How to Learn a Language for Travel
Or, the Terribly Tricky Turkish Tongue
After two years trapped in their homes, this summer a lot of people are going on long-awaited vacations. If your next trip is to somewhere where they speak a different language, you have probably given some thought to how you will scale that barrier.
Many people’s first thought will be Google Translate. Apps are certainly nice to have in your back pocket, but for a variety of reasons, they leave a lot to be desired, both in terms of practicality and cultural fulfillment. In major cities in Northwest Europe (excepting, perhaps, France), you can count on most people speaking English. But across most of the rest of the world, a lack of language skills can be a serious hindrance. If you are going to visit somewhere for more than a few days, it is definitely worth your while to have a go at learning the local tongue.
Different people learn differently, but as someone who travels a lot and has a bit of a thing for languages, I can elucidate some helpful tips with my own experiences in Turkey this month. A week before departing, I did not know any Turkish at all. Whether you are starting from scratch or polishing off rust, it is good to do some preparation beforehand. Even a few minutes a day will build a foundation.
I personally spent about two hours total on Rosetta Stone, but Duolingo’s two-week trial of its pro unlimited version is an excellent free option. Do a bit of research to see if there are popular books or apps available for your target tongue.
When you arrive (or even before), the first thing to do is to write out (either on paper or on your phone) a list of basic vocabulary. There are obvious things, like “hello” and “thank you” and counting to ten, that you can memorise straight away. Whenever you find yourself wanting to say something, look it up and add it to your list. If you do not have internet access, dict.cc is a great offline dictionary. Keep at it throughout your day, and you will be surprised how much vocabulary you can build up organically.
Of course, all of this is much easier if you have some background in the language, or even a related one. I am currently in Moldova, and after one day here I already understand more Romanian (based on my background with Spanish and French) than I know Turkish after a week and a half there.
That is because Turkish is originally a Central Asian language, with no relation at all to the Indo-European family. Turks’ closest linguistic relatives are in Azerbaijan, with more distant cousins in Central Asia. Turkey is a preferred destination for Uighur refugees from China, due both to religious and linguistic kinship. In the 20th Century, a lot of ink was spilled trying to link it to other languages as far-flung as Korean and Japanese, but today, that proposed Altaic family is generally considered linguistic pseudoscience.
Another thing you can do ahead of time is to learn how to read. Even if the country uses the Latin alphabet, anyone who has ever been obnoxiously corrected for mispronouncing a French or Italian menu item can attest that proper reading takes a bit of study. It is a much taller order to learn to read Arabic, or, Lord knows, Japanese. But the Greek or Cyrillic alphabets can be nailed down in an hour.
The way Turks pronounce many letters is bizarre at first glance. But once one gets used to it, Turkish is quite phonetic and intuitive. C is pronounced like the English J, while Ç is like CH; likewise, Ş is SH. This rationality is no accident: Turkey switched to the Latin alphabet just a hundred years ago, ditching the Persian one in a highly symbolic shift in orientation from the Islamic world toward Europe. Where English spellings often reflect how the language was spoken in 1400, modern Turkish was designed to be easy for everyone to learn in the 1920s.
It is obviously helpful to be able to follow signs in an unfamiliar place. But reading is doubly critical because it will enable you to access a constant flow of new information. Even for the most outgoing of us, starting a conversation in a new language is intimidating. But if are able to read, everything around you can boost your fluency. With a bit of practice, you will be able to say, hear, and understand vocabulary you picked up visually.
Once you have a grounding in basic vocabulary, you can build up useful grammar. What is helpful will obviously vary by language, but things like common prepositions are a good place to start. Again to use Turkish as an example, Turkish is an agglutinative language, with a rich set of suffixes that can build up quite complex ideas. I was very impressed with myself when I could deploy the suffixes for the plural, -lar, and the possessive, -im, to formulate the poetic request, üç shotlar, ben ve arkadaşlarim (“three shots, me and my friends”).
Some features are less necessary for basic conversation. Turkish has a feature called vowel harmony, in which words will include only vowels pronounced in the front of the mouth, or ones toward the throat. For example, friends might talk about Istanbul’s millions of stray cats, kediler, on their telefonlar. It would be incorrect to say kedilar or telefonler, but people would understand you. The same is often true, for example, with verb conjugations: “I speakings a little English” sounds silly, but you get the point. If you have limited time, zero in on what is absolutely necessary.
In any language, you will discover some pleasant surprises. I get a thrill every time I notice a slightly-disguised cognate in another European language, or a Chinese one in Japanese or Korean. I noticed organically, then confirmed through research, that Turks are extraordinarily good at sticking to grammar rules — in fact, they have only one irregular noun, water, and one verb, to be.
Regularity is a common phenomenon among languages spoken by conquerors. To use a more familiar example, when millions of adults, set in their linguistic ways, were conquered by the Romans, they so garbled Latin that they turned it into the much simpler Romance languages.
The next time you come into contact with a foreign language, either while travelling or close to home, just remember that it never hurts to try. I am still extremely bad at Turkish, but I formed far more connections with people, and enjoyed far broader cultural enrichment, than I would have had my entire experience been mediated through some creepy-sounding robot. And I look forward to using what little I learned to forge more connections with people I know now or will meet in the future.
A last thing I would like to mention is harder to explain. There are points when you are learning a language when things start internally making sense. In Turkey, I realised that I was already harmonising vowels in words before I read about that and realised it was an actual grammatical feature. On a psychological level, you get on the same wavelength as the people who built and inhabit the place you are visiting. Even without all the practical, social, and emotional benefits, rewiring your brain to think like splendid sultans and ferocious horse lords is quite a reward for a few minutes a day of studying.