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. 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, and 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!)