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4 Proven Ways to Cram a Language Before an International Trip

05/22/2014 05:41 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2014
Carlina Teteris via Getty Images

In many foreign countries, Americans have helped generate a stereotypical image, and it's usually not very pretty -- especially when we get called out on our loudness or hefty appearance. Adding insult to injury, Americans are also known for their limited language skills. According to U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, about 53 percent of Europeans speak at least two languages, as compared to only 18 percent of Americans. To help American travelers shake this dull distinction, I sought out expert advice from Benny Lewis, an international linguist and author of Fluent in 3 Months -- one of the top language blogs in the world.

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Since my mission is to help travelers quickly attain simple conversational skills before traveling to non-English speaking geographies, I asked Benny why he thought foreign language skills were not pursued by more people. He said most folks don't think they can do it or just don't get around to it. His advice to would-be language learners: There are seven days in a week and "Someday" is not one of them, so start learning and using a new language today.

Benny's take-no-prisoners approach to language learning may be a bit daunting for some. So, to make things easier, I got him to share some of his top tips for conquering the basics. Benny wrote a whole book on this subject, so summarizing an entire language learning process is tough in a few simple tips, but he does a pretty good job of it in this blog post chronicling his intensive experience with Polish. He was able to carry on a simple conversation in about two hours!

Pre-trip language cramming tips:
1. Get a phrase book and cram the essentials in a couple of hours
2. Get on italki.com and set up a spoken exchange with a real native speaker, practice what you know immediately so you hit the ground running later
3. Make your learning process about making mistakes and not perfection. Practice communication, not perfect sentence structure. Tarzan-ese is absolutely acceptable
4. Use memrise.com to cram vocabulary through clever mnemonics.

If we talk about learning a specific language, such as Spanish, there are unique techniques that can be utilized to make the process easier. I talked with Lorraine Way, president of The Language Way, an onsite language training service specializing in helping professionals learn to do their jobs in Spanish. She offered some practical advice for U.S. travelers visiting popular Spanish-speaking countries, like Mexico, Puerto Rico and most of South America.

Practical tips for learning a romance language:

  • Take advantage of cognates, which are words in another language that are easy to remember because they look and mean the same thing as a word you already know in English. Some examples: accident -- accidente; restaurant -- restaurante; minute -- minuto. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of cognates that will ease your vocabulary building. Here's a useful site to help you get started: spanishcognates.org.
  • Don't be grammar focused; relax with it, and do the opposite of what you did in school. Interaction is most important.
  • Remember, the person you are trying to communicate with wants to talk to you as much as you want to talk to them, so enjoy it!
  • Get into the culture -- music, dance, food, and people. Link your desire to learn the language with what you like. If it's music, focus on that.