Milan gets unbelievably sweaty in August.
That kind of hot that makes you want to shave your head, tear off your own skin and lie face down on a marble floor all day. So I decided to ditch the heat and mosquitos for a few days and visit some old friends in Hamburg.
I’ve been learning German online for the past few months and I was looking forward to finally test driving my language skills out on the field.
But then something odd happened.
I spoke less German in Germany than I do here in Italy.
Not learning German in Germany
Sure, I ordered my Kaffee, Würsten and Weißbier in German. But I didn’t have a proper conversation the whole time I was there. I actually had to catch up on my German, once I got home.
So what went wrong?
Well, at home, I have regular conversation lessons with native speakers, like this one:
But in Hamburg, I was busy doing holiday stuff with my Italian friends and didn’t spot any obvious opportunities to start a conversation in German.
Normally, I’m a firm supporter of the “you make your own opportunities” philosophy. But at the same time, I find it hard to strike up conversations with random people in my native language, so I certainly didn’t feel like doing it in German.
In my head, it would have gone something like this (in German):
Katie (smiles awkwardly): Hi
Katie: I’m learning German
Stranger: Oh. Good for you (runs away).
It might have gone better in real life, but I didn’t want to take the risk. So I stuck to “einen Kaffee bitte”.
Just like magic (not)
There’s a common belief that being in the country is a magic pill for language learning. After all, we’ve all met those people who move abroad and come back speaking a language as if by magic.
Friends and family sometimes put me in this category because I moved to Italy saying “cappuccino, mozzarella, pizza, per favore” and came back speaking fluent Italian.
But they missed the bit between zero and fluency, which believe me, was far from magic. It involved:
– Talking like E.T. – “Katie… Phone… Home!”
– Headaches after long days of trying to figure out what the heck people were saying.
– Battling to speak Italian with people who insisted on replying in English
It’s true that being constantly surrounded by a language makes it easier to learn. But it doesn’t happen through osmosis.
And for every expat who’s “picked up” a language, there are others who’ve been living abroad for years with only a few survival phrases. The most common reasons for this are:
1. It’s hard to meet people outside their English or expat friend circle.
2. People reply in English all the time.
In short, it feels difficult (and scary) to get “in” with native speakers who will speak to you in their language.
Fortunately, there are lots of good ways to do this, and none of them involve harassing strangers.
How to learn a language when travelling
1. Pay someone (a little bit)
Learning a language abroad can feel like a catch-22 situation. You can’t start a conversation if you don’t know the language, but you can’t learn the language if you don’t speak to people. Getting an online tutor is the best way to get past this stage. It’s their job to help you talk, no matter how slowly you speak at at the beginning or how many times you forget a word. And they’re used to working with beginners so they can give you you the support you need to practice getting your words out. I use italki, where you can get good conversation tutors for as little as $5 per hour.
2. Go on a language exchange
Language exchanges are a fab and free way to learn the language when you’re in the country. They give you an instant opportunity to meet the locals and get some speaking practice with supportive conversation partners. I did some French-English language exchanges whilst on holiday in Paris and it was great! I got to experience Paris the way Parisiens do and improve my French at the same time. To set up a language exchange, try the Hi uTandem app or head over to conversationexchange.com
3. Go to the sticks
If you can choose where to go, I highly recommend small towns where people don’t speak much English. In cosmopolitan cities, there’s always the worry that people are thinking “why can’t we just speak in English instead of waiting for you to get your words out?”. It’s so much easier to practice in places where you really need the language to communicate. Also, people in these towns tend to be more curious and friendly, so they might be the ones who start talking to you.
4. Tell people
We usually expect native speakers to know we’re trying to learn the language, and take umbrage when they reply in English. But people aren’t mind readers. Often, they reply in English because they think they’re being helpful. You’d be surprised how supportive people are when you explain that you want to try speaking the language. I recently had a lovely German waitress (who spoke perfect English), patiently help me through ordering a meal in German, once I’d told her I was learning it.
Now I’d like to hear from you: Have you ever struggled to speak a language abroad? Do you have any more tips? Let us know in the comments below!
p.s. You can find more tips on how to speak a language in our new free course how to speak a language and have more fun.