Savvy language tips for savvy travelers

  • There are plenty of free apps out there to get you started: Duolingo and Mesmrise are two great options
  • Take advantage of language exchange programs, like Intercambio, while traveling to get even more practice with a local
  • The best method is to fully immerse yourself in a place where you have to speak the language to get by. Learn the basics before arriving, and watch yourself improve dramatically as you go along
  • Learn about our experiences with regional dialects and our failed, funny attempts at speaking new languages
  • Learn how to order a beer in 5 different langauges

“Okay, so what am I supposed to say again?”

Je voudrais, and then whatever you want.”

“Okay. Well I want a pain au chocolat. So two of those?”

“Yeah that sounds good. Okay, it’s our turn.”

I walked up to the counter, smiling, prepared to order my first pastry in France.

Bonjour.” She smiled and said bonjour back. We’re off to a good start.

Posso avere un pain au chocolat?” Oh no, the smile disappeared. She looks confused. Chynna elbowed me in my side and chuckled and said, “You just ordered in Italian. We’re in France, babe.” Then Chynna salvaged our order by smiling and ordering our two chocolate pastries in French.

Languages are hard. I mean really hard, especially for me. It’s not like I actually learned Italian during our month in Italy, but I got far enough along to order our cafe lattes and get two bus tickets to the aeroporto. Unfortunately, that doesn’t get me a croissant in France or a beer in Hungary, and it only seems to confuse me more and more when I try to learn the same phrases in other languages. In Colorado, we could get in a car and drive as far as we possibly could in either direction until we ran out of gas, and whereever we ended up people would speak English. There is less insentive to learn other languages, where as in Europe you can in one day drive through 3-4 countries that all speak different languages.

If you want to backpack across Europe like we did then of course you’re not going to learn every single language. We visited sixteen different countries. There are just too many different languages, many of them using completely different alphabets and even the ones using our alphabet pronounce each sound differently. Don’t be scared though. You’ll be fine. Europeans are used to hearing dozens of different languages every single day. That’s not an exaggeration – if you were to walk down the streets of any of the European capitals you are all but guaranteed to hear at least five different languages. As far as communication, 80% of conversing is context clues and body language. Pointing and smiling can get you most everything that you need, but it doesn’t hurt to learn a few phrases before you completely embarrass yourself. If you don’t believe that, we once had two guys from the village we stayed in in Bulgaria drive us all the way to Rila Monestary even though we didn’t know more than five words in a common language. Context told them we were hitchhiking, and smiling and pointing at a map got us a ride all the way there. Since we couldn’t speak to each other on the ride, we jammed out to an old Roxette CD and sang our national anthems and had a great time.

Despite only speaking five common words, these guys drove us and a friend all the way to Rila Monestary – 3 hours rounds trip – because kindness knows no language barrier. Context and smiling, people!

As a baseline, speaking English is a major advantage for travelling, but it can also make learning a new language a bit harder because you actually rarely need to speak the local language to get by. If you spoke something like Danish or Bulgarian, you would have to learn a new language in order to travel because only a few million people can speak your language and they all live in your country. English, however, has essentially been adopted as the world language, and most all tourists destinations have English menus and more than likely at least one employee that can speak English. This of course varies greatly from place to place. Some countries have little to no desire to learn English and those who do probably don’t drive buses or pour beer for a living, especially in more off the beaten path areas, so of course English isn’t going to get you through all of Europe without problems.

We arrived in a few places with a desire to learn a few phrases of the local language only to find that nearly everyone speaks English and we really didn’t learn anything. In the Scandanavian countries, Denmark especially, they probably speak better English than you do. Our local tour guide was from Colorado and told us that in the six years that she has lived in Copenhagen she has barely learned any Danish because every where she goes the conversation just slips into English. She even has to watch her grammer, as her Danish friends can be quick to correct her. It makes sense though. The Danish are extremely progressive and realize that Danish is rarely spoken anywhere outside of their country and it is to their advantage to learn English.

