Photo: Language board in Bima, Sumbawa.

Speaking a bit of the local language can be a great way to get more from your holiday, and nowhere is this truer than in Southeast Asia. Despite the masses of travellers the region has been receiving for years, very few bother to learn much of the language at all. It's true some Southeast Asian languages can be a bit challenging but if you try your hand at them, you'll be surprised at just what a warm response you'll receive.

While many local students study English at school, the level they leave with is often rudimentary at best, and as very few foreign travellers study any Khmer, Lao, Thai or Vietnamese whatsoever at school, it's not at all unusual to come up against language barriers over and over again while travelling. The simplest way to get around this kind of problem, not surprisingly, is to learn some of the local language.

It's not as difficult as you may think to pick up the basics, and, as with any language, once you've got the basics down, the more you use it the more you'll learn.

Unless you're planning a long stint in the region, undertaking a formal course in-country isn't always practical, so it's a good idea to warm up the foreign-language section of your brain before departure. Rest assured, if you arrive in the region being able to exchange pleasantries and count from one to 20, you'll be way ahead of the pack!

So keeping in mind you want to get to a basic conversational level, and won't be bothered if you're unable to discuss the intricacies of border demarcation disputes, the best place to start is with some free online downloads.

Free language downloads

If you're reading this, then you've access to a computer and an internet connection -- with those you're well on the way to picking up some good learning resources for which you won't need to open your wallet.

World Nomads offers a selection of brief language primers that are notable for their unorthodox format. Useful phrases include "Don't shoot -- the drugs aren't mine"! They're available as an iPhone app and a MP3 podcast. Useful languages for Southeast Asia include Khmer, Bahasa Indonesia, Lao, Bahasa Malay, Thai and Vietnamese


If you've already had enough time in front of the laptop, then a phrasebook may be a better investment. The downloaded soundfiles and online lessons mentioned above are good to a point, but not much use when you're away from the computer. This is when a phrasebook will come in handy. If you're after nothing more than the bare basics, and would prefer to do most of your learning once you're in-country, then a phrasebook should be sufficient.

In the past we've found the Lonely Planet ones to often be a good starting point, but there are plenty of other publishers to choose from. Here are some links to relevant titles for Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam to get you started.

Formal language coursebooks

More formal language texts are appropriate for those looking to get beyond "Where is the bus station?" However, before you go and buy a whole collection of learning texts, consider how much time you have to put into serious language self-study.

Pimsleur Direct has an excellent reference dealing with the question "How long do I need to learn a language?" They use the FSI (Foreign Service Institute) Rating Scale and suggest that to gain a minimum professional level of proficiency in Khmer, Lao, Thai or Vietnamese, you're looking at around 44 weeks, or 1,320 hours of study -- that's study via the FSI intensive course where one "studies a language for six hours a day, five days a week, in a class of no more than 10 students, led by an experienced linguist and a well-trained native drillmaster".

What that means is it could take you a good deal longer if you're doing an hour a day during your lunch break.

But don't be put off -- the more you study, the more you'll get out of your trip, so even if you're fitting in just 45 minutes a day, you'll have a firm basis in the language before you arrive. After all, once you're in-country, unlike FSI students, you'll be experiencing the language 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Here are some introductory language texts that come recommended -- consider them a stepping stone between a phrasebook and 1,320 hours of study with a Government Foreign Service agent! Modern Spoken Cambodian , Lao for Beginners, Thai for Beginners and Vietnamese for Beginners .

Please note books ordered through Book Depository are shipped free shipping worldwide!


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 Be sure to have adequate insurance cover before you travel. We recommend World Nomads

Further reading

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