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Language Learning for Travellers: My Experience with Duolingo and Babbel

Updated: May 29, 2023

Bonjour! ¡Hola! Selamat pagi! Welcome to my language learning adventure filled with laughter, confusion, and a sprinkle of linguistic mishaps. As a semi-retiree on a quest to broaden my horizons and solo navigate foreign lands with ease, I embarked on a journey to learn enough of a foreign language to handle most travel needs. Armed with online language programs such as Duolingo and Babbel, my linguistic odyssey began about four years ago during my Great Canadian Road Trip.

Much of my travel has been shared with Mady my #1 ATB (Approved Travel Buddy). She's a language-sponge and enthusiast. She grew up surrounded by English, French, and Italian. She writes professionally in English and French. She can pick up the basics of every latin-based language simply by breathing the air in the airport. She'll be chatting a mile a minute in the local language in the cab after arrival. I, on the other hand, only spoke English. I would always learn the polite words, but I was unable to ever hold a conversation in a language other than English. Mady always handles the complicated stuff. I knew there were going to be more solo trips for me and I while I knew I would never achieve the same language proficiency as Mady, I did want to feel like I was able to do better.

As I drove across the picturesque landscapes of Canada, visiting places I had once taught about in Grade 10 Canadian History lessons, a realization struck me. Having spent my entire career teaching in French Immersion schools, it was high time that I embraced the other official language of Canada—French. And so, with the spirit of curiosity and a touch of determination, I set out to master the art of French conversation, or at least, make a valiant attempt.

Little did I know that this initial foray into the world of French would ignite my focus and need for a new project. I'm a "project-person". There's probably a better word for it but that's the way I describe it. I love the challenge of learning a new skill for a particular purpose and I tend to work hard to achieve that purpose and then I move on to the next project. I soon found myself entangled in a linguistic web, juggling not just French, but also Spanish and Indonesian simultaneously. The allure of cultural immersion, the desire to be a polite guest in different countries and my inability to be without a project led me on this multilingual rollercoaster

Follow along as I share my language-learning journey in my quest to speak the local language of destinations I was visiting at a "tourist level". For me, this means being able to hold fairly transactional conversations. I hoped I would be able to have simple, more personal conversations as I continued to learn. I've had learning mishaps & triumphs, and have learned invaluable lessons along the way. From my initial fascination with podcasts (Coffee Break French) and university night courses to my reliance on Duolingo during pandemic closures, and the addition of Babbel to my language-learning arsenal, my journey has been filled with surprises and unexpected twists.

Field testing was done during trips to France in May 2022, in Mexico September 2022 and in Indonesia April 2023. There has been confusion, mispronunciations, poor vocabulary choices but there is success to report!

Travellers are Guests. Learn (a least a bit) of the Host's Language

I've always believed that learning at least some of the language spoken in the country I'm visiting is not only important but also a responsibility. After all, when we enter a foreign land, we become guests in someone else's culture, and it's only fair that we make an effort to communicate in their language. I believed this but it was a struggle for me to find the time to learn much more than the "polite" words and the local word for my food allergies.

Now, I must admit that I don't harbour any illusions of becoming fluent in a language without full and sustained immersion. Learning a language to a high level of proficiency takes years of practice, exposure, talent, and dedication. The common language in tourism is English. Most tourist services offer services in English. Translation apps like Google Translate are pretty good. However, none of that means we shouldn't attempt to learn the basics and grasp some useful phrases.

One of the benefits of attempting to speak the local language is the delighted surprise it brings to the locals. Picture this: you stumble into a charming boulangerie in the heart of Arles, and instead of timidly ordering in English, you muster the courage to ask for a croissant using your broken French. The smile that spreads across the baker's face as they realize you're making an effort is priceless. It creates a connection, a moment of shared understanding that transcends language barriers.

Moreover, learning even a modest amount of the language opens doors to gentler and more generous interactions. Locals appreciate the effort you put into speaking their language, and they're often more patient and willing to help you navigate their world. Suddenly, that intimidating subway map, perplexing menu, or supermarket purchase become slightly less daunting as the locals guide you with a newfound warmth.

Speaking the local language also allows you to dive deeper into the culture. It opens a gateway to hidden gems, local haunts, and unique experiences that you might not stumble upon as an English-only traveller. From striking up conversations with friendly strangers at a bustling market to understanding the humour in a local joke, language enables you to truly connect and immerse yourself in the vibrant tapestry of a foreign land.

However, it's important to keep our expectations realistic. Learning a language, especially as a traveller, doesn't mean you'll suddenly become fluent overnight or even when you have completed a course. It's about making an effort, showing respect, and embracing the joy of communication, even if it means stumbling through conversations with the grace of a newborn gazelle wearing army boots.

Multilingual Madness: Learning French, Spanish, and Indonesian

They say curiosity killed the cat, but in my case, it led me down a path of multilingual mayhem. Once I dipped my toes into the world of language learning with French, it wasn't long before I found myself entangled in the complexities of Spanish and Indonesian as well. Three languages, each with its own unique set of challenges and delights.

