Learning a Romance language on a romantic vacation can broaden your appreciation of your travel destination. France, Italy, Spain, Brazil and the rest of Latin America – just the thought of these places makes me sigh in recollection of good times and endearing and friendly people. It’s quite appropriate that this collection of French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese (as well as a few other languages) that branched off from Latin, are called the Romance languages. The destination of those countries can be very much romantic when you are with the right people and in the right places. But what really makes a difference is when you speak that local language while traveling there. And at this time of the year, no doubt many of you have made a New Year’s Resolution to try to learn at least one of them. Well, after learning to speak all of the Romance languages fluently, I’d like to help you learn a Romance language for your next romantic vacation, too.
The great news: There is no starting from scratch
If you think you are starting from zero on this quest to speak one of these languages, it’s time for me to wake you up to the truth! You have a huge headstart, especially compared to what you would have to do to take on languages in Asia, when your starting point is English. You see, in 1066 the Normans conquered England and for many generations (all the way up to the Tudor family) the royalty and noblemen of the country would speak Anglo-Norman, which is a precursor to French. In the mean time, the poorer commonfolk would continue with ye olde English, which would have actually been mutually intelligible with German and almost indistinguishable from Dutch.
With time, the two strata of societies and their languages started to merge, and even though French-Norman rule was removed, a permanent mark was left on our language. The influences from French stem into expressions, vocabulary and grammar and make learning this and other romance languages so much easier.
For example, if someone were to knock on your door, you could say “come in”, which is actually the Germanic term – in German itself it isn’t far off, with einkommen. But if you wanted to be more formal (or more pompous), you could say enter! In French entrer; in Spanish, entrar and in Italian entrare all convey this meaning of “coming in.” Rather than give someone a piece of your mind, you could try to be more formal and share your opinion – a word which is the same or only a tiny bit different in the Romance languages. You can also give them your point of view, which isn’t far from French’s point de vue.
It turns out, you are actually starting to learn romance languages with tens of thousands of words before you ever even open a coursebook! The changes in pronunciation are very consistent, so after getting used to it as quickly as you can, you can actually say way more than you think you could. Then you have the -ation words, which are almost always the same: action, nation, precipitation, solution, frustration, tradition, communication, extinction and many others (written the same in French, and as -ción in Spanish, -zione in Italian and -ção in Portuguese). You have -tude words (gratitude, magnitude) -sion (explosion, expression), -ment (encouragement, segment), -age (garage, camouflage) and so many more! About.com has a great sampling of 1,700 words that are actually written exactly the same in French (cognates), but that’s only when every single letter is precisely the same. I’m sure you have no trouble understanding very slight variations from precise cognates, such as exemple, hélicoptere, porto, capitano, astronomía, Saturno – and these are the close cognates that bring you into the tens of thousands of words you already know. Generally speaking, if that word would be used in a more formal setting in English (almost never slang words) then there is a good chance that your romance language has it too. Give it a try!
Putting it All to Good Use
OK, so you have all these words to start with – now what I like to do is simply grab a phrasebook (I’m a big fan of those printed by Lonely Planet – inexpensive and small enough to fit in your purse or pocket), and sing out a few phrases to burn them into my memory. Yes, sing! For example, to remember that Dove si trova, il gabinetto? is Italian for “Where is the bathroom?” Rather than basic rote learning of repeating it over and over, I took the Big Ben chime and sung with it. Do-ve si-trova…. il gabi..netto! (Can you hear it?) If not, take any song you happen to like the tune of and sing along – it really helps burn those phrases into your memory for quicker access. And don’t forget some basic image association. To remember the word playa means “beach” in Spanish, I pictured a cheesy “player” (i.e. Pick-up artist) strolling along a beach in Valencia, Spain, trying to flirt with girls and getting a few slaps in the face for his efforts. It’s a powerful image, and means I never forgot the word. Try to use stories or colorful and funny associations like this – it takes a minute or so at first, but before you know it, your childhood imagination comes back to you and you can remember a new word for life in an instant.
The best part about romance languages and the cultures associated with them, is the peoples’ friendliness. So put those grammar books aside, and get out and meet locals at your travel destination. My “secret” to learning a language quickly is simply to have as much natural exposure as possible to natives, which forces me out of a relaxed study mindset into genuinely needing to improve as quickly as possible. A language is a means of communication between human beings, not a boring list of grammar rules and vocabulary lists in a dusty old book. Get out and meet people, and the social context will help your progress flow.
If you aren’t in the country and would like to practice before you go, worry not! A few resources I like to use include:
meetup.com – major cities in English-speaking countries have regular meetings for particular languages
Couchsurfing.org – while this site is great for budget traveling, it’s also amazing for simply meeting people! Do a search for your home city AND the target language, and you’ll see many people a coffee-invitation away from helping you practice. I also like to host people when I’m fixed, and have maintained and practiced many languages this way, no matter where I am. The fact that you are providing free accommodation means they are all the more enthusiastic to help you.
If you are a little more remote, as long as you have an Internet connection, you’ll be good to go! Just find a conversational exchange partner through many online means. Livemocha has a very large community of people from all around the world, ready to exchange Skype details (although I recommend you avoid the courses offered on their site; the learning approach is based on Rosetta Stone, which I reviewed and was not impressed with). Also, just as effective is a forum on my site with thousands of active language learners. Here is the section for proposing an exchange.
Just find someone, no matter how or where, and start speaking. There is no good excuse not to get into it immediately. Speaking from day one is the key. You are not too old, and natural talent has nothing to do with it. Any other excuse you may come up with is just that – an excuse. Work around it and you’ll find a way . Enjoy speaking your romance language!
PolyglotGuy Benny Lewis is an Irish blogger who only spoke English when he was 21. In the last decade he has learned over a dozen languages, many of them to fluency. He blogs over at fluentin3months.com and has written a Language Hacking Guide and Speak from day 1 video course to help those curious about how he does it.