Dictionaries and Language books
Bonjour, Salam, Jambo, Buenos, Hello!
"If I didn't want to meet people, I wouldn't be traveling alone"...
It was Pierre's response, a long ago, to a fellow traveler who approached him with a little hesitation.
Whether traveling alone or with others, you must learn basic skills in the languages of the countries
you are going to cross. This is not an absolute necessity: wherever you are in the world, you are not
going to die of thirst or hunger just because you don't speak the language - and you are almost always
going to find a bathroom in time too. But even though learning a local language might not be a life-or-death
situation, it still is the single one most important thing you can do to heighten your experience during
In many places, you don't need to learn a lot. Even if you just babble some greetings and thanks-yous
and a couple of sentences about your family, it will be enough to make the locals welcome you with big smiles.
And then it becomes much easier to switch back to English or French, or whatever colonial language is spoken there.
Anybody can learn at that level with a minimal effort: buy a phrasebook, practice for a few days, et voilà!... you speak
Arabic, Thai or Swahili better than 95% of the tourists!
As a long-distance traveler, there are not a lot of languages that you definitely need to learn at
a conversation level. The first one is, of course, English. The other three languages are:
- Spanish for Central and South-America (+ Spain),
- French for North and Western-Africa (+ France, Belgium, Switzerland, Québec),
- Russian for Russia and the "stan" countries.
With English, Spanish and French, you can already plan a full RTW trip, crossing each continent
from end to end. By adding Russian, you have a backup plan to get around the Middle-East in case
a bearded embassy official rejects your visa application just by looking at your passport's cover page
(...besides, Russia and Uzbekistan are a lot of fun too!)
I did not mention German because nowadays pretty much everybody who speaks German also speaks English,
nor did I mention Portuguese (for Brazil, Angola and Mozambique) because if you speak Spanish correctly,
Portuguese will come to you almost as a freebie.
Learn the language:
that's when the real fun begins!
Latin America, from Baja California in Mexico to Tierra del Fuego in Chile, is a dream for the long-distance motorcycle traveler.
Learn a single language and cross an entire continent... It was the first thing listed in our
list of recommendations
The best way to learn is to start at home over a period of several weeks to several months before you leave.
Take classes at your local university if you can, or buy an interactive package to practice on your computer.
Once you handle the basics, begin your Latin American trip with at least 2 weeks (and up to 6 weeks) of intensive courses
at one of the best schools in the world to learn Spanish. You can find them at Guanajuato or San Miguel de Allende in Mexico
(if you start your trip from the north of the continent) or at Buenos Aires (if you start from the south). Prices are
reasonnable, at around $10/hour. You will not regret it and besides, these cities are plenty interesting enough to spend all that time learning.
Merritt very much liked the Rosetta Stone for French: the Spanish edition should be equally good.
A note about it, though: it teaches you the languages the way a child learns, by association of words and images,
but the method doesn't fit everybody's taste. It seems to work very well for those who have never learnt any foreign
language and feel intimidated by it. Other people with already some basics or a degree of confidence will probably benefit
more from the Pimsleur program. We haven't tried it ourselves but it comes with great reviews.
We also scoured dozens of bookstores between Buenos Aires and Miami for courses and dictionaries and we found a couple that are clearly above
the rest. "Hugo in 3 months" is a mix of lessons and exercises, all clearly presented, in a format small enough
that you can take it with you on the trip (the few other books of quality were as big as the Manhattan phonebook) - and it
even comes with a CD now.
The Oxford Mini-Study Dictionary has a very convenient Spanish Verbs section in the middle, and it's full of idioms and
expressions (not just plain litteral translations of the words). The University of Chicago Spanish Dictionary is the size of a regular pocket paperback, and much more
complete. It's has all the slang you need and we found it less academic, more usable, than the slightly thicker Merriam Webster.
Finally, for those who just don't have any time to learn and need to grab something at the store the day before departure,
there is the very correct Lonely Planet Latin-America Phrasebook. It can also be useful for those who want to complete
their lessons at school with practical exemples.
Merritt's first words:
"Combien ça coûte?"
French is more difficult than Spanish, no doubt about it.
The best way to learn is probably to contact the closest branch of the Alliance Française and
inquire about their classes. They are present in 800 cities and 130 countries in the world: chances are
there will be one near you (to find out, visit their web site at http://www.alliancefr.org/
Merritt loved the Rosetta Stone but it's not for everybody (see what we wrote above in the Spanish section).
Otherwise, there is Pimsleur which we haven't tried but for which people say lots of good things...
Same as for Spanish, the "Hugo in 3 months" is clear and compact enough to pack in your suitcases.
Pierre, like many French students, always swore by the Robert & Collins. The supplies are dwindling
so if it runs out before a new edition is printed, go with anything from Collins instead. Also, because French is so twisted,
Merritt very much appreciated the French Grammar Gem pocket book, from Collins.
If you don't have time for anything else, or if you want to complete your classes with real-life examples...
We haven't gone through Russia, we haven't learnt the language. The recommendations below are made
based on the solutions we found to work for French and Spanish, with some additional research on Amazon.
You will recognize the same method (Plimseur) and the same phrasebook (LP). Otherwise, the Russian Course from
Penguin is highly recommended, and the Langenscheidt seems to be the only real pocket-format
Babbling In Other Languages
Imagine the scene... You are in Mongolia, Iran or Tanzania. You stop in the middle of nowhere. You think you're alone but within
seconds a group of locals is approaching. Your riding gear, your monster bike:
they have never seen an alien like you. They must
be wondering "What planet is he from?". You remove your helmet and they hear you
addressing them in their language with a big smile: "Hi! How are you?"
This is (almost) all you need to know...
Here are some of the phrasebooks
you will enjoy the most during the trip. We can vouch for the quality of those about
Swahili and South-East Asia. The other ones consistently get good reviews too.
You don't speak Swahili!?