However, Chynna and I really want to distinguish ourselves as travelers and not tourists.  It’s a tricky line, one that we still debate on what the actual difference is, or if there even is one, but we feel that actually taking the time to appreciate the local customs and language is one of the biggest factors. Maybe it doesn’t even matter. At the end of the day, we are people from around the world visiting a place for just a little bit and then leaving, and no matter if we stay for a month with a host or a week in a hotel, we pack our things up and head to the next place.

That said, it’s really easy to pick out a tourist on vacation for a few days who took no time to learn the local language and really doesn’t care to. If your servers do not speak English, then speaking slower and louder will not help them understand you. One difference between types of travelers is that tourists don’t want to leave their comfort zone while travelers revel in it. Travelers want to put themselves in uncomfortable situations and try to adapt, like ordering a local food in the local language. So we practice, we study, we prepare, and we adapt.

Yet there I am, in line, speaking terrible Italian to a French lady and looking like a complete moron. Man I’m bad at learning new languages. What are we to do?

These are a few of the lessons that we learned about languages while traveling, including some insight on regional dialects and a few helpful phrases to help you get by.

American English is Engl-“ish”

At our Workway in England we finished up with dinner – a big, proper English roast – and were drinking tea when our host looked at us and asked “would you like some biscuits?” Excuse me, didn’t we just eat? Why would I want a dry, flaky piece of bread? I politely refused. “How about some pudding?” That sounds better, but I haven’t had pudding since I was a kid. Ice cream or cake sounds good, but not pudding. I politely refused again.

Next thing I know, Phil comes out with a box of cookies and starts eating them. Wait a minute, I want a cookie! Why didn’t you ask me if I wanted a cookie? Turns out, biscuits are cookies in England and pudding is a catch all term for dessert. While we both speak the same language, there are so many words that Americans and Brits use differently. Pudding in England means cake or tarts, not just the little plastic cups of chocolate or vanilla mousse that you ate as a kid (and probably still do).

Obviously, though, the United Kingdom and Ireland are the easiest places to travel to and get over the language barrier. After a little bit, you’ll be referring to the back of your car as the boot and talking about the hair over your forehead as the fringe. But don’t expect to understand everybody. The country folks in Scotland and Ireland speak something only masking as English, but more resembling a drunk hillbilly singing R.E.M. “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It)” at 01:30 in the morning at a karaoke bar. You might get the jist of it, but you will never understand all of it.

It’s not just you that can’t understand them. Their neighbors can’t either. One of the neighbors of our host in Ireland helped us out a few days a week and she openly admitted that she has never understood him and they have been friends and neighbors for over a decade. In Scotland, the Glengoyne distillery has to use subtitles for one of their master distillers because pretty much no one understands him. And you thought Groundskeeper Willie was funny.

You really have left the American Sector

Unlike some of the sterotypes though, those people are few and far in between. You will be able to understand most people’s accents without any real problems, but be prepared for being told that your accent is all wrong and that you’ve been mispronouncing things all your life. (Like “Edinburgh.” It doesn’t sound like Pittsburgh, but rather like “Ed-in-bruh.” Save yourself the Scottish lesson and start pronouncing it correctly now.)

In the States, Colorado is somewhat known for its lack of accent when it comes to the American English dialect. Of course, we have our own jargin and we rarely ever say that “t” in the middle of “mountain,” but when we think of accents in the States we think of a Southern draw. It’s probably the harshest of all accents, but we can also always tell someone from the Bronx or Boston, and someone from California can’t help but let a relaxed vibe ease into their way of talking. Travelling Europe, however, you sound like an American from a mile (or, rather, a kilometer) away. Our accents are much more similiar than you think. Our first hosts in Austria told us how “harsh” our English accent was because we enunciate every vowel and letter. Wait, how can our speach be harsh because we speak clearly and don’t mumble?

When you start travelling, you realize that nearly every language in Europe sounds like a mumbled mess of grunts and hand gestures. You think that there is absolutely no way that they can understand each other, because no one seems to say any of the letters that you know make up the word. Which is why when you see a word on a menu and ask for it out loud, your server is essentially guaranteed to not understand you. You might think them stupid for not understanding you, but you have to realize that you essentially sound like a cavemen when you try to speak their language for the first time.

