lot. The phonetics are all you need, and you can ignore the original spelling (unless it’s for recognition, such as in signs like “exit”). Use memory techniques to help make it stick in your mind.

If you are more of an audible rather than visual person, then you can get an audio course to listen to on your flight and ignore how it may be spelt entirely, although these are usually not available at airports, so you should get it in advance. Your local library likely has a good audio course that you can copy to your MP3 player to listen to later. I find the phonetics in phrasebooks to be more than enough, but hearing the language in advance definitely helps you get a better feel for it. With tonal (many Asian) languages, an audio course is much more necessary.


Of course, I also applied this to getting some of the basics in Thai in my head to get started :) I’ve settled well into Bangkok and on Monday I’ll summarise my first 6 days here for those curious of the travel part of this mission (Edit: I’ll stay in Bangkok for the week, so I’ll sum up my time here after I’ve left) I’ll summarise my first impressions of the language and my chances of achieving the mission.

I found Polish interesting in the little I’ve learned from it. Although not necessary from what I said in this post, I went further and studied how the phonetics of the writing system works. The currency, the złoty, is actually pronounced zwoty (that l with a dash through it acts as a w) and Kraków is pronounced Krakoov. The little Czech I have left helped me in some words like pokoj (room) and Nie rozumiem (similar to Nerozumím: I don’t understand), but not much more than that without further study. Fluent Polish may be one of my missions soon enough – time will tell!

How do you start learning a language? What material do you use? Any books/courses in particular? Has anyone else been successful in learning enough to get by in just a few short hours? Do share it with us in the comments!



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  • Lauren

    Another great post, good luck on the Thai mission! I have a quick question/suggestion for a future post. It's not about language learning, but rather travel in general. I just got back to the U.S. after a two week stay in France and am having a hell of a time with the jet lag. Maybe you could write an entry about your experience/suggestions on how to quickly recover from international travel?? Thanks a lot, it's always a pleasure to read your blog. :)

  • http://www.keralaindiatravel.net/ Erin

    Another very helpful post, thanks. I'll definitely try those tips in the future. Most guidebooks have a short language section at the back, to save having to buy a phrasebook as well if you aren't in a country for very long.

    World Nomads also do free language podcasts in 23 languages that you can download to your mp3 player. They cover some phrases to get you started and it's always helpful to hear the language. Or you can pay a few dollars for the more detailed iphone app. See http://journals.worldnomads.com/language-guides/

  • Jonathan Mahoney

    What techniques have you used to learn the IPA?

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Yes! The way I get over jetlag extremely quickly is through siestas :) I tend to have them wherever I go. Sleeping twice a day lets you control your sleeping pattern much easier and gives you more free time since you need to sleep less time in total. So when I arrive in a country, after a few hours I can either have a quick nap or a long one, depending on the time of day it is in that country. My body will accept either one.
    I plan on writing an entire post on how siestas have helped me, but quickly getting over jetlag is one advantage that comes to mind! I only ever sleep for 15-20 minutes when I do have one, and then about 5 hours at night time.
    Thanks for the comment! Glad you are enjoying the blog ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    I find the one at the back of guidebooks may not have phonetics associated with it. Otherwise it's definitely small enough to study!
    Thanks for the world nomads link – I have my travel insurance through them, great company! Good to know they cover free MP3 courses too!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    No techniques – I'm developing a technique with Thai symbols now that you could theoretically apply to IPA, but I just got used to it over time way back when I was learning Spanish.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for sharing Randy!

  • http://www.soultravelers3.com soultravelers3

    Excellent post & great ideas!

    We found very few people in Poland spoke any English, so I was grateful that I knew some from childhood Polish-American friends ( Michigan has a huge Polish community). Our Spanish was a great help in Italy and Portugal, (less so in France) but of course totally useless in Poland & many other countries (especially off the tourist track).

    Is Thai a tonal language like Chinese?

    As we continue to master & immerse deeply in Spanish language & literature during our 4th winter in southern Spain, we're studying Mandarin Chinese to prepare for next winter's stay in Asia where our child will go to a Chinese school to immerse. (Yep, the kid wins the language race in our family due to a more pliable brain due to age and more exposure).

    Enjoy your time in Asia & happy New Year!

  • Pak

    To me Czech is a kind of strangely-spelt, mispronounced Polish (the reverse is probably true for Czech speakers).
    I think that if Benny pursued he would find roughly the same level of similarity as between Spanish and Portuguese, or maybe Portuguese and Italian.

  • Janna

    I would say that Czech (my native language) is very closely related to Polish. The funny thing is that Czech people usually do understand what Poles say (even if they are speaking very fast), whereas Polish people usually cannot follow us :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    From those I've talked to, I'd agree with Janna! Poles seem to find Czech “too different” and at the end of my two-months in last summer's mission, I could understand more spoken Czech than a Pole I was having lunch with!! (I imagine if he saw it written down it would be extremely different).
    But Czechs have no problem understanding the Poles. It's curious, but I see the same easier-one-way-than-the-other phenomenon in other languages. Once I have a better understanding of Polish (one day), I may be able to explain why :P
    BTW, at first glance, I'd say it's more like Portuguese and Italian rather than Portuguese and Spanish in terms of level of similarity.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for sharing! Thai is indeed a tonal language and has more tones than Chinese. Good luck with Spain and with next winter in Asia!! A belated happy new year to you too :) :)

  • Neil

    I agree in the value of learning some of the language even if its just a little bit on the way over. I've been in a country where I picked up maybe 10-15 words/phrases and it was amazing how much further I could get with them compared to fellow tourists who had nothing but 'thank you'.

  • Christopher

    I did this with Mallorquin when I visited Mallorca years ago. Not only did I impress my hosts with my enthusiasm for their language (increasing their hospitality in the bargain!), but it made my visit a dozen times more interesting and more fun. I just learned a few words and phrases on the way over, and every day I picked up about a dozen more things to say.