I Only Speak English…

“I only speak English…” is a common reason (excuse) for Americans to avoid travel abroad.  Although it can be daunting to listen to someone give you directions in a language that you do not understand, this does not have to be the only option.

There are many language learning programs and apps available that make it easier to learn a few basics. Dictionaries are readily available for most common languages. There are even apps that will translate the words being written or spoken.

There are additional tricks that can be used to enhance communication. A one phrase option has worked great for me (see below).  Here are some things which have helped me.

Learning a Foreign Language
French Books

I studied French in high school, but after four years of study, I couldn’t speak it and could not read more than the basics. When I started traveling to Europe – and France in particular – I wished I had studied harder. Since high school was a long time ago, I expected I would have to start from the beginning. I was surprised when some of the language was very familiar.

I still cannot speak French, but in the more recent years, I’ve tried relearning it. I bought books and downloaded programs with varying degrees of success. When my daughters were in high school, they all studied German. I had the opportunity to sit in on a German class at the college where I worked and learned some basic words and phrases.

I’ve always loved languages and hope to someday be able to actually speak something other than English.

Language Learning Programs

If you search the internet for the best language learning programs, you will find a variety of recommendations.  I have tried several.

The Real Rosetta Stone,
British Museum, London

One popular program is Rosetta Stone.  Although I haven’t invested in this expensive program, I’ve used some of the free trial software and consulted with a merchandiser who gave me glimpses of each level. I found the levels less in-depth than I had hoped.

The biggest problem I have with the program, though, is the price. A three month French subscription has an introductory rate of $36 ($12 per month), which might work for someone who is committed to learning intensively. For a one year subscription with unlimited languages, the price jumps to $179 ($15 per month) – both of these plans auto-renew at the current price. The lifetime plan is $299.

I have had some success with Pimsleur. As I looked at the Pimsleur website now, I saw that the prices are even higher than Rosetta Stone.  However, I have been able to find and use many of the audio CDs through my local library for no cost.

Menu on the Wall
French Menu on the Wall

The audio CDs I’ve used are several years old, but the language has not changed much and they are still relevant. The method begins with simple repetition, then builds on the sentences by adding new words and phrases. After repetition sessions, there are sessions for recall where questions are asked in the target language. The audio CDs are great for someone that has a long commute.

Both Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur have free trials, which I am very tempted to sign up for. If I do, I’ll update this post to tell you what I’ve learned.

Phone or Tablet Apps

There are apps for different types of language learning. There are language courses, flashcards, social experiences, and more.  Memrise is the most popular flashcard type app. I installed it on my phone and used it for awhile, although I’ve let it slide recently.  AnkiApp is another flashcard app that I’ve tried and I found it especially helpful. I used it several years ago, but just installed the updated app on my phone today. I’m looking forward to trying it out.

Duolingo Desktop Version

Duolingo is a popular free language course app.  It can be used on a desktop, tablet, or phone  – the platforms work together, so you can go back and forth. I haven’t signed in for awhile, but when I did, the program remembered where I had left off.  I think I should probably review some of the material before I continue.

Busuu and Babbel are also popular courses, but both of them are fee-based (although Babbel has a large number of free lessons to get you started). I’ve looked into both of them, but shied away because of the cost.

Translation App

There are several translation apps for iPhone or Android based systems. Some like Google Translate work with text that is typed in. Others like Microsoft Translate can translate text, voice, or image inputs.  I haven’t used a translate app on my phone, so I can’t actually recommend one, but the Microsoft one looks great and has high ratings.

Super Simple Solution
German Language Books

Although I am fascinated by languages, I realize that many of you might think I’m crazy.  The last thing you want to do is learn a foreign language so you can travel abroad. Although knowing some key words and phrases can enrich your experience, even this is not necessary.

A super simple solution to the language barrier involves learning just one phrase for each language that you expect to encounter.

Meal with English-Speaking Dutch Friends

Many people in other countries learn English as a second language – in the Netherlands this starts in kindergarten! Although it seems unfair that we expect people in other countries to learn our language while we don’t learn theirs, this is the situation.  In all my travels, I have rarely met someone who does not speak English at all.

The magic phrase?  – “Do you speak English?”

Learn how to say this phrase in the language of the country you are visiting and communicating will be much easier.  The key is to learn to say the phrase in their language – don’t just say it in English.

  • French – Parlez vous anglais?
  • German –Sprichen zie Englisch?
  • Italian – Lei parla inglese?
  • Dutch – Spreekt u Engels?
  • Spanish – Habla usted Inglés?

Before your trip, find out what language is spoken in the country you are visiting and learn this phrase.  If you are uncomfortable actually speaking it, write it down on a note card and show the card to the person you wish to speak to.

In addition, it’s nice to learn the translation of words like hello, goodbye, please, and thank you. Although if the person you want to communicate with speaks English, you can thank them in English.

Communicating in a Foreign Country

Communicating in a foreign country does not have to be a barrier to travel.

Learning a language before embarking on a trip to a foreign country can lead to a more fulfilling experience. However, arriving in a foreign country can cause anxiety for someone that does not know any of the language.

Learning one key phrase  – Do you speak English? – can often help you find an English speaker and can relieve anxiety. If you travel often, you might want to learn more phrases. I hope you can learn to communicate, if only a little, before your next trip abroad.

Bon voyage!


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