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The Travelettes Guide to Learning Languages

Written by 7 January 2014 10 Comments

Learn Dutch Window

You may or may not know it, but us Travelettes are a budding group of linguists, in fact English is only a native language for three of us and don’t for a second think that those non-English speakers have just one extra language hiding in their brains, because many of the Travelettes have conquered multiple languages. The most incredible thing is that I know we’re not alone; most of our readers are bilingual, trilingual or have at least a small collection of other languages they are familiar with. Go girls! (And guys, you rock too.)

Learning Dutch in Amsterdam

I’ve been thinking a lot about language learning as I recently started to learn Dutch now that I’m staying in Amsterdam for at least another six months. For many – including my Dutch friends – there’s often a little confusion when I explain I’m learning their language when 90% of Dutch people speak English, and in Amsterdam particularly, it’s a language heard and almost as frequently as Dutch. The best way I can describe this is by saying “It’s the right thing to do.”  I feel like I should speak the language of the country I’m living in out of politeness as much as practicality. But more than that I know from previous experience that understanding the language of the country I’m travelling or living in is a gateway to learning more about that country’s personality, people and peculiarities.

Learning Dutch

On the first day of my Dutch lessons – I began with a five day intensive course at the School of Dutch – my teacher Wessel explained that the most important thing about language learning is to not be afraid of making mistakes. In that way we must become more like children for children don’t overthink what they say like adults do. If I spend every waking moment fearing that what I say is wrong, then I will never say anything! (This is as much true in life as it is language learning, perhaps!) After that first week of lessons, in which I learned the present, future and one past tense, I realised very quickly that speaking Dutch outside of the classroom is still scary. But as hard as it is, I can’t help but agree 100% with what Wessel said, especially because it is so easy (and tempting!) to just default back to English in Amsterdam. Of course, it’s hard and when you do make mistakes – I really, really struggle with  the “g” sound in Dutch! – you do feel a little down, but then I think about what I didn’t know before my intensive lessons and I realise how far I’ve come.

Frankie Learning Dutch

Here are the other things that really enhanced and improved my language learning experience at the School of Dutch:

* Each language has its own rhythm and learning the language’s rhythm before you even learn any vocabulary will help you with pronunciation. At the School for Dutch we tap out the rhythm of the words as we speak to help us familiarise ourselves with the way Dutch people talk.

* Say everything out loud - even when  you’re on your own doing your homework or just reading a newspaper. When you say a word out loud your muscles get used to the new sounds and movements you have to make to make them.

* Take it slow. It took you over five years to learn your own language as a child so why should it take you any longer now you’re an adult!

* Read things that interest you. In school I was taught foreign languages by reading about what was in my pencil case or what colour my clothes were; this didn’t interest me so I found the vocabulary hard to remember. However, I can now navigate my way through a Dutch fashion or travel magazine with great ease – and not just looking at the pretty pictures! – because it’s a subject matter I have knowledge of and an interest in.

* Be proud. You’re doing something not everybody has the guts to do. Be proud of any and every effort you make to learn and speak a foreign language.

So they’re my top tips for language learning, but what about the other Travelettes?


1460964_10151764463056053_1406748912_n Our editor is not only fluent in English and French (as well as her native German of course) but she has become proficient in Spanish and Italian, essentially by teaching herself the language. Here are her experience and advice tips.

“I learned French and English in school so by the time I moved to live in the US, England and France I had a great base from which I could ease myself into the language and improve my knowledge. With Spanish, however, I had no skills from school and in my first month of living in Barcelona I thought I’d never learn the language, particularly because Barcelona is in Catalonia and this is often the dominant language. As it happened, I ended up having a Uruguayan roommate who spoke no English so we had to communicate with just gestures and  a dictionary. She then taught me the basics simply by talking to me every day and once you know the basics, its like a foundation to a house; the rest comes easily! I remember one occasion when I went to a party and I really thought I was still very much a beginner in Spanish, but about an hour after getting to this party I realised I’d been chatting the whole time in Spanish and I hadn’t even noticed. This is when I decided that my fear of speaking the language was more in the way of my progress than my actual skill level. In my experience the best way to learn a language is therefore to speak as much as possible, regardless of how little you think you know. In terms of learning more, I always purchase a dictionary and a work book with exercises which I can work through on trains, buses and in cafes. This is how I solidified my beginner’s Italian.”


