Survival Language for Travel

Updated on February 3, 2018
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Eastward left behind the confines of the Fortune 500 company office to explore and experience Asia. He hasn't looked back since.


When I started learning a second language I made some mistakes. While I did learn some Thai before moving to Thailand, I quickly realized that I could have gone about my language acquisition in a much more natural and useful way.

Rosetta Stone

I was discussing my desire to learn Thai with a friend who recommended Rosetta Stone. He described the basics of the program and I decided to give it a try. To get started, you download the software or subscribe to services online. After that, you learn by associating pictures with the audio and text words and phrases associated with them. You might start, for example, learning the words for basic people and objects like "boy", "ball", and "table". You'll go on to learn prepositions like "under" "on", etc., and the next series of pictures and phrases put these together logically. You'll learn to recognize and say, "The boy is under the table". You speak into your microphone and Rosetta Stone rates your accuracy. Eventually, you'll master the phrases and move on to more complicated levels. I know that all sounds great so far, and for long-term learning goals, I'm sure it is. However, what if the first thing you need to describe when you get off the plane in a foreign country is not a boy under a table? In my experience, such a scenario is likely.

The Turning Point

I had some prior experience with language learning in high-school and university but it didn't quite prepare me for facing a real-world language situation. I was speaking with classmates and instructors that were covering the same material from the same page of a textbook.

As you can imagine, speaking with locals in a foreign country is vastly different than communicating in a classroom in your home country. This really sank in when I arrived at the airport in Thailand and there was no boy under the table. If there had been, I still probably wouldn't have needed to talk about it. Therein was my dilemma. I hadn't focused on what I needed to know in the short-term. I knew a lot of words and phrases but they weren't the right words and phrases. If one is traveling to a foreign country without much time to learn the language, survival phrases should be the priority.

Getting Survival-Ready

When you arrive at the airport, you're more likely to need to know phrases that involve finding your way around the airport, arranging transportation to your accommodations, changing money, or getting assistance with travel-related problems. This is where, at least at the beginner level, Rosetta Stone alone won't help you.

As a better option, I would recommend a phrasebook and dictionary combination by Lonely Planet. Lonely Planet books cover many languages and they are great at targeting survival language. The books are well organized into categories such as basics, practical, social, safe travel and food. Each category is also broken down further into easy to digest subcategories.

With a quality phrasebook and dictionary in hand, you'll be well prepared to communicate the essentials. Such a phrasebook will help you with questions like, "Does this train go to Bangkok?" or "Do you have an air-conditioned room available?" In most cases, these matters will be more pressing that drawing attention to the young man under the table.

At the survival language level, you don't need to worry about breaking down the sentences into their individual parts. Simply listen to the audio files that accompany the text to listen and repeat the phrases. Your goal at this stage should be to understand what the phrase means as a whole and to try and repeat the phrase as accurately as you can.

If you are struggling with repeating the phrases and your flight departure is imminent, there's no need to worry. It's easy to bring your phrasebook with you and point to the bilingual phrases in the book.

Other Useful Tools

Another tool that I found helpful in my international travels is the Google Translate app with an offlline dictionary. The app is freely available on Google Play and easy to install. After installation, select the language of your choice from the drop-down menu and download the offline dictionary. This way, you can translate words and phrases without an internet connection or in countries where Google services aren't available. The app makes it easy to play the audio for words and simple phrases as well. If you prefer to use your smartphone rather than a paperback phrasebook, this can be a great option. However, I recommend you have an easily accessible paperback in your baggage as a backup—should you run into technical problems.

Get Chatty

With some basic words and phrases under your belt, you are ready to go adventuring and put them to work! Speak to the locals and don't be afraid to make mistakes—they provide great learning opportunities. Once you can hail a taxi and order a plate of som tum, you just may want to learn how to describe the boy under the table. You never know when it might come in handy.

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    © 2018 Eastward


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