5 Tips for Learning the Basics of a New Language

Learning a new language isn’t easy, especially when you want to learn as much as you can in a short space of time. In my time spent teaching English as a foreign language (as well as being a student myself learning basic Italian, French, and German!) I have picked up a few useful tips for learning the basics of a new language. So, if you’re travelling to a different country soon and you’re keen to learn some of the local language before you go, take note of the 5 helpful tips below.

1. Pronunciation vs. Grammar

If your sole purpose of learning a new language is to be understood in a foreign country, focus on pronunciation first. In my opinion, it’s more important that you are able to make yourself understood with correctly pronounced verbs and nouns than to have perfect grammar but unintelligible pronunciation.

Practice your pronunciation by listening to words one at a time, and then recording yourself saying them – use the voice recording function on your phone, or an online voice recording site like If you struggle with a difficult word, break it down into syllables. German can be especially difficult due to the long compound words and new sounds, so break compound words down into their constituent words, and then their syllables.

You can also think of a word in your own language that sounds similar, and associate the two when practicing pronunciation. For example: to me, the German word tschüß (‘bye) sounds like “juice”, so I imagine saying “juice” when saying goodbye. Of course, you don’t actually say “juice” – it’s merely a rough guide for how the word is meant to sound.

 2. Informal vs. Polite/Formal Register

Many European languages have two registers of speech – informal and formal (polite). In German, for example, these are indicated by either using the personal pronoun du (you) or Sie (you, polite). If you’re wanting to speak to the locals in your chosen destination, then it is imperative that you know the difference, as using the wrong one can cause offence. Here are some examples of when to use informal, and when to use formal register:

Informal: Close family, close friends, colleagues, and sometimes people of your age/social group.

Formal: Acquaintances, strangers, people working in the service industry, people significantly older than you, and anyone in a position of importance.

Often someone will appreciate your effort and then ask you to call them by the informal pronoun – this is a sign of familiarity, much like asking someone to call you by your first name. If in doubt, simply explain that you are still learning the language and you are unsure how to refer to someone – it’s better than accidentally insulting someone by using the wrong pronoun!

3. Key Phrases to Learn

Part of my dictionary/handbook collection
Part of my dictionary/handbook collection

Most good travel dictionaries contain a section with key phrases and their translations, including phrases for dining, staying in a hotel, sightseeing, emergencies, and amenities. I’d recommend purchasing a pocket-sized phrasebook to keep on your person or in your bag when you’re out and about, and a more comprehensive dictionary for research and cramming in your hotel room.

Some basic words and phrases to learn for travelling:




Thank you

Yes/ No

Where is the (bathroom/train station/hotel/point of interest)

I am sorry / excuse me.

I don’t understand.

Do you speak English?

My (German/Thai/Chinese) is not very good.

I am from (South Africa/USA/Poland).


Extra phrases to learn if you have the time:

How much does this cost?

May I take your photo?

Is the service charge included?

Could you recommend a (beach/dish/restaurant).

You have been very helpful.

4. Useful (and Free!) Language Apps for Smart Devices


There are many handy language apps available for Apple and Android users – below are my top 3 apps for learning languages (both for travel and for personal interest):

  • Duolingo – This fantastic app covers several languages (Italian, French, German, and Portuguese, to name but a few), is completely free, and it’s available online and as an app for iOS and Android. It’s competitive and goal oriented, making it fun to play.


  • Memrise – Similar to Duolingo, but this app makes use of image association to enhance recall of new vocabulary. For example, each new word or phrase is paired with a novel image to help you remember the sound and meaning of the words. You can choose courses ranging from vocabulary to grammar and culture – the choice is yours! Also available on both iPhone and Android.


  • Goethe Institute – Really cool German language games. Look out for “Adventure German” on the Google Play Store and iStore – it’s a fun game that deals with real-life situations where you can practice your basic German knowledge.

Note: Google Translate isn’t a reliable tool for learning a new language, as it lacks the “common sense” approach to context, register, and idioms, and sometimes it can cause more harm than good with awkward translations. 

5. Practice, practice, practice! 


Once you have a list of words and phrases you’d like to learn, it’s time to practice. If you’re travelling with a friend or partner, try practicing together – it’s more fun, and you’ll get a feel for the language before you travel. The more you actually say the words and phrases out aloud, the easier it will be to use them during your trip.

All the studying will be worth it when you can order an espresso in Italian, or greet the Beijing locals in Mandarin!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s