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How To Get Talking to Locals! (Learn a New Language)

Updated: Feb 24, 2021


2020 will be good to see the back of. Yes?

For those who’ve lost loved ones, it was the worst year ever. If you are one of those people, please accept my warmest thoughts and condolences.

For those of us travelling or planning to travel, 2020 was tough in a different way…many of us were heading home in droves, cutting short our trips and cancelling upcoming travel plans.

But 2020’s over. A vaccine is on its way! The world will soon be welcoming us again!

Not right away, mind you. But by the last quarter of 2021, I bet, we’ll be heading to Mexico, or to Italy, or to South America. Or whatever exotic destination is top of mind for you.

Santa Catalina Island, Colombia

So…if we have 8 or more months before we can travel…why don’t we take advantage of that time?


Now is the perfect time to do it!

Ha ha…I know what you’re saying...

Why would I want to learn another language? Doesn’t everyone speak English?

More often than not, no, they don’t. And even if you can find people who can speak English, it is SO much more fulfilling and so much richer an experience to communicate with people in a language they speak.

I’m terrible at learning languages. I have no memory.

I hear you. You’re not alone. Memorization’s tough. But there are tricks that I can share with you that will help you easily recall a phrase or a word.

I’m too busy! I have a full-time job.

Again, you don’t have to aim for fluency. I spend just 30 minutes a day learning the Russian phrases and words I will use when I visit Eastern Europe at the end of 2021.

Is it worth it if I’m only going for 2 weeks?

Yes, it is absolutely worth it! Again, you don’t have to become fluent. You don’t have to spend hours every day studying, and you don’t have to spend a penny if you don’t want to. There are so many free resources available to help you learn.

­­­­­­­And with just a little bit of effort, you can learn enough words and phrases of the language to connect in a meaningful way with locals. You will enjoy your trip so much.

My new friend Eliana teaching me the meaning

behind Ash Wednesday.


I am not a professional linguist. I’m not even fluent in another language. But… what I am is a woman passionate about learning new languages and connecting with locals when I travel (which I am equally passionate about).

No, I’m not fluent but I can hold my own. I can talk for an hour on a bench in a park with an old man lonely for some conversation. I’ve lived for a week with families in Ecuador and Peru, speaking nothing but Spanish. And I’ve made wonderful friends throughout South America that I still speak with.

These experiences were only possible because I’d learned the basics of their language.

And this is the reason why I’m learning Russian now. I want to make friends and have wonderful moments with people I meet in Ukraine, my next travel destination.

I have, over the last thirty-five years, tried numerous methods to learn French, Swedish, and Spanish. I want to share with you the methodology that works best for me.


1. Keep it relevant.

Learn the words and phrases that will help you have conversations, ask questions about stuff you’re interested in, deal with emergencies, and get you what you need (food, accommodation & transportation).

Think about how a conversation might go between you and a local you meet hiking? A pharmacist? A hotel receptionist? A guy at a bus stop?

Write down five phrases you might use in a conversation with a native from the country you want to visit on one side of a notebook page. Use Google Translate to translate each phrase to your target language then listen to the phrase being spoken. Write the phrase the way you hear it (phonetically) on the other side of the page. Every day, add five additional relevant phrases or words to your growing vocabulary list.

2. Set aside and commit to a regular 30-minute effort each day.

Or whatever time you want to or can invest.

For me, mornings are best for that 30-minute study. I sit with my coffee, cover up the Russian side of my ever-growing vocabulary list and, out loud, say the phrase or word in Russian. If I get stuck, I spend a minute or so re-absorbing the word, not moving on until I can easily recall it. I then brainstorm and list another five English phrases to the list, use Google Translate to see and listen to the phrase in Russian, then write down the phonetic spelling of the phrase.

I carry a pack of flip cards with English on one side and the Russian phrase/word on the other. If I’m waiting on the phone, on a coffee break, or waiting in a lineup, I pull the cards out and go through as many as I can.

3. Be creative when you’re learning a new word or phrase.

Melissa Drumm of TCK Publishing explains that “mnemonic devices are tools that you can use to help you remember things more easily. Essentially, mnemonics are shortcuts; they give your brain tricks that allow it to encode and recall information in a snap.”

I can’t stress how useful mnemonics are. I use them ALL THE TIME to learn new vocabulary.

Sometimes it’s easy to think of an image or a trick to remember a word. For example, I wanted to remember how to say ‘I’m here, in Russian. I already know that 'I and I am" is YA so I only need to learn the 2nd word 'ZDES.' Immediately I notice the word begins with ‘z.’ and ends with Des, the name of an old friend. I build my sentence – ‘I’m here at the zoo, Des.’ I’m here = ZooDES = YA ZDES. That was an easy one.