At the end of the day, you have to chuckle about how funny it is that we can all speak the same language and barely understand one another. As our host in Spain, who works for an international company, explains, when they have big meetings and everyone is speaking English, only the foreign speakers will laugh at certain jokes. The people from India and Spain will laugh at the joke in English, but not the Brits or Americans.

Learning, Or At Least Trying to Learn, New Languages

English as a first language has numerous advantages, but it does make learning some new languages a little difficult. Your mouth simply isn’t trained to be used that way. We don’t make those sounds in English. If it’s any condolence, it’s a two-way street for people learning English. Most Italians really struggle with the “th” sound, because it simply isn’t used. “Cathedral” is one of the hardest words for an Italian learning English to pronounce. Or get Spanish speakers to say “iron.” It’s amazingly difficult for them to say fluently. I try to remind myself that everytime I try to roll my r’s in Spanish.

We tried our best to prepare by studying a few languages before we flew over. We knew we weren’t going to master the language, but maybe we wouldn’t sound entirely ridiculous when we opened our mouth and we could at least order a beer or coffee everywhere we went. We mainly used the Duolingo app to study, which is pretty helpful for daily practice. It can help you study a lot of vocab and it mainly teaches you actual phrases and sentences, although don’t be surprised if you learn how to say “the turtle drinks water” before you learn how to order a coffee. The biggest problem with the app is that it doesn’t actual teach you how to speak the language – it doesn’t teach you how to pronounce the alphabet and it doesn’t teach you any of the why. It works well for learning via reading, writing, and listening to the language, but we found that while we could learn words on the app we rarely remembered them in real life.

Another great free app for your phone is Memrise. We didn’t discover the app until later in our travels, but we highly recommend it. It works by planting “seeds” to help you learn and memorize words and phrases, and does really well at teaching you basic phrases that you will actually use. Commit to using both apps and you will be well on your way to speaking a new language before you know it!

Chynna and I both have several years of formal Spanish lessons, too. We both took the mandatory two years in high school and continued it for a few years past that. However, neither of us can speak or understand Spanish. Formal lessons, while helpful, are never as good as full cultural immersion. I know you have probably heard that before, but it’s true. In school, you only take the class for one hour a day plus a little homework, if you actually do it. When you immerse in a culture, though, you listen, speak, read, write, and think in that language all of the time. The radio is Spanish, so is the TV, the signs on the road, and every person you meet is another Spanish lesson. It’s so much more beneificial.

The type of Spanish taught in schools, especially American schools, is just not the Spanish spoken in the calles of Spain. Or in Mexico. Or anywhere, really. The closest that you will get to that form of Spanish is in Madrid, but in Andalusia, where we spent most of our time, they speak a nearly completely different language. Andalusians never say the “s” at the end of a word, they speak quickly, concisely, and are somewhat rude, at least by English standards.  It’s not actual rude, perse, but don’t be surprised if your server or lady at the grocery store starts with “diga que,” or “tell me what.” Could you imagine your server in the States walking up and saying “tell me what you want” without a hello? That’s just how it works in Andalusia, and you are honestly thought of as strange if you try to order formally, like “may I have one blank, please?”

Andalusians never say the “s” at the end of the world, either. So it’s not “¿como estas?” it’s “¿como esta?” It’s not “dos” for two but “doe.” It seems subtle, but when you are trying to learn the language it is so difficult to understand what people are trying to say. It’s really a lazy language in Southern Spain. They drop letters and mumble everything together quickly. It’s hard to adjust to when we both speak English with our “harsh” accents and innunciate everything.

Fully immersing yourself in a culture is not that hard when it’s Andalusia and everyone tans, eats tapas, and goes to the beach pretty much everyday.


A great way to learn how to speak like a local in a relaxed environment is through Intercambio. Intercambio is an exchange between local Spanish speakers trying to learn English and native English speakers trying to learn Spanish. The lessons are usually one-on-one and at a relaxed pase, and they also do bar nights. We never actually did the program, but another Workaway friend did and she can actually speak Spanish. Therefore, she is the one we make call cabs and answer questions.