It all began with podcasts and university night courses. When I started to learn French, I was driving through Saskatchewan heading east. While Saskatchewan does have a surprising beauty, little of that beauty is found along the long straight highways through the flat prairie. I knew I needed more than music on the radio, my playlists, or the true crime podcasts I had been listening to through the 2 previous provinces. I found the Coffee Break French podcasts. I travelled many kilometers repeating the lessons aloud from the driver's seat. When I returned home in the fall, I realized that podcasts didn't work for my home routine. I found some night courses at the local university and signed up. I decided to book a trip to France to motivate myself. The podcasts provided a delightful way to tune my ears to the melodic sounds of French, while the night courses offered a structured learning environment with knowledgeable instructors.

However, when the world shifted during the pandemic and physical interactions became limited, my night classes were cancelled and my trip to France was indefinitely postponed. I turned to online language platforms to continue my linguistic escapades, now determined that I would become somewhat conversational in French once I could rebook my trip. Duolingo became my trusty companion, with its game-style approach to language learning. Bite-sized lessons, quirky exercises, and a vibrant community kept me motivated and engaged even during those long days of lockdown.

When the world began to open up and Mady and I decided to rebook our France trip for May 2022, I had completed Duolingo but I still had trouble understanding the French TV shows. I had been sucked into the game-type interface and had rushed through parts. I was pretty confident reading and writing the simple things that Duo asked but it felt more like I was learning a script and I wasn't confident in my ability to ad-lib. I was completely stymied by the Quebecois accent and slang. I decided to add Babbel to my language routine. I wanted to ensure I had a well-rounded grasp of the language before immersing myself in the rues and boulevards of France.

I knew Mady would save me if needed but I wanted to be an active participant in (some of) the conversations she strikes up everywhere. Babbel offered more comprehensive lessons, focusing on real-life conversations and practical vocabulary. It became my go-to resource for polishing my French skills and building confidence for my upcoming adventure. Babbel answered a lot of the "but WHY?" questions that lingered.

But why stop at French? If there's a way to over-achieve on my way to completing a project, I will find it. The allure of exploring the Spanish-speaking world beckoned me, and so I added Spanish to my daily language routine. With the foundation I had built through French, I found Spanish to be somewhat familiar, yet delightfully distinct. Duolingo and Babbel became my faithful companions once again, guiding me through the intricacies of Spanish grammar and vocabulary... and adding another 30 minutes to my daily language ritual. I was taking it slow because I didn't have a trip to a Spanish-speaking country planned and I wanted to really make sure I understood each lesson before moving on.

I appreciate that Babbel includes both Latin-Spanish and continental Spanish vocabulary, pronunciations, and explanations for the differences. From travels around Spain, I knew that each area has it's own distinct language/dialect and that there were differences from other Spanish-speaking areas.

I had been plugging along for a while, practicing French on Babbel while learning Spanish with Duolingo and Babbel, which I found very satisfying. As a significant birthday approached, Mady decided that she wanted to celebrate in style. In September 2023, we spent a week at a posh all-inclusive resort in Mexico. Knowing Spanish was absolutely unnecessary in the resort and on the excursions, I knew I wouldn't need a lot of Spanish. As it turned out, every person we interacted with had impeccable English. Mady was having her usual fun and used her special blend of Franco-Ital-Nish for about a day until her Spanish was virtually fluent. Me? I stumbled through conversations, mixing up verb tenses and mispronouncing words, but everyone responded with patience and encouragement. While my Spanish skills were far from perfect, the effort I put into learning their language was met with warm smiles, helpful gestures, gentle corrections, and a quick switch to English. I didn't get a lot of opportunities to use Spanish in the resort but I was pleased that I was able to greet people, make requests, and follow simple directions. I was understanding a lot of the Spanish conversations around me but my comprehension was on a 3-second delay.

But my language-learning adventures didn't end there. I hadn't yet reached the proficiency I wanted in French or Spanish so I was continuing to practice and learn daily. I was looking for French and Spanish television shows and movies. I was also realizing exactly how big this language-learning project was going to be, although I was mighty chuffed at the progress I had made. I had even been a substitute teacher in a primary French Immersion class. (My French skills are adequate for the littlest ones) Always an over-achiever, once my April 2023 trip to Indonesia was confirmed, I knew I had to tackle the beautiful and complex Indonesian language. The thought that maybe if I started learning early I might be able to keep up with my polyglot ATB definitely influenced my decision, too.

