Unless you’re going someplace extremely remote, you can expose your kids to the language(s) they’ll hear on your trip. If they’re old enough, insist that they learn the few phrases below before entering each country. (It might take an adult 4 hours to learn 10 phrases but your kids can memorize these words in no time). It is so much more fun to greet people in their native language and the reception your kids recieve will likley be much more genuine. There is no need to try to become fluent, just a few words can make all the difference.
Language learning possibilities can be found at places like the bookstore, library, school, ethnic restaurant, or karate dojo. Ethnic restaurants are a particularly fun option because you get to eat at the same time as you learn. And, you have the opportunity to practice the all-important basics of ordering in a restaurant. Try to go between the lunch and dinner rush hours so that you can get the attention of the wait staff.
There are an amazing number of Internet language learning options. There are dedicted language learning sites like:
http://www.livemocha.com/ (I estimate they teacher over 40 different languages)
http://www.word2word.com/course.html (links to free on-line resources for over 100 languages (ah … we haven’t tried them all)
http://freelanguage.org/ (almost just what it says)
You can also download podcasts so your kids can learn languages in the car or while waiting for siblings to finish their activities. Praxis is the leader and you can find their products at
A pretty cool option are language exchanges in which you teach someone English and they teach you ???. You can do this on line, sort of like an Internet language-pal: http://www.mylanguageexchange.com/ and there are also in-person options. Check want-ads, Craig’s list, and library bulletin boards.
You can also find neat little bits of information by searching around on-line like this 6-part series on travel Mandarin at chasing the unexpected. There’s a page for “thank you” in 465 languages. And a few words can be learned in about 1715 languages at a related page! There are lots of sites but they’re scattered and take a little digging.
Of course, the traditional options are also great. Regular old language cassettes, cds, and dvds still do the trick. Casettes, cds or dvds that include songs are particularly helpful. Language learning videos full of songs and music are available for many vendors. but they tend to be expensive. Muzzy, for example, is an excellent program by the BBC. Most public libraries have a wide variety of options to loan. Some libraries even rent language-learning software or can provide access to on-line language-learning through the library website and with a library card. For teens and adults, we’ve had the best success with Pimsleur.
At the very least, you and the kids should learn a few basic phrases that you will either hear spoken to you or have to speak to be polite or to get something that you want. It’s an important lesson for your kids that, even though English is everywhere in the tourist world, the tourist also bears some of the language responsibility.
The absolute basics include:
- Hello, goodbye
- Please, thank you
- I would like … (you can point after that)
- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 20,30 …90, 100
- Excuse me / sorry / you’re welcome
A few phrases that often come in very handy:
- Where is the bathroom?
- Can you help me please?
- Is this OK? (Useful for any number of situations – this is my favorite)
- Where is the …?
- Left, right, straight, stop
Apart from reading and listening to tapes, you can also take a language course. Unfortunately, not many of these courses will be specifically geared for kids, even though they can learn languages much faster than adults. Or, you could hire a tutor. This has the benefit of you and the tutor designing a customized program for your family. For convenience, the tutor may even come to your home and may provide some cultural lessons too. A tutor will also provide exposure to English as spoken by most people at your destination. Tutors need not be expensive or even professional; they just need to be able to help you and your family gain exposure to the sounds of the words and learn a few basic phrases. Tutors can be your neighbors, foreign students at the local community college, the daughter of a visiting professor, or the friendly young waiter at the local ethnic restaurant that you’ve already been bugging.