Travel phrasebooks: a serious language learner’s best first book to study

Travel phrasebooks: a serious language learner’s best first book to study

Benny

lpbooksPlease note: this article was written in June 2009.

Those who know me, are aware that I can actually take a lot with me on cheap flights, but I still have to decide what is and what isn’t coming with me for my next 6 months on the road! (Czech Republic, then likely somewhere in South America again)

I haven’t had the time to sit down and study any Czech this week because of work, but that just means that my 3 month learning period really will be almost entirely in Prague. Apart from the flick through the grammar book mentioned in my previous post, I haven’t done anything!

For most people, this may be a very poor start to someone planning to become fluent, but there is still plenty of time! In fact, language studies really will be part-time for me for the entire 3 months since I will be working full time, so I’m starting my study rhythm as I intend to continue ;)

I bet some of you were thinking that I’d get fluent by studying all day every day for my whole visit? Not quite! You can achieve a lot, even in part-time studies, as I’ll be showing you :) However, tomorrow I’ll have a 2 hour bus ride to Dublin, 2 hours waiting in the airport and a 2 and a half hour flight. That is a LOT of time and it will be the most important in my entire Czech studies as I learn as much of the crucial basics as possible from my Czech phrasebook.

These books may be geared towards tourists in a hurry to get through a city who have to “put up with” being forced to speak the language when outside of their main touristy zones… but I swear by them to start learning a language when your end-goal is fluency. Grammar should be taken in very small doses when you are starting up, and these books avoid grammar almost entirely!

You can learn the essential phrases as one block each (not necessarily understanding individual words) and you will get your point across. Thanks to phonetics under the phrase, you don’t even have to get your head around the new spelling and pronunciation system yet! The priority in learning a language should always be on communication and not on intensively studying each part of the language to perfection and then going on to the next one.

A phrasebook is also fun and practical to read! Here’s why:

  • You can get through it very quickly, and feel a great sense of achievement for the amount that you are able to say if you memorize it well enough
  • It covers all the basic conversation categories you want to know when starting off and some even give slang and go more into depth for other situations (I find Lonely Planet’s chatting-up pages in their phrasebooks especially funny)
  • The dictionary at the back is very handy. It gathers the most frequent and useful 500 or so words; it is big enough to give you most of what you need in general situations, but small enough to actually study! While waiting for a bus, get through all of the letter A… when in the queue at the supermarket learn 3 new words etc. It’s impossible (or at least crazy)  to study an actual dictionary, but dictionaries at the back of phrasebooks have been my key to getting the most important vocabulary quickly.
  • They are small enough to fit in your pocket. In the lift? Swoop it out, and learn one new word or phrase before the doors open and then back in your pocket it goes! All of these pieces of time add up quickly! See what I mean by part-time? ;)
  • When you have gone through it enough, you will definitely have at least a somewhat basic overview of what the language looks like, and this makes the more serious studies ahead a lot easier. You’ll see words and phrases you recognize from the phrasebook when studying the grammar book, and this familiarity really makes a big difference in making it more interesting. I’m not suggesting that a phrasebook replaces standard study; there is only so far you can go with these tiny pocket books! But for starting off, they really are excellent!

You can get them for many languages, and from several companies; Lonely Planet do them (note: I don’t mean the phrases at the back of the city/country guidebook), The Rough Guide, Berlitz and several others. Usually I prefer Lonely Planet because of their wide range of topics covered by the phrases, but all of them have their own benefits. And best of all? They are CHEAP!! The brand new Czech phrasebook you see in the photo only costed me €6. You can get them in most big bookshops, on amazon and of course at the airport.

I wish these companies were paying me commission to advertise them so passionately today :-P Have I convinced you? Any thoughts on your own best first type of book, or experience with phrasebooks, or advantages I forgot to list? Share them in the comments below!

Interested in more clever tricks? Check out Fluent in 3 Months Premium – the essential guide to speak another language fluently in the shortest possible time.