Adding Indonesian to both Babbel and Duolingo, I embarked on a crash course in Bahasa Indonesia... and added yet another 30 minutes to my daily routine. Most of those 30 minutes were spent in complete confusion as the challenge of mastering a language with a completely different grammatical structure and cultural nuances was both exhilarating and very humbling. I was not at all confident upon my arrival in Bali but I introduced myself to the driver and made some remarks about the heat and how tired I was in Bahasa Indonesian. His entire face lit up. He quickly discovered the limits of my knowledge as he responded with a barrage of questions, sending my tired brain into overdrive and meltdown. We spent the journey to my homestay with him coaching me and giving me lots of compliments. This confidence boost led me to try out more phrases with every local I interacted with. Everyone was very surprised and very complimentary. I rarely walked away from one of these interactions without learning a new phrase or understanding a subtlety in word choice that I had been unaware of. Again, there is no need to learn Indonesian to travel around Bali. Everyone I met, including those who didn't work in tourism spoke some English. Those working in tourism had excellent English skills and are always incredibly accommodating but there was a noticeable difference in our interactions after I spoke my very-inadequate Indonesian.

For real language keeners... similar to the regional languages of Spain, each Indonesian island has it's own distinct language/dialect.

Online Language Learning for Travellers: Is it Enough?

My biggest challenge in trying to learn new languages was relearning my grammar lessons from my school days. A lot of time had passed since I had learned grammar and I spent a fair amount of time googling the meaning of many terms. It had been a long time since I needed to know about partitive articles, passive voice and the lot. Another friend (also learning French) and I shared many "WHY IS THIS WRONG?" conversations as we stumbled along. French and Spanish are easier for me as much of the vocabulary and structure is similar and I am more familiar with the sounds. The actual words in those languages are often very similar to English equivalents. It's the grammar that trips me up and is a barrier to creating complex sentences. Indonesian vocabulary is completely different from English, French and Spanish. Many words seem almost identical and I had a difficult time progressing as I repeated lessons multiple times. I didn't have an initial feeling of success but the grammar is easier. Once I got past the early stages and the verbs began to make sense and became better embedded in my brain, I progressed more quickly. It takes me a lot longer to learn the Indonesian vocabulary.

As my language journey unfolded, I couldn't help but assess the strengths and weaknesses of the online language programs I relied on. Duolingo proved invaluable for building vocabulary and understanding basic grammatical structures. Its playful approach kept me engaged, and I often found myself addicted to earning streaks and unlocking new levels. However, when faced with real-life conversations, I discovered that the accents, speed, rhythm, and melody of natural speech were vastly different from what I had practiced. Real speech is more casual, filled with idioms and colloquial expressions that Duolingo hadn't fully prepared me for.

Babbel, on the other hand, offered a more comprehensive and practical approach. Its focus on real-life conversations and interactive exercises helped me develop more confident speaking and listening skills. The lessons were designed to mimic authentic situations, making it easier to navigate through everyday scenarios. However, even with Babbel's strengths, I still faced challenges in understanding the accents and nuances of natural speech. Native speakers often spoke faster than what I had become accustomed to, they definitely don't articulate as clearly which often left me feeling quite befuddled.

Despite these limitations, both Duolingo and Babbel have their merits. The vocabulary I acquired through Duolingo proved invaluable in everyday situations, allowing me to make polite requests, navigate public transportation, and engage in simple conversations. Babbel, on the other hand, provided me with a deeper understanding of the grammar rules and helped me develop a more natural flow in my speech. I was able to create more complex sentences that covered more situations that I was likely to encounter as a visitor. For me, the combination of both programs was essential.

It's important to note that in the locations I travelled to, English proficiency among those working with tourists is widespread. While I appreciated the locals' patience and encouragement when I attempted to speak their language, I also recognized that English could be relied upon as a safety net. However, this shouldn't deter language learners from their endeavours. Even if fluency is out of reach, the effort we put into learning the language is appreciated and can lead to more meaningful and rewarding travel experiences.

While these online platforms have their strengths and weaknesses, they provided me with a foundation to communicate and connect with locals in my travels. The surprised smiles, kind gestures, and genuine connections I made along the way made every mispronunciation and linguistic fumble worth it.

I encourage you to embark on your own language-learning journey. Whether it's mastering a few basic phrases or diving deep into a new language, the benefits of attempting to speak the local tongue are immeasurable. Just remember to keep your expectations realistic and embrace the moments that arise along the way. Bon voyage, selamat jalang and buena suerte!


Thanks for meandering with me! Let me know your language learning efforts in the comments below. What has worked/not worked for you? Become a member/subscriber to get notified of new content and for access to our (women's) FB travel discussion group. *Note to commenters: You must be logged in for your name/website to show on your comments.

2 comentarios

Lyn (aka Jazz)
Lyn (aka Jazz)
30 may 2023

It's hard to really progress without having conversations so that's where all online programs are weak. I find that even when I understand and even can formulate a response, I get shy and second guess myself.

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30 may 2023

As one who has ridden your duo/babbel coat tails and grilled you to the ends of your patience on every grammatical conundrum I could stumble into, I have learned that I enjoy the programs but I think for me immersion is going to be the only access to conversationalism, much less fluency. Right now I am just really good at what the apps ask of me, but I have ZERO comprehension skills. It's good for vocabulary and being able to structure some speaking, but I couldn't begin to understand anyone who replied.

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