This post was partly inspired by a Twitter conversation with @TravelAccStore.

First, accept the following:

  • You’re going to feel silly – that’s OK.
  • You’re going to make a fool of yourself – nothing wrong with that. So far, everyone I’ve come across appreciated my attempts, however inadequate, to speak their language. It often makes people smile or laugh, which is a good thing, right?
  • You’re going to make mistakes – that’s fine. Everyone makes mistakes, all the time, regardless of context. Nobody expects you to speak perfectly. The important part is to make yourself understood. Don’t take yourself too seriously and learn to laugh at yourself.



  • Prepare certain phrases beforehand: May I practice [fill in language] with you? I don’t understand, can you repeat please? What does [fill in word] mean? How do you say…? How much is this?
  • Choose your conversation partners. Shop attendants and food stall operators for example are wonderful people to practice mini conversations with. Try practicing slightly longer conversations with cab drivers or have them teach you new words and phrases. Start with small steps. And remember to have “I don’t understand” ready in the language for when you…well, don’t understand.
  • Speak slowly. Words get jumbled, especially when you’re just starting out in a new language.
  • If people switch to another language (say English) to help, politely ask them to stick to the language you’re trying to practice. Explain to them that you’d like to learn and practice.
  • If you don’t know an exact word, use words you know to try to describe what you mean. Use your hands, point to objects.
  • Put yourself in a position where you are forced to speak the language: travel or move to another country for example. Being forced to speak means you don’t have the comfort of hiding behind your inhibitions.
  • If you’re living abroad, find local roommates so you’re forced to speak the local language. Don’t room with people from your own country.
  • Talk to yourself. Try tying the words you learn to objects you see. So for example, if you just learned the words for, say, different means of transportation, every time you see a bus, cab, train, plane, bike or boat, say those words in the language you’re learning.


This article was originally posted here (Culture Shock Toolbox, May 2014)