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Top 7 Tips for Learning to Speak a Language on the Cheap

A few months back I met Benny Lewis, the man behind the Fluent in 3 Months blog. A year before I cited him in my Travel Writing book as someone running one of the 10 most popular independent one-person travel blogs on the web. His expertise is language learning, but of course foreign travel and languages are often intertwined. Take it away Benny!

It’s that time of year again when New Year’s Resolutions are being made, and one of the biggest ones tends to be “Learn Spanish/French…” or whatever the language may be.

The problem is that too many people end up not achieving anything close to their goal, and in the process spend heaps of money on worthless courses. After learning well over a dozen languages, many of them to fluency, I can give you my top ten tips to make sure that this year you do succeed!

7. Mentality and devotion are more important than latitude and longitude

While being in the country may help, it will not determine if you ultimately speak the language or not. Thousands of English-only expats I’ve met prove this. And I’ve met countless more who are fluent in various languages without ever going to the country.

Too many people feel that buying a plane ticket will somehow contribute to learning the language – this is false. What will really make a difference is if you are devoted enough to put the hard time in to go through some frustration and to stay positive enough throughout this to make progress. You can do this without ever leaving your home town.

6. Stop making it about STUDYING and start making it about SPEAKING

All the studying in the world will make no difference at all if you are not using your language naturally. A language is a means of communication between human beings: If all you see it as is a list of grammar rules and tables of vocabulary, you are missing the point entirely. To speak a language well you have to have as much natural exposure as possible to it!

5. No investment is better than time with people

Want to buy the latest Rosetta Stone? I highly recommend you do NOT. I have reviewed Rosetta Stone and other products in detail on my blog and do not think it is worth the money. But spending time with people costs nothing more than the price of a coffee in most cases! They can give you live feedback for your issues, and get you used to being more comfortable with the language.

4. Start with a Lonely Planet phrasebook

Much better than all those expensive courses is a book that fits in your pocket and only costs a few dollars and has all the essentials you need now. Courses try to prepare you to speak perfectly “one day”, but phrases (with phonetic transcriptions) are something you can use right now to get your point across, before you understand the language at a deeper level. When you are comfortable saying something, progress comes much easier!

3. Use Couchsurfing… as a host!

While it would be very strange for a budget traveller to not know about Couchsurfing, I’m not actually talking about staying in someone else’s house. I have personally used Couchsurfing to host almost two thousand people – with great advantages for language learning!

When you host someone, since you are doing them a favor anyway, they will be glad to be patient with you if you feel you are stumbling uncomfortably with their language, and offer important feedback. You also get to spend many hours with them so you can get consistent practice. Best of all – you don’t need to be in their country to do it! I have maintained all my languages no matter where I am, thanks to natives I have hosted in my home.

Another great part of the site is that you can search the entire site for a particular city and a particular language. This makes it one of the largest social networks that lets you search language spoken. When you find someone in your city, invite them out for a coffee! Of all people, Couchsurfers are the most open minded to meeting strangers.

2. Go to meetups and get practice with other learners and natives!

Even if you’re in the country, meeting the right people can be hard. But back home before travelling, I have found that the site, going on Facebook and searching for local events (with the language name as a key word) and going to Couchsurfing (again) and using their groups and meetings pages, can help get you in touch with many natives.

When you socialize in your target language – even using just a few phrases and words, it starts to become a real thing for you.

1. Be imaginative, confident and let the conversations flow!

You are not too old, natural talent is NOT holding you back, you DO have “enough time”, and your memory is fine. There is NO excuse that is good enough to stop you from really getting into the language learning challenge. What’s really holding you back is your devotion to those excuses.

Be imaginative in finding ways around whatever problems you have and make it more social than academic, and it will end up costing you very little or nothing. Just meet up with people and let the conversations flow!


Benny Lewis only spoke English when he was 21, but in the last 8 years has taken on many language learning challengese as he travels. He writes at and has written about his best tips to learning a language in his Language Hacking Guide and Speak from Day 1 video course.


Friday 30th of October 2020

What a great list of tips for people who want to learn foreign languages and travel without problems due to the language barrier! I hope that you will continue to make this type of content.

David Urman

Thursday 12th of January 2012

I think the focus on practising is good but for me its best to balance it with an equal amount of study. I suggest getting a big stack of business sized note cards and writing down words and even verbs with conjugations on them. Then whenever you have downtime you can study these rather then playing on your phone or something. If you are not in the country and want a partner to help you learn look at


Friday 13th of January 2012

David---agreed, flash cards are very useful. You can play with your phone and do this too though. I've got a couple apps on my ipod touch and my phone that allow me to save words for study and do conjugations. Good for when I'm waiting in line at the airport or something.


Monday 9th of January 2012

Great article. I personally think that no matter how may books you read on other languages, the most important thing is to speak it before you go! This will give you more preparations on the language before you head out to the country.


Wednesday 4th of January 2012

Benny, I think why a lot of people say it's far more fruitful to live somewhere is that you can practice every day without trying---by just living your life. At home you have to be much more proactive to give yourself that opportunity every day or even every week.

But the reason you meet so many expats who don't speak the language is that they clump together and hang out with their own kind. In some areas (Ajijic, Puerto Vallarta, or San Miguel in Mexico, Costa del Sol or Ibiza in Spain) you can get by so easily in English that people can be lazy and never bother to learn much at all.

People who put out some effort will naturally learn much more in an immersion setting.