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Follow These Easy Steps to Learn a Language on Your Gap Year

Written by Jenny McWhirter on 12 / 01 / 2016

Gap Year Advice


We’ve all been guilty of heading out for a tipple at a local bar whilst travelling only to realise we know the word for beer but nothing else. Learning the lingo on your gap year can be extremely daunting but ultimately rewarding!

Knowing the local language helps widen your experience of a country, it allows you to gain a better understanding of a culture and obtain experiences, interactions and a welcome you otherwise wouldn’t receive.

As if this wasn’t enough to persuade you, in this increasingly global business environment having a language on your CV can help boost your employability. Follow these simple steps and you will be well on your way to learning the lingo.

Step #1 Start with The Basics

As obvious as this might sound it is the most important point. Where people tend to fall down is they try and run before they can walk. There are a number of great ways to start at the beginning.

Define Specific Goals

Whilst it may be a great goal to become fluent in Spanish during your three-month trip around South America. Realistically this is a big task especially when you are probably going to be more focused on travelling than language learning.

It’s best to have small achievable targets. Be able to hold a conversation, book a section of your trip in the language, or just as simple as order a meal and drinks in the local language. These are great ways to begin.

Remember: once you’ve defined these goals they are adjustable. If you achieve one then move it up, make it more complex but ALWAYS ensure it’s realistic.

Learn Relevant Vocabulary

Again this may sound like an obvious point but you’d be surprised how much it can be overlooked.

Unlike when you are at school and you are walked through all the phrases from “où est la piscine?” to “Je voudrais une chambre pour trois s’il vous plait”. When learning a language on a Gap Year focus on those phrases and words you are most likely to need.

Think about your introduction, where are you from? Why are you travelling? How long for and where to? Do you have dietary requirements? These are all guaranteed to be more helpful than asking for a swimming pool.

Duolingo App

So once you’ve defined these specific goals and decided what you need to learn where do you head to start learning those basic words and phrases?

Welcome Duolingo, a fantastic app that allows you to get to grips with the basics of a language. Rather than feeling like you’re sat at school the app makes you feel like you’re playing a game whilst learning valuable language skills – I whiled away 20 minutes in the office learning Danish and loved it!

You decide how long each day you would like to use the app; from casual just 5 minutes a day all the way up to insane using it for 20 minutes a day. It then ensures to remind you to log your time for the day.

Online Courses

If you prefer an academic approach with a little more structure, then an online course can be ideal. It will get you used to hearing the language and picking up the basics before you head out on your travels.

Companies like Rosetta Stone, Fluentin3months and even the BBC provide great online resources to get you set up and ready to go.

So now you know how to say the vital nuggets of information that will get you by in many situations.

Step # 2 Take Advantage of Easily Available Resources

When learning a language, it’s important to get used to how it sounds and start to piece bits of your understanding together. You’ll be amazed at how many words are similar even in extremely different languages such as Japanese.

TV, Radio and Books

Using resources such as TV programs, Films, Radio and Books that are easily accessible online can be fun and help to improve pronunciation and comprehension.

The next time your mum moans at you for watching TV what better response than to explain it’s helping you learn!

Putting on an episode of Orange is the New Black dubbed in Portuguese or watching the latest Star Wars film in German allows you to get to grips with the language. Using something you know will make it an easier transition. Here’s what some popular shows are called in other languages.

Although remember having English subtitles on defeats the aim of the task so resist the temptation and start listening carefully! However, subtitles in the language you’re trying to learn can make listening to people speak, at what appears to be 1000 times faster than the lovely lady on the Duolingo app, much easier.

Language Events

Events out in your chosen country can be a fun way to build on some of the work you’ve done at home.

These tend to provide bar evenings, cinema goings, market outings and much more with a range of people wanting to learn different languages. Often English is extremely popular and so if you head along and offer your English you are bound to find a group that will in turn help you!

Mundo Lingo is a great starting place to find events, they work in 11 countries over 4 continents and organize weekly events. These events are a great way to combine, travel, language and a good day out.

Step # 3 Get Stuck in Once You’re Travelling

So you’ve done some preparations now, you’ve got your basics and you’ve enjoyed a good movie in Chinese. Maybe you’ve even looked up some unique events that are happening over the first few weeks after you’ve arrived.

What next? How can you progress beyond “¿Dónde están los baños?”?

Take Lessons

A language school in your chosen country is a great way to learn in more depth. The people teaching you will be fluent in the language and will be living in the country so they’ll know the local lingo which may vary from textbook teaching.

To get the most out of these lessons, work out how intense you wish them to be and find a course that suits your desired goals. Try not to drink too much the night before your lessons, trust me it is not nice trying to get your head around grammar with a hangover!

Finally, like all your teachers nagged you at school – do your homework! The more you put in the more you’ll get out so sit down even just for 20 minutes and do the tasks required and you’ll see improvements more quickly.

Get Yourself a Language Buddy

Many language schools will set this up for you but if not, or you’ve decided against the language school find someone on your travels that wants to improve their English.

You can spend half your time talking in English – easy! Then half the time talking in your new language. This is great for getting over the embarrassment of making mistakes, no matter how much practice before you will make mistakes.

It’s also a great way to find friends abroad and find travel companions to accompany you to that market you think looked awesome and hey they may even give you tips of the best places to seek out.

Step #4 Immerse Yourself

By far the best way to learn a language is to surround yourself with it. Hear it, see it, speak it, every single day! You’ve by now got the basics under your belt and hopefully a little bit of grammar so head out and start using what you know.

Learn Like a Child

How do children learn? They ask questions, they are thrown into the situation. So get out there join a gym class or a sports club and you’ll start improving immediately.

Alternatively, just get out of your hostel and hang out with some locals, have a read through my blog about the best ways to travel like a local. Most importantly don’t worry about the mistakes you make. Whilst I was getting to grips with Spanish I needed a mattress for my hostel bed and I ended up walking around asking for a sailor!


A great way to immerse yourself in a language is to volunteer. In order to communicate with the local community, you have to speak the local language.

You’ll definitely find people will be willing to let you try and help you to improve. I spent many of my volunteering hours trying to make conversation with the local people. They were very patient and corrected me when I went wrong.

You can often find programmes that combine language courses with volunteering that allow you to have the structured school approach alongside immersion such as volunteering in Ecuador.

As Easy as A B C

There we have it - four simple steps and a number of ideas to achieve these steps. There should be no excuses for not giving a language a go when you’re away.

Remember: basic phrases go a long way so start simple and try not to be too overwhelmed, it will all come in time!

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