For many of us, holidays are a great opportunity to put into practice the language skills you’ve learnt so far whilst soaking up the sun, sea and culture. Below are some of the language rituals I embed into my trip whenever I hop across la Manche (the English Channel) to France to make the most of the time I’m there for maximum language gains. It’s really helped me to come away feeling a sense of achievement and given me lots of stories and vocabulary to weave into my learning and practice at home too!
My holiday challenge to you is to pick one or two activities to do each day that you’re away, so you can make the most of practising and learning the lingo on your holiday:
- Order food or drink at cafés and restaurants – this can seem nerve-wracking especially if the waiter’s or waitress’ English is very good or it’s a busy service. But remember – you are the customer and staff are being paid to be patient with you when you’re ordering your food, so make the most of it! If you’re looking for an extra challenge, try initiating a conversation by asking for a recommendation or enquiring how the meal is prepared or where the ingredients are sourced.
- Listen to the radio in a hire car – this was a lifesaver for me when working at a car hire company in France for 2 months and turned a lot of solitary driving into a useful learning experience! News bulletins and debates are good for formal register and call-ins or competitions might be better for informal language, but make sure you find a station that plays your kind of music so you can enjoy the road trip and maybe even find a new favourite singer or band in the language that you’re learning.
- Watch the morning news in the language – most hotel rooms or hired apartments will come with a TV, so make the most of your leisurely morning routine to watch a bit of news; it’s a great way to see the country from an internal perspective too.
- Talk to the hotel reception staff in the language – again, the staff here are paid to be patient and give top notch customer service, even if it means humouring you as you test out your language skills – so give it a go! If you get stuck for things to say, maybe ask for recommendations for places to visit, local restaurants or the best travel routes and, if all else fails, there’s always the weather to keep the small talk going.
- Use written or audio tour guides in the language – it’s so easy and comfortable to pick up an audio or written guide in English or your native language, but stretch yourself by picking up one in the local language so you can learn at your leisure during your visit and tune into the accent. You can always rewind and listen again if you miss something. I often pick up written guides in both languages to look at how words and phrases are translated too, so try this if you’re looking for an additional challenge.
- Do a cooking class in the language – this is a firm favourite of mine as I love to eat! TripAdvisor has lots of recommendations on cooking workshops in cities across the world, so see if you can meet a local teacher and get taste the city from their perspective. If a cooking class isn’t available, perhaps a wine tasting instead and insist the staff explain the process and the wines in the language. Iain and I did this on a recent trip to France and it was a really fun way to use the language (and discover new tipples too)!
- Take an activity class in the language – as above, another favourite of mine. I’ve taken salsa classes in Russian and French, horse riding classes in both languages and art and singing classes in Russian. It will open you up to a whole new domain of vocabulary and maybe a new hobby too! If you already have a regular hobby, why not take time to seek out a local group or sports team that you could visit or train with while you’re out there? You’ll already have something in common with the members and they’re likely to be chuffed that someone from overseas is interested in meeting with them and practising the hobby in their language. You never know, it might be the start of an annual trip or tournament!
- Write a travel diary in the language – many of us keep travel logs of our holiday adventures so that we can relive the memories when we’re back to our daily routines at home, so why not write it in the language you’re learning? It will help practice the past tense in the language and help you feel more confident when talking to someone about your holiday because you’ve already learnt all the vocabulary.
- Haggle at markets in the language – this is definitely not my forté, but Iain is an absolute pro at this! It’s a great way to practise your numbers, your negotiation skills and your nerve in the language whilst picking up a bargain or too. Give it a go – if you’re brave enough!
- Request restaurant menus in the language – don’t be shy, make sure they give you the locals’ menu! You can ask for clarification if needed and you will begin to get used to local dishes and ingredients and how they’re described. If you do make a mistake and order something you weren’t expecting, it’s a sure fire way to make sure you never forget that vocab next time! This happened to me when I accidentally ordered bitter ‘jus de pamplemousse’ (grapefruit) juice instead of sweet ‘jus d’ananas’ (pineapple juice) in Ladurée in Paris aged 11 – you’ll never make the same mistake twice!
- Practise phone conversations using room service – talking on the phone in another language is one of the hardest tasks to navigate because you can’t rely on visual clues, body language or hand gestures. That makes it the best training ground – go on, pick up that phone and order yourself a treat to the room!
- Haggling with taxi drivers – once again, this one might not be for you but is an essential skill for travelling abroad. If you can haggle and use numbers convincingly, you’re less likely to get ripped off by taxi drivers taking advantage of tourists, so well worth swatting up on your numbers.
- Pick up free newspapers or magazines to read (and translate) – I’m a self-confessed newspaper hoarder and always pick up at least one when I’m away. They give you a snapshot of local news and events and will give you something to talk to the local people about as well. If you’re looking for more of a challenge, why not try translating an article back into English or your first language?
- Go to the cinema – another favourite of mine, especially if the weather is unexpectedly bad for your holiday: you can turn it into an opportunity by hitting the cinema to see a film and picking up some new vocab. I’ve found that translated films are much easier to understand, but home-grown films provide more of a challenge, as they are more likely to use more colloquial, everyday phrases. You’re much more likely to get a sense of the culture and humour by seeing a film in the original language, plus you don’t run the risk of having distracting subtitles or poor dubbing!
- Pick your holiday reading list in the language – whether you’re a book or kindle fan, most of us will spend some downtime on our summer holidays by the pool catching up with some essential reading, so why not pick a book in the language you’re learning? Depending on your level, you might want to look for a dual language book where both English (or your native language) and the target language are featured side by side.
So these are just a few of my top tips for making the most of your holiday breaks abroad to really get you speaking, reading, learning and generally soaking up the language and culture as much as possible while you’re overseas. I hope it’s a useful starter for ten and let me know how you get on in the comments below!