Language Learning for Digital Nomads

Learning a different language while traveling can be made simple through digital means. – Courtesy photo

By Philip Seifi

I’ve spent the past few years as a digital nomad, with all my possessions tightly packed in one carry-on luggage. While on the road, I’ve been learning six different languages, and running [LinguaLift] (, an online course for language self-learners.

The minimalist lifestyle provides freedoms I could not give up now, but it also comes with limitations of its own. Working around these limitations is part of the fun; however, they force you to think outside of the box and stay on the edge of progress at all times.

Language learning is not an easy endeavor, and the constraints of permanent travel only make it more challenging. Below, I provide tips that will help you make as much progress on the road, as you did from the comfort of your permanent home.

Choose an online course adapted to self-learners.

For most, their language learning journey starts in a bookstore. Paper textbooks still dominate the industry, both in educational institutions and among autodidacts. Indeed, only 5 percent of language learning worldwide relies upon digital resources!

As a digital nomad, you of course don’t have the luxury of dragging around hefty workbooks, let alone a full dictionary.

For fiction, you likely already own a Kindle or other e-reader. While it can be a great tool for intermediate learners who are ready to crunch through native material with the help of the built-in dictionary, the choice of actual learning material is unfortunately very lackluster.

Very few good language textbooks have been adapted to digital ink, likely because of draconian publishing deals, and even bilingual graded readers tend to be unusable on the small screen with no support for side-by-side layouts. Your only option, therefore, is to look online instead.

We have made a list of the [100 best language self-learning resources] (, so I won’t make any specific recommendations. That said, there are some characteristic that make for a good self-learning course.

First, the course should be varied. Any program that has a fixed curriculum or one specific method of teaching a language is by its very nature unsuitable for self-language learners.

Whilst an experienced teacher can usually respond to the needs of any student’s learning style by skillfully navigating any textbook, you shouldn’t expect to have to mould to the methodology of the product. Look instead for a sufficiently rich mix of content and teaching styles.

Second, it should be interactive. But be warned: being asked to click a button isn’t interacting with the language, only with the program. Avoid any method that provides you only with content, and look for courses that expect you to use the language you are studying.

This could be as simple as an audio course that gives time for you to parrot back the sentences you hear (I recommend Pimsleur), or as sophisticated as having a tutor who assigns you homework to be checked, or who can set up a live video chat appointment with you.

Leverage asynchronous coaching and tutoring

Language schools and private tutoring are traditional ways of learning a language that are off limits for a digital nomad.

Although new video tutoring sites pop up every month, they all target learners who live in one place, with a set schedule and a stable internet connection. I’ve tried online tutoring for some of my languages, and although I’ve made progress when things did work, mostly, they didn’t.

Moving between different time zones forced me to regularly switch tutors, and as they didn’t have access to my study data from previous teachers, I would waste the first few hours just getting them up to speed on my needs and progress.

I would also have to be online with a headset and at specific times, which can be difficult when you’re in a noisy co-working space in Calcutta, or a local cafe in Manila that is too hipster for broadband.

And don’t even get me started on the time I had a class scheduled on Google Hangouts behind a crawling VPN while in China!

For businesses, the answer to online communication woes was Slack, the up and coming messaging platform that is taking over the corporate world, and making inroads into communities of interest (I hope you’re already a member!

For language learning, we hope to do the same with LinguaLift. Taking the best of self-study and private tutoring, we provide you with an online course hand crafted for learning on your own, but also pair it with study coaches and language experts always available to help via in-app message.

Make the best use of your time in transit

You don’t have to stop learning while going from place to place. If you’re driving, listen to an audio course from Pimsleur, try [shadowing with Assimil](, or tune in to a podcast. As a passenger, I like to immerse myself in a graded reader, or play word games with my companions.

I recommend sitting down in front of a computer for the more serious bulk of your coursework, but public transport can be great for quick review on your phone, or reading through cultural blog posts on your country of interest.

If you’re in the country where the language is spoken, another learning opportunity can be found in ads in buses, trains, and stations. Marketing slogans tend to be easy to decipher with the help of a dictionary, but can provide a unique insight into grammar, humor, and local traditions. It also helps that they’re made to be memorable.

Finally, one of the hacks we recommend LinguaLift students [stay focused on learning]( is to break up their day into blocks of time dedicated to language study, and avoid all distraction by blocking calls and notifications.

You could of course schedule a reminder in your calendar, but a nice way to keep things from becoming a chore is to schedule them based on outside events. If you’re on a night train, use each stop as a natural break point between study sessions. If you’re flying, benefit from no phone & internet signal for uninterrupted study.

One of the joys of traveling the world, for fun or business, is to discover different cultures—appreciate the differing opinions, learn to be tolerant and understanding, combine the best practices and introduce them in other countries. But to get the most of your cross-border experience, you do need to learn the local language. I hope that the tips above will help you reach fluency in your target language, without having to drop your anchor for a full time traditional course.

September 6, 2017

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