Please note: this article was written in June 2009. Those who know me, are aware that I can actually take a lot with me on cheap flights, but I still have to decide what is and what isn’t coming with me for my next 6 months on the road! (Czech Republic, then likely somewhere in […]

MORE


  • Lady in brown

    Amazing!
    Adorei…super original, parabéns.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ benny

      ‘brigado ;)

  • Lady in brown

    Amazing!
    Adorei…super original, parabéns.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com benny

      ‘brigado ;)

  • cestina

    I take your point about phrasebooks but when I first came to the CR my constant companion was a very small white pocket dictionary. It was just about the only one available ten years ago – Kapesní Anglicko-Český /Česko-Anglický published by KPS. It went everywhere with me – in fact I wore out two of them.

    At the back is an excellent phrase book and a good grammar section and when I was sitting around waiting anywhere I would study it. Though I do agree with you about grammar – ignore it; you can be perfectly well understood without most of it.

    My favourite way of absorbing any new language is to listen endlessly to recordings of fairy stories – very predictable, you know what is going to happen and can quickly pick out the gist. And also to songs with interesting texts. For me in Czech it was Jan Werich and the children’s songs of Svěrák and Uhlíř.

    And also reading children’s stories in both English and the language you are learning, one in each hand. I never thought that Enid Blyton’s Famous Five would come in useful in my old age but they did……

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ benny

      Excellent tips Cestina!! A dual-language book (or the original and a translation) is a great “rosetta stone” to picking up a language. I’ll keep a look out for Svěrák and Uhlíř. :)

  • cestina

    I take your point about phrasebooks but when I first came to the CR my constant companion was a very small white pocket dictionary. It was just about the only one available ten years ago – Kapesní Anglicko-Český /Česko-Anglický published by KPS. It went everywhere with me – in fact I wore out two of them.

    At the back is an excellent phrase book and a good grammar section and when I was sitting around waiting anywhere I would study it. Though I do agree with you about grammar – ignore it; you can be perfectly well understood without most of it.

    My favourite way of absorbing any new language is to listen endlessly to recordings of fairy stories – very predictable, you know what is going to happen and can quickly pick out the gist. And also to songs with interesting texts. For me in Czech it was Jan Werich and the children’s songs of Svěrák and Uhlíř.

    And also reading children’s stories in both English and the language you are learning, one in each hand. I never thought that Enid Blyton’s Famous Five would come in useful in my old age but they did……

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com benny

      Excellent tips Cestina!! A dual-language book (or the original and a translation) is a great “rosetta stone” to picking up a language. I’ll keep a look out for Svěrák and Uhlíř. :)

  • http://www.learnlangs.com/ Judith

    I find it incredibly hard to memorize anything from a phrasebook. I can only remember things I understand. So I like the German “Kauderwelsch” series of phrasebooks that also provide a literal translation of each phrase and a really short grammar overview at the beginning… and I like the French “… tout de suite” series by Langues pour tous. Those books focus on essential building blocks such as “I have”, “I would like” and so on in a first section and in a second section teach you how to use these to build any phrasebook phrase you may ever need, with lots of situational vocabulary.

    • http://littlang.blogspot.com/ Rebecka

      I completely agree with this, I find it VERY hard to learn from such books. I need countless repetitions before anything sticks, so I can’t just flip through a book :/
      .-= Rebecka´s last blog ..French time. =-.

    • http://www.fluentlanguage.co.uk/ Kerstin

      I think the excellence of a phrasebook is really the way it’s written for people who are just about to go on a trip, and who are therefore going to really use all the things that they are saying. I love the essential building blocks, and like Benny says avoiding grammar is such a confidence boost to learners in the first few hours of language learning.

      • http://fluentin3months.com/ Brandon Rivington

        You’re exactly right. You’ll never become fluent by using a phrasebook. But it’ll get you well on your way quicker than most books out there!

        –Brandon, the Fi3M Language Encourager

  • http://www.learnlangs.com Judith

    I find it incredibly hard to memorize anything from a phrasebook. I can only remember things I understand. So I like the German “Kauderwelsch” series of phrasebooks that also provide a literal translation of each phrase and a really short grammar overview at the beginning… and I like the French “… tout de suite” series by Langues pour tous. Those books focus on essential building blocks such as “I have”, “I would like” and so on in a first section and in a second section teach you how to use these to build any phrasebook phrase you may ever need, with lots of situational vocabulary.

    • http://littlang.blogspot.com/ Rebecka

      I completely agree with this, I find it VERY hard to learn from such books. I need countless repetitions before anything sticks, so I can’t just flip through a book :/
      .-= Rebecka´s last blog ..French time. =-.