277312_10151481799992186_2091220057_o English Alex has a very different experience as she has taught English as a foreign language to Chinese and Japanese summer school students so she knows a thing or two about learning (and teaching!) languages. She also offers advice I think most people will find really useful to those who may not want to learn the language completely but just want to have enough knowledge to get by and of course, say thank you!

“The thing for me is, languages don’t connect unless you have to use them in every day life. I discovered bits of Indonesian when I spent a few months out there and learned that numbers are really important to know. If you know your numbers you can barter which means you’re more likely to score a sweet deal and not get ripped off. In Thailand, however, I never really progressed much further than ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ but I still think even these are very important and really none of us have an excuse not to learn these in every country you go to. The  place I really had to “woman up” and speak up was in Central America last year. Even in places you would expect to find basic English, like guest-houses or even banks, they only spoke Spanish. And they didn’t even really slow it down for us. At first it was a bit overwhelming but the necessity of having to do things like book rooms, send money and order food meant I overcame any shyness and ended up loving the whole experience. I became quite good and I recently took great pleasure in translating as much as I could of all the Mexican scenes in Breaking Bad for my boyfriend! Anyway, I also learned that food words are essential – I wrote about my experience in Copan Ruinas where I panicked in a market and ordered ‘mondongo’ (TRIPE!) soup  – so I now carry a pocket dictionary everywhere. My best advice is try to talk to the locals as much as you can; I found so many locals in Central America would just plough on regardless, chattering away in Spanish even when they realised we couldn’t speak the language – they still want to talk, even if you don’t understand! But as it happened it sort of worked and we learned that it’s surprising how much you can meet in the middle even when speaking two different languages.”


1385460_10151716111973730_986295049_n German-born Annika has a funny story about how she became so good at English and her father also offers up some great advice I agree with… ah, pillow talk!

“When I was 13 I had had English lessons in school for two years. I only got a C+ and my Dad decided that wasn’t good enough. To “punish” me he sent me and my best friend to Malta for 3 weeks for classes during the summer holidays. We had classes by the pool each day so it really wasn’t bad at all! In hindsight the classes weren’t chosen well because we were the youngest students by a long way so the material we would cover was very advanced – even in German, I would have found some of the materials hard to read! However, being young and perhaps a little naive, we didn’t really think too much about it and we just spoke and spoke, using what we did know. In those 3 weeks I completely lost the fear of making mistakes, a fear that I find stops many people from just talking. So my best advice for anyone wanting to learn a language is to practise every day, anywhere, don’t be a afraid to make mistakes. Oh and alcohol helps too! Actually my Dad also has some other interesting ideas about learning languages – he says that the best way to learn a new language is to fall in love with a native speaker!” 


1377221_10151888877703914_945898512_n Having lived in New York City, it’s hard to tell that Cordula is not a native English speaker (she’s German too!). Here’s her story about why learning away from school can be most beneficial. I also love what she recommends when it comes to expanding your vocabulary.

“The best advice is to speak as much as you can. When I first “travelled” to the US, I was only three years old and so obviously didn’t really understand a word until we studied the language in school. Visiting the country again with this terribly stiff school English was actually a horrible experience to me.  In school they teach you how to read literature and discuss books and news stories at length, but when you actually get to an English speaking country you don’t even know what you’re looking for in the supermarket. I tried to overcome this language barrier by carefully crafting my sentences before saying a word, always double-checking the vocabulary with a dictionary. It was a bit of a pain, took super long and had me panic as soon as I was required to reply immediately. But, there were some benefits! It was the most amazing thing to realize that this “other language” actually worked, that people would respond to it and encourage me to speak more. So I just jumped right in and was finally able to let go of the fear of making mistakes. Another great tip I’d like  to share is that watching TV shows in English really helped a great deal to expand my vocabulary beyond the usual school topics (with One Tree Hill being my favorite guilty pleasure back then!)