Regional Dialects

One of the most difficult parts of language is finding out that each region of a country speaks differently from the other. On the surface, it is the same language, but the differences are substantial. This is true in every country. In Ireland, a small island of only 4.5 million people, people from Doolin can barely understand people from Cork. Cork is notorious for “singing” when they talk, with a sort of whistling sing-song dialect. Then there are those country farmers that nobody understands, too.

Most of the people in Dublin were easy to understand, but we rented bikes from a guy in Phoenix Park and couldn’t understand him at all. We felt bad, because he spoke to us for like 20 minutes, telling us all of these great places to go for hikes and how Dublin isn’t the real Ireland. Chynna and I just smiled and nodded our heads before laughing to each other when we rode away. Neither of us could understand what in the world he was saying. We still don’t know where he was trying to send us to.

Italy is much more fractured than you may have been lead to believe. As a country, Italy is only about one century old and has always been split into different regions. People in Puglia do not associate themselves with Rome whatsoever. That affects everything, especially the language. Puglia, the heal of the boot in Italy, has a regional dialect that other Italians can barely understand. Plus, within Puglia, there are several sub-regional dialects that are unique from one another.

The story is true in every country. Take Austria, whose most famous export is Arnold Schwarzenegger (well, and Hitler, but they are really good at convincing everyone that he was German).  Arnold speaks a very “country” dialect of Austrian-German, and most people in Austria despise they way he speaks, or at least the perception that he created of Austrian people. German is actually a much softer language than we make it out to be. Whenever people do a German “accent” on American TV they speak really harshly, with a lot of “acks” and “ks,” but that’s just for show. It really doesn’t sound that bad at all.

Okay, But How Do I Order a Beer?

Let’s be honest: the vast majority of your conversations with people in foreign countries will be ordering drinks and food. It makes it a lot easier to think about regional dialect differences when you have a cold beer in front of you (or a room temperature one in Britain). Therefore, for the most important language lesson, here’s how to order a beer in five different languages.

German: Ein bier, bittah – Say “eye-n beer bitt-ah.” Translation: One beer, please. When you get your beer – danke – Say – “don-ka.”

“Ein bier, bittah.”

Italian: Una birra, per favore – Say “ooh-na beer-a, per fa-vor-ey.” Translation: one beer, please. When you get your beer, say “grazie” (gratz-ia).

Spanish: Una cervaza, por favor – “Say “ooh-na sir-vay-sa, por-fa-vor. As we mentioned earlier, Andalusia is a bit less formal than what you are probably accustomed to, so feel free to just say “cerveza.” Don’t be surprised to not find sangria everywhere like you expected (you usually have to order an entire jug) but “tinto de verano” is a great alternative. Most places only have one beer on draft, so don’t worry too much about ordering a specific beer. When you get your beer, say “gracias. (gra-sias.)

French: Je voudrais une biere, s’il vous plait – Say “jze – voo-dray – oon – bee-air see-voo-pleh.” Translation: I would like one beer, please. Yeah, it’s tough, but most French people will greatly appreciate the effort of at least trying to order in French. As long as you try, they are usually very friendly, counter to the stuck up French stereotype. When you get your beer, “mercie.” 

Belgian: een pintje – Say “ein- pinch-ya.” Translation: one pint. Now, there are A LOT of beers in Belgium, so you’ll have to know what you want. But that’s a good problem to have.

¡Buena suerte!

Be realisitic about your language learning. If you already speak a foreign language, brush up on it and focus on improving your accent and learning regional variations. If you’re like us and have studied a language but know that you can’t speak it yet, give yourself time to study each day on your new apps and then try to find an experience that will fully immerse yourself in a culture, thus forcing you to learn the language and adapt. Remember to break out of that comfort zone and grow because of it.

Learning a language takes time (think about how long it took for you to read and speak English well), so don’t expect to learn everything within a month. Just be patient, have fun with it, remember to laugh at yourself, and as long as you have a beer in front of you, everything will be okay.





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