  • Saray

    That’s a very good tip, I’m currently learning Spanish but I don’t own a phrasebook yet, I’m getting one today!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ benny

      I’m glad I inspired you to get one!! So, has it helped at all?? :)

  • Saray

    That’s a very good tip, I’m currently learning Spanish but I don’t own a phrasebook yet, I’m getting one today!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com benny

      I’m glad I inspired you to get one!! So, has it helped at all?? :)

  • Van

    I took your tip about the phrasebooks and it’s been very helpful so far in learning French. Merci beaucoup!

  • Van

    I took your tip about the phrasebooks and it’s been very helpful so far in learning French. Merci beaucoup!

  • http://molista.blogspot.com/ Γλαύκος

    Mi ne scias ke diri ….cxi tiu aperas neebla …sed la ideaj estas
    interesantoj…
    Amike
    .-= Γλαύκος´s last blog ..�?λβανικ�? γλέν�?ι �?�?ην Σ�?�?ά�?�?ιανη =-.

  • http://molista.blogspot.com/ Γλαύκος

    Mi ne scias ke diri ….cxi tiu aperas neebla …sed la ideaj estas
    interesantoj…
    Amike
    .-= Γλαύκος´s last blog ..�?λβανικ�? γλέν�?ι �?�?ην Σ�?�?ά�?�?ιανη =-.

  • http://www.NewVoltPhotography.com/ Kaitlyn Holly

    Hi, my name is Kaitlyn and I live in Pennsylvania, U.S.
    I'm 17 and eager to start learning new languages in addition to English. I plan to begin working as a freelance photojournalist and begin a polyglot will be an extremely helpful attribute.

    Is there anyway you could write about some of the specific methods you use for learning a language? I don't quite know where to start, and am rather hesitant about moving forward at times because there is such an emphasis on learning languages the “right” or “efficient” way.

    Thanks,
    Kaitlyn

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

    I gave a general summary of the method I use on this page. Otherwise if you click the Learning Languages tab at the top you'll get tips that generally describe my method.
    It depends on a lot of factors so I can't quite summarise it so easily, like if you can't travel there are ways around that that still let you practise the language, and I'm currently developing a new method for Asian languages. If you follow the blog and read a few posts you'll get the general idea of what I do and see if it works for you :)

  • Grr

    Should it be “comment les manuels de conversation peuvent vous aider À parler couramment (sur mon blog) : http://tr.im/phrasebook

    Also while your language learning is impressive, spanish, italian, portuguese (and maybe esperanto?) are all not only latin-based languages but are phonetically similar etc. So let's not pretend to be king of language learning…try learning Chinese, Arabic and Russian and I'll be impressed

  • http://learnspanishfastcourse.com/ Fast Jay

    Interesting, very original tip! When i went to spain i should have focussed on this. So many times i didn't know the basic things, and in the mean time i was trying to study the subjunctive. When i focus on my French i'll make this a priority.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alysia.raine Alysia Christina Raine

    I wish I found this post back when I was in Vienna this past summer. It would have made my visit much easier if I actually studied my German phrasebook seriously.

  • http://friedelcraft.blogspot.com/ chris(mandarin_student)

    Personally I don't find phrase books very useful, probably because I started with an Asian language and the phonetic descriptions are rather useless for a language you are not familiar with the sound of (probably work a lot better for European languages if you are European).

    I prefer sound, the principle is the same, the internet is full of podcasts, youtube videos etc. of both professionals and regular guys providing phrases in their own language. You can easily take the sound from these and load up even an cheap mp3 player (many podcasts etc. you can just download directly). That way I know the sounds of the phrases I can play the mp3's any time (shopping, travelling etc.) I don't need to learn many of the words and phrases they just stick after exposure.

    If you have an Ipod Touch or Iphone you can spend a bit of money and have a talking phrase book (best of both worlds I guess).

    If you don't know how to get sound from youtube videos etc. ask a teenager they usually know ;).

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

    Thanks Chris, but you'll notice the title of the post is the best first “book” to study. Being exclusive to books I still think phrasebooks can be very handy, even for non European languages.

    Obviously audio will hugely augment what you can learn, and I highly recommend it (listening to audio on the flight has helped my current German comprehension a lot for example) but that wasn't the purpose of this post. I'll likely discuss podcasts and their usefulness in a separate post.

