Five Tips To Increase Your Foreign Language IQ While Traveling

Hi Frugalistas!

I recently spent two weeks traveling in France and Italy. I can muster basic tourist Italian, but speak French to a good intermediate level and consider myself very functional. Despite this, I had trouble getting French people to speak French to me in Paris – where I was attending a conference and therefore mixing with a lot of other English speakers.

Once I left Paris and stopped mixing with other Anglophones my world changed dramatically and I was able to speak French and my limited Italian to my hearts’ content! It got me thinking about why this might be so and how to improve my opportunities for improving my foreign language skills while traveling.

So, here are my top tips for increasing your foreign language IQ on the road:

1. Try and avoid mixing with other Anglophones all the time.

If people in hotels, shops and restaurants hear you speaking English with others they do tend to address you in English. Get out and about on your own, and make sure you get the first word in – in the language of the country you are visiting! It is definitely easier to immerse yourself linguistically on your own.

2. Try to use the local language restaurant menu.

It’s often hard to find eateries without English language menus in anywhere that has even a trickle of tourists these days (even Paris has got with the program on this one!) If I have a choice I request a French or Italian menu (with my trusty phrasebook on hand just in case) rather than an English one to make sure I practise decoding the menu.

I find this also means that the waiter is likely to ask for and take your order in the language you’ve requested your menu in. If you are given a bilingual menu just keep talking the foreign language to the waiter so he or she gets the hint!

3. Avoid speaking English to the staff in the hotel where you are staying.

I start as I mean to go on, and always greet and request my reservation in their language. This gets them used to the idea that I am able to speak French/Italian and that I am happy to do so.

I find hotel staff who man the breakfast rooms often only speak “breakfast room English” and not much beyond that, so getting chatting to them is a great way for me to get in some extra practice, and improve my vocabulary (because they can’t help out with the English most of the time!)

4. Avoid English television.

This is the part that requires the most self discipline, because it’s just you and your TV. Game shows are good – for some reason they seem to be a bit easier to understand.

Speeches by local politicians on the television are often pretty easy to understand – often the words are similar, and they tend to speak more slowly and carefully and enunciate more clearly. It’s also good to get a bit of local cultural immersion via the box!

5. Speak the language in shops.

Not just hello, but find something to comment on so the shop assistant knows you are functional. On my last trip I went into a shop where the owner had a dog who was clearly hungry (it was lunchtime), so I commented on the dog. This got us into a lovely French conversation about pets, where I was from (L’Australie – tiens, si loins! – my, so far!) and any number of things. All great practice and a fun, cheap and easy way to connect with locals (I was buying something anyway!)


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12 Comments on “Five Tips To Increase Your Foreign Language IQ While Traveling”

  1. jillacox 16/05/2012 at 7:25 pm #

    Great tips! I’ve also found that if you unknowingly do something to offend a shopkeeper, they will begin to only speak French and do so pretty loudly. Maybe not the best technique but it was one of the few times I was spoken French to (and could understand it!) while in Paris as a teenager. 😉

  2. Megan @ Roamancing 22/05/2012 at 5:31 am #

    Very handy tips! I’ve also found people are quite willing when you say, “Yes, I speak English but I am trying to practice my French” or whatever language you are speaking. My biggest tip though is just to not be afraid of making mistakes – speaking in a different language is so intimidating you just have to be brave!

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 22/05/2012 at 8:05 am #

      I agree wholeheartedly about bravery. If you make a mistake, just smile and keep going!

  3. Haley 25/10/2012 at 11:47 am #

    The only other thing I would add to this- and you alluded to it- is persistence! Much like bravery, you just have to keep putting yourself through possibly difficult and occasionally embarrassing process of practicing. It can be really hard- I remember not drinking coffee my first weeks in Argentina because I couldn’t deal with an early morning conversation in Spanish. Now I get my twice daily coffee, chat with the waiter, and then chat my way though my day. There is nothing more rewarding that being able to hold a fluid conversation in another language, but it only comes with persistence!

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 25/10/2012 at 12:25 pm #

      Yes, you to put yourself out there and overcome any lack of confidence. Not only will your language skills improve, you’ll have a much better time too.

      Thanks for dropping by and sharing!

  4. Liz @ Languages Abroad 26/02/2013 at 10:18 pm #

    Great tips! I particularly agree with #1 – getting away from fellow English-speakers is really beneficial as it’s so easy to fall into the comfortable trap of just interacting in English because it’s easier. It’s all about challenging yourself! Menus are a good way to go about it, too, as food is an easy set of vocab to decipher (and often menus have pictures). If you can’t understand it though, you might order something you never would have if you knew what it was – and enjoy it!

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 27/02/2013 at 6:24 am #

      Exactly! Going to the supermarket can potentially do the same. I’ve proven number 1 myself – people speak french with me much more if I’m on my own rather than with colleagues

  5. Milosz Zak 30/07/2014 at 5:03 am #

    I feel like anyone who has taken Latin in Highschool can pretty much understand the majority of Europeans – except the Germans, Scandinavians, and those Ulgric tongues, no clue what’s going on there.

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 30/07/2014 at 5:55 am #

      Yes Milosz, you are exactly right. Don’t know how many people are learning Latin these days though

  6. Marie-France (a.k.a. BigTravelNut) 03/08/2014 at 8:47 am #

    Very good tips, and I completely agree with all of them!

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