423581_4643358047683_80861905_n French Marie is a firm believer in immersing yourself in the language and she introduces the concept of a “language bath” – great idea!

“What I find works best, if you can do it, is to take intensive classes for a brief period of time in the country where the language is spoken. That’s what I did with Spanish, and after a week of complete despair in Madrid I suddenly started being able to sort of have myself understood, and after 3 weeks… I could speak! Later volunteering in Costa Rica helped me a lot as well, as I was taking care of a bunch of kids — which really developed my knowledge of the imperative verbs («Don’t put that in your mouth!», «Don’t spit in your friend’s eye!», etc.) Speaking in a foreign language seems scary, but the thing is nobody is actually judging you: people are generally so stoked that you are making the effort to speak their language that they will be appreciative, not making fun of you. Plus they have a tendency to find your accent/mistakes cute! Oh, and getting a local boyfriend really is the fastest way to learn.

If you’re learning from home, the way to get better fast is to take a «language bath» everyday: it doesn’t have to be a 3-hour class, it can be just reading a newspaper article, listening to a podcast or watching a movie in the language — just make sure you’re in contact with it every day. Also… having the dedication to learn by yourself is really hard, so if you can’t afford classes try to meet up regularly with a language group in your city, which will force you to practise! As with any kind of learning, language learning progresses in plateaus — which means you’ll feel like you are doing really well, and then you’ll hit a wall. This is absolutely normal; just keep working, and you’ll start getting better again at one point!

Also, learning a language can — weirdly — have you develop other skills, as you absorb a lot of cultural behaviours in the process. For example, I’ve always been quite introverted, up till I moved to Australia and started speaking lots of English. Because English-speaking people practise small talk a lot, and are very comfortable with socialising with anyone that’s around (be it a stranger at the bus stop or someone they don’t know at a party), I started unconsciously mimicking these behaviours, and am now proud to say I can stand a conversation with any random, even in my native language.”

Now, over to you! Which foreign languages do you speak? And what tips and advice would you offer to me as I keep going on my language learning journey?

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  • Zeny said:

    Great article with some amazing tips. I will definitely keep them in mind when I’m learning a new language. At the moment I’m trying to learn Portuguese, Papiamento and try to improve my Spanish.

    I also love that you’re learning Dutch. As a Dutchie myself I’m always a little disappointed when visitors (especially when they’re staying for a long period) don’t even try to learn our language because 90% of us do speak English very well. I know it can be a very difficult language to learn, but for me it’s all in the effort that you’re trying to adopt some of our Dutch culture. So keep up the good work, I’m very proud!

  • caroline [the diy nurse] said:

    I have been married to a Guatemalan man for seven years. I have yet to travel to central america and cant wait. But even being married I only learned certain small things and many of them were wrong. I just got an app called DUOLINGO and it’s amazing. I can’t believe what I’ve learned in a week. It’s free and the way it teaches you is so modern and just plain easy. I’ve been blowing my husband’s mind and I love it!

  • Petra said:

    Thank you, I needed this! I’m currently learning Spanish, as I will be moving for Erasmus in a few weeks. However, I didn’t come far yet. And next week, I will only hear English, Dutch and Lithuanian as I’m going to Lithuania.
    Oh, and I know Dutch and English and I studied German and French in school, but I’m really not good at it. Now, of to my Spanish studies I go..

  • carola said:

    I find you learn a language best when you use it. That’s how I learnt my English (CNN, OV movies – no subtitles, English books, English language music and eventually living in the US for a year).
    Currently I am learning French and Spanish. After not getting anywhere with French I also discovered Duolingo. I love it! It’s free. It’s convenient. In fact, I loved it so much that I also picked up Spanish…
    That being said: I’m still looking to go to France this year as I am plain scared to use the language here in Berlin with French peeps who speak English (you hear horrible stories about French people reacting to bad French :-( )


  • Madeleine said:

    I was never exposed to English until I moved to the States as an Aupair after turning 19. Having been raised in Eastern Germany, I was exposed to Russian, which back then was my second language. However, I have never been the person for sitting in a classroom and studying a language. I learnt English through my first American family, watching TV and my passion for books. After only a year in the US, I applied to College and thought that they would obligate me to attend the ESL courses, but I had made it in without it. The first years were tough, but my passion for languages and never fearing to speak out loud, I improved gradually. Its the same way, I have learnt Spanish… just by moving there, sipping a coffee in a local shop, meeting locals and reading Advertisements, later books…. I always tell my students to reach out to others to practice, ask questions not to be afraid. We are all learning and making mistakes is part of life. I live in Bangkok now and Thai is a challenge for me…. its nothing at all to French, German, Spanish, Portuguese … but I will share soon how I have been overcoming these challenges…. being able to speak the local languages opens so many doors to traveling more freely and like one of them… Cheers, M

  • Frankie (author) said:

    Great stories and advice ladies! Thank you for your comments and tips. Keep ‘em coming…

  • Tatiana said:

    Yes/Ja/Si to all of this! The thing that stands out most to me is that all of you mentioned something about fear and having to overcome it. I’ve found that to be a BIG part of language learning. I moved to Germany a few years ago only knowing how to say the basics (please, thank you, toilet) and I was very afraid of sounding like an idiot. But groceries won’t by themselves, and as soon as I stopped beating myself up about making mistakes, I got much better! The only other tip I would add is to read children’s books aloud and to watch children’s shows. They’re great practice for pronunciation and for getting the rhythm of a language.

  • Rachael said:

    I learned American Sign Language fluently in about 3 years. I took classes in college and then went to a University for all Deaf people (only about 5% are hearing). I had Deaf roommates, teachers, classmates, boyfriend, everything! I had so much work to do for school all the time that i rarely ventured out into the city to meet with my other friends. FOR 2 YERAS! hahah. being 100% surrounded by people using a different language, and not having a choice to use your native language, is SOOOOOOOOOO helpful!

    Now I’m living in Switzerland and while I’ve been learning German pretty quickly, everyone speaks English. It’s really frustrating that after learning ASL so fast, I’m not progressing as quickly with German. My husband is from here, but we speak English all the time. So falling in love with a native doesn’t ALWAYS make it so easy ;)

    I want to learn French or Italian since we boarder those countries, but my husband says I need to improve my German first hahahahha.

  • Marine said:

    Hi, ladies who had talked about Duolingo can you explain me how it works ? I can only find it for english.
    Thanks for the article, it gives me a good motivation to keep on practising and learning languages !

  • Nadege said:

    Thanks to facebbok I just discovered this great article. It is one of the best I’ve read on travelettes so far, well done. :)

    I’m a native French speaker from Switzerland (yeah…Rachael who commented above : you not only boarder French and Italian-speaking countries, you actually LIVE in one!).

    Having grown up in a bilingual city made me aware of languages very soon (although at the beginning I though German was spoken by French-speaking persons who didn’t want others to understand them lol). I guess it aroused my curiosity and made me want to know many languages.

    So I’ve learnt German, Swiss-German, English, Spanish and Portuguese. And also a little bit of Italian, Russian or Catalan. Even some Polish.

    And I think you said it all about the tips to learn languages (the rythm, the culture, the choice of material, the people…).

    The only thing I could add is : talk ABOUT languages! Take time and courage to ask questions. People know you are not a native anyways, so don’t hesitate to ask the meaning of one word you heard in a conversation if you are not sure about it. Ask your interlocutor if your pronounciation is right and keep repeating until it is.

    When I lived in Madrid, I used to buy fruit to the same seller every week at the market and there were some tags that I could read but the seller always corrected me if I said them wrong. I also appreciated when my friend’s boyfriend (Spanish) said to me “Why don’t you pronounce the “c” the Spanish way? You speak well but that would make a huge difference in your accent!”. And from that that I pronouced it “correctly”.

    The best is when you go out with some native-speaker friends, have some drinks to feel more confident and daring, then start sharing your doubts : how do you say that? What is that word that people keep saying and how do you write it? Why was everybody laughing when I said that?

    Oh, and about people laughing at you…that is the risk about talking to anybody about linguistics! Don’t trust everybody, you could find yourself in some funny situations at your expenses!

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