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

    Well spotted! I tend to write my tweets way too quickly :P

    I had bought a phrase book for German, Irish and Thai, which are not Latin languages. My purpose in this blog is not to impress people but to share my thoughts and advice for others learning languages.

  • http://friedelcraft.blogspot.com/ chris(mandarin_student)

    Point taken, although I think I was fairly on topic in addressing the phrase book subject, I followed a link that said “phrasebook” from another post, and reading the article it seemed to be predominantly about phrase books, so I offered my opinion on phrase books. If I prefix my comment with “In my opinion phrase books are not the best first book because..” and suffix it with “I actually haven't found ANY books useful for studying Chinese, so feel that the best first book would be a book written in the target language” it should be on topic. There are some people who swear by just picking up a European language book and reading it to get started (because most Europeans know what other Europeans sound like, I don't speak any French but I would talk more from the font of my mouth and stress the last syllable in words if I tried it for example).

    I do suffer somewhat from having never studied a European language to any real extent though, now I always try to make that clear when commenting on language study posts.
    It has to influence my opinions to a large extent.

    I feel I have done enough over the last few years to qualify as a “serious language learner”. Anyway looking forward to your next German post, I started late in life learning languages, and have not had the chance to travel as part of the experience yet, my teenage sons however may well be traveling soon so I am sure they can pick up some helpful tips from your experiences. Forgive my exuberance in commenting, I am reading a huge amount of language learning material on line in support of a project and my doddery old brain might occasionally wander off topic when commenting on this and other sites ;)

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

    Thanks Chris – learning non-European languages is filled with many challenges that those sticking to European languages can't imagine.

    But I met a lot of Thai learners (and have some Asian-only learners commenting) who dismiss European languages as easy, and almost none of them had ever studied one apart from their native language of English. People always seem to think that their task is the hardest, so while prefacing your comments here or elsewhere, make sure to keep in mind that a few similar words (which is way less common outside of Latin languages) and the same alphabet does not mean European language learners are in for an easy ride compared to their Asian-learner counterparts ;)

    This is ignoring a vast amount of other tasks that simply don't exist in Asian languages. In my opinion, any “list” of difficulties would be about the same size in any language, especially when it's not in the same direct language family as your native language. I'm still convinced that not that much time is needed for ANY language once you stop putting it on a pedestal of being really hard, and of course apply the right learning and practice method. You can bet that I'll have a Mandarin fluent-in-3-month mission some day ;)

    Sorry, but speaking from the front of your mouth and stressing the last syllable is a ridiculous simplification of sounding French. That will get you nowhere beyond canned laughter on American sitcom TV…

    No problems with your comments here on my site – keep 'em coming. As long as they don't replicate the tone they have elsewhere, they are more than welcome. I hope my advice helps your sons!

  • Katia Monasterio

    This information is a G-dsend! I’ve been trying to recall the several years of French  I’ve forgotten and to begin to learn Hebrew. I’ve been dithering, trying to decide whether or not to buy the Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur courses. Instead, I’m going to grab myself a travel phrasebook and go on from there! Thanks for the inspiration!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    There are some good textbooks for Catalan you can get on Amazon, and otherwise an Anki deck on your smartphone or iPod will do the trick :)

  • Maurice

    Just ordered my Lonely Planet Mediterranean Phrasebook. I have an excellent memory so let’s see how far this will take me, as I have never uttered a word of Italian or Slovenian in my life!

  • http://twitter.com/smakasmaka Grace Fitzgerald

    Have you tried the new Keewords .com App yet?

  • http://www.kaspersorensen.com/ Kasper Sørensen

    Have you tried Lonely Planets iPhone app-phrasebook?

  • http://www.kaspersorensen.com/ Kasper Sørensen

    Have you tried Lonely Planets iPhone app-phrasebook?

  • Adam

    found about you on Youtube.although our learning goals are diff – i wish to speak and write French at an educational level – i feel the basis of successful self-learning is motivation. my little phrasebook has helped by giving me more confidence which in turn has made me even more psyched to keep going. and you couldn’t be more right about skipping the grammar bit in the initial stages. we learnt grammar as we went along during childhood! no need to worry abt grammar rules structures right from the start! plenty of time for that later.haha

  • mike

    Very nice thread regarding phrasebooks..Have anybody tried iphrasebooks?