Sometimes, finding a mnemonic is more difficult. This morning I wanted to learn the words ‘today,’ ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow.’ Which, in phonetic Russian, are ‘cevodnya,’ and ‘vcherushni den,’ and ‘zavtra.’

So TODAY = cevodnya.’ I look at the word and think 'see vodka'. OK, ‘TODAY, I see vodka.’ That doesn’t quite help with the ‘nya’ ending so I keep going. I’ve already learned that YA is spelled with a backwards R’ so now I put a big backwards R on the Vodka bottle’s label. What’s the word for TODAY? I see a bottle of Vodka with a big R on its label. “Cevodnya.” Got it.

Next...YESTERDAY = vcherashni den. Wow, two words. I examine the first word - vcherashni. Nothing comes to me. I chunk it up. Vcher-rash-ni. Hmm... well, the Spanish word for YESTERDAY is ‘hier.’ That rhymes with ‘vcher.’ OK. And the top of the ‘Y’ of yesterday is a ‘V.’ ‘Hier, Vcher.’ OK, then rash-ni. A rash on my knee, that’s easy. ’So… YESTERDAY. Rhymes with ‘hier’ and starts with a V. Vcher. Then...'rash on my knee.’ ‘Vcherashni.’ ‘DEN’ it's time to learn another word. Vcherashi den. Got it.

You’re probably thinking that’s a lot of work to create a shortcut. Yes, there is a little bit of front-end work, but the process works. You’ll be able to recall the word when you want it. And although it takes a little time to develop your mnemonic, your recall process will happen within seconds. Today, vodka bottle with R, cevodnya. Yesterday, hier, rash on my knee then, vcherashni den.

Check out Melissa Drumm’s articles in 4 Types of Mnemonic Devices and How to Use Them. Great ideas.

4. Start with the free resources until you need more.

I use Google Translate but there are many other free language apps available. Like many apps, Google Translate lets me speak, instead of type, a phrase or word and translate it to the target language, and to listen to the phrase or word being said. It also shows the phonetic spelling of the word (how you say it) which some other apps don’t do.

A pack of blank 2x3 cards with English on one side and your target language on the other provides a set of flip cards that you can practice your vocabulary whenever and from wherever you are.

5. Talk, talk, talk.

Have conversations with yourself while you’re walking, having that first cup of coffee, or driving to work.

Ask a friend who speaks the language if they’re willing to help you practice (Of course they will be! They’re excited you’re learning their language!). Find a language exchange partner on The Mixxer. Challenge yourself. Tell your friend or language exchange partner you would like to have an entire conversation in the target language a month from now.

That's what I did. A week after I began learning Russian (December 1), I called my daughter’s boyfriend (Vova from Ukraine) and asked him if he was willing to have a zoom conversation with me after Christmas. He was. So... I scheduled and invited him to a Zoom meeting on Boxing Day.

I became very motivated. Every day I learned 5 phrases or words that I could use in my conversation with Vova and then, on Boxing Day, with both anticipation and a little (no, a LOT of) anxiety, I got on to the call and…

So, haha. No, it certainly wasn’t pretty, BUT WOW!!! I was so proud of myself.

So there’s my 5 tips to learn a new language. But wait …


If I’ve convinced those of you who dream about learning Spanish someday that this is the time to do it, then I’m excited! And sorry to those learning a different language. I can only start with one and Spanish happens to be the second most popular to learn (the first is Mandarin Chinese - who'da thunk).

Because I know you’re busy people, I’d like to make it a little easier for you.

I want to give you a List of Spanish Phrases and Words that will get you speaking quickly to native speakers.. Phrases that will help you have real conversations with Spanish-speaking locals in Mexico, Central or South America, Spain, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, or Puerto Rico.

Dinner in Iruya with new Brazilian friends. My week living with a family in Panama


Well, it's ready for you on the Tips 'n Tricks Page of my website.

If you'd like to ensure you're updated on new Travel Blogs and Travel-Related Tips 'n Tricks, go to the CONTACT ME page and subscribe to my Monthly Newsletter..


I hope these 5 simple tips show you that it really isn’t difficult, costly, or time consuming to learn the basics of a new language.

I hope I’ve inspired you to learn a new language. I KNOW you won’t regret it.

Again, Happy 2021!


167 views2 comments


Oct 21, 2021

Thanks for the lists and the "Spanish in 10 minutes a day" book. They have really helped and motivated me again. Now to use some of your tricks and tips! In 2 weeks we will be relaxing on a beach in Melaque, eating fresh seafood and drinking tequila!

Love ya,


Caryn Stroh
Caryn Stroh
Oct 21, 2021
Replying to

Yay!!! So cool. Enjoy and think of us up in the snow once in awhile❤️

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