Because understanding locals makes your travel experience so much better.

“So the bus is going where?”
“Now? No? Later?”

Does that seem familiar? Standing at a bus station in a foreign country, gesticulating to find out where and when your very much needed transportation mode is leaving. It is kind of the same experience as standing at a market and ordering

[random number shown with your fingers] of that “thing” you just pointed at vigorously, which in total costs an amount you wouldn’t even dare to ask, because how on earth would you understand the answer to “How much?”.

language hacks hungarian

Ahm, yeah. Hungarian.

In other countries like Russia, some people working at the train ticket selling booth might even refuse to help you if you can’t explain what you need in Russian or don’t come prepared with everything written down. Taxi drivers open up and might at least not overcharge you double the price if you can explain where to go and haggle down the price in their native language. Also, understanding the weird humor of locals in a new country just gives yourself a feeling of being at home if you’re on the road for longer.

A wood... automat?

A wood… automat?


So depending on the length of your trip and your motivation to learn a language, there are two options. Learn a few words, which you will need for sure real quick and get by in English or another language for the rest, or really learn the basics to be able to understand the answer after you took together all your courage and stuttered your first full sentence in order to ask for the way.
I’m going to show you easy hacks and fun tools for both options.



1. Learning a few words

This is basically vocabulary training, and does not require any sense for a new language – just a little help with pronunciation from locals, though it helps to see a word in written form, because whatever learning type you think you are, all humans are visual learning types for a big part.

There are several memory techniques used by memory athletes, but all come down to creating associations in your head, anchor points your brain can connect unknown words without meaning to. And as always, the funnier, creepier, sexually weirder or absurder the memory is, the more likely it’s going to stay in your head. This means you are taking a part of the word or even a syllable which reminds you of something or someone you know or an experience you had and connect it strongly to the translation.

Let’s try an example, using one of the most difficult languages in the world – Finnish:

Anteeksi. [ˈɑnteːksi] = Sorry / Excuse me.

In that case, the best thing would be to split the word into two parts:
“ant” & “eeksi”(t)

Imagine an oversized “ant” running towards a door marked with an “exit” (eeksi-(t)) sign and screaming “Soooorry!” while bumping into everybody on the way.
Get the point?

You can do the same with sentences, taking the beginning of the words and building a new memorable sentence or scene in your head, which will remind you of the foreign phrase’s meaning.

Minulla ei ole sukkia. = I do not have socks.

Minulla = Minu(s) + L.A.
Ei = Eye
Ole = Spanish torero waving the red rag, shouting “olé!”
Sukkia = Sookie (from Gilmore Girls)

Freezing, because the temperature is in minus degrees you walk down a street in L.A., when suddenly something catches your eye – A Spanish torero shouting “Olé!” and Sookie running towards the red rag, when you suddenly notice that you don’t have socks on.
Ha, makes sense? No? But you remembered the little story, right?

I often get asked if this technique is really worth the time, because repeating the same few words a couple of time, should do the gist, but I can only recommend making sure the word or sentence sticks in your head in this “sustainable” way. It is some effort to come up with such a crazy scene, but this will be remembered for longer than your usual vocabulary learning ambitions.

language hacks russian

Russian Ferry Schedule.

After all, we hope that all of those words just simply stick in our heads while eavesdropping on local conversations or after reading them out loud once or twice from a sign we found, but the cold and forgettable reality of our brains is, that we are overwhelmed by new impressions already while traveling, so how is your brain supposed to focus on memorizing a random word if it is not linked to memories that really matter?
I love to carry flash cards with me while traveling to write down words I sincerely want to be able to recall, but they also work for writing down contact information to stay in touch with a fellow traveler you just met. Get crazy, start drawing little doodles next to your vocabulary list in order to remember, this is not a two-pages list of latin words in school anymore, this is experiencing life, culture and connecting to people. How are you better able to make strangers in a new country laugh than by knowing what “squirrel” means in their native language? Also, impressing girls works easier if you can be funny in their mother tongue instead of communicating in broken English and above all – remembering single words foreigners teach you is often a sign of showing respect and immediately makes you seem super-smart!

2. You want to learn the basics for real

Well, the initial worry declined, you are staying in a country for a little longer or you definitely want to understand what the guy you think is cute, talks about with his grinning friends. You’ve arrived at the right address, learning basics and getting a feel for most of the languages is not too hard and here are some tools you can use at home and on the go.

language hacks russian

Ordering in Russian canteens. Lots of fun!

Even learning just the basics of a language often costs at least a little effort and repetition in order to make the newly acquired knowledge stick. Recently there has been a rise of many websites and apps helping you remember your set learning goal and reminding you of repeating your last learnings within the appropriate time and not letting your initial motivation slip after 2 weeks because you simply forget. Also, all three of these platforms work with similar but slightly different concepts of memory and language learning.

language hacks memrise
Founded by one of the Grandmasters of Memory, Edward Cooke, this platform helps you make the new knowledge stick by using the science of how our brain works, fun & a community aspect to help you develop a habit. By letting you create vivid and sensory memes for the vocabulary or phrases you are about to learn, the lessons encourage you to use the fun stories and share them with your learning community.

language hacks babbel
A platform from Germany, also relying on the fun factor and modern technology combined with learning methods which have been used for a longer time like listening comprehensions and grammar exercises. babble helps to learn a new language fast and offers different apps for all of your language learning ambitions.

language hacks duolingo
This app and web application puts gamification up front, and has its own vocabulary section where you can go back to practicing newly learned words. Also, while making progress, users contribute to translating websites and other documents. Duolingo comes with iOS & Android apps, but can also be used online. You can start any of the languages by taking a placement test, which is useful if you want to refresh your knowledge of a certain language and not start at zero.

If nothing else works

I do recommend though if you feel like you’ve reached your limits in consuming random words, to learn some serious Pantomime skills, because if mastered, the impact this skill can have should not be neglected. Drawing can also be very helpful, so if you are a gifted artist without the affinity to learn many different languages, be sure to always carry pen and paper with you! The conclusion? At least ramp up your “Activity” skills or get yourself one of those: Tourist Picture Dictionary.

Any other tricks you use when learning a new language on-the-go? I would love to incorporate them into our list, so let us know in the comments below!