Written by:
Jun 7, 2019

Learn a Language Before You Travel: Is Studying on the Plane Too Late?

It was 6 am on a Friday morning, and I had just made it through airport security. There was still time before my flight and I badly needed a cup of coffee. I headed into one of the busy airport restaurants near my assigned gate. I ordered, glad to get my bags off my shoulders and settled into my seat.

After quickly scrolling through my email and checking in with the Drops team, I knew it was time. I was officially en route to Iceland and my latest challenge was to see just how much Icelandic I could realistically learn while traveling.

It would be my first ever project of this sort. In the past, I gave myself time to learn the languages of the destinations to which I was headed. In fact, I had an entire two months to work on Hungarian during my last language learning project. Only having somewhere between 12-15 hours would be a new way to see just what I could accomplish with the right tools.

My coffee was brought out to me, taking a drink I tapped open the Drops app and dove in.

Learning Icelandic with Drops. Is waiting until you're on the plane too late?

The Mission: Learn Icelandic on the Plane

With my Icelandic project, my mission was to see just how much Icelandic I could learn (and retain) with Drops while traveling to Reykjavik, Iceland. I wouldn’t use anything other than the Drops app and I couldn’t “peek” at the language until I began moving towards my destination.

The questions I aimed to answer were:

  • Is it too late to start learning the language on the plane to the place that speaks it?
  • How quickly can you learn with Drops?
  • Is vocab enough to get by on a trip or do you need grammar?
  • How much can you remember and for how long if you only study for a short period?
Learn a new language with Drops

In a perfect world, we would have plenty of time in advance to learn a language. We’d know about our trips in advance, have time each week to work on the language, take lessons, and learn enough to survive a trip abroad. But in reality, this doesn’t always happen.

Sometimes trips are spur of the moment. Sometimes we’re so busy getting all the stuff we need to do leading up to the trip that we never find the time to book those lessons or sit down and study. And sometimes, even with travel plans staring you in the face, working up the motivation to learn a new language just isn’t there.

When this happens, is it too late to start learning the language on the plane to the place that speaks it? Does it make a difference? Or should you just say “why bother?”

The short answer: yes.

It makes a difference and it’s worth the effort. Besides, you weren’t really planning on using that time to rewatch The Office, were you?

Learning Icelandic with Drops. Is waiting until you're on the plane too late?

The Long Answer: Why Learning Some of the Language Beats Learning None

It may not seem like knowing how to say things like “hello”, “goodbye”, “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me”, or “water, please” would make a difference. If you can’t understand whatever’s said to you in response, why spend the effort to learn these few words?

Because both the person you use those words with and you will have better experiences because of them.

When you travel, you’re on someone else’s turf. In a way, it’s already an imposition and while the tourist industry supports a lot of economies, it creates its fair share of issues, too. By making an effort and speaking someone else’s languages--even if it’s only a few words--can help alleviate or even remove any tension.

It also means that:

  • You’ll better understand the culture of the place you’re living
  • Getting around is easier
  • You’ll make unexpected connections
  • You’ll have better experiences
  • You’ll get to enjoy the local menu and not just the “tourist” menu
  • You create a positive impression for the place you come by being polite
  • You'll be safer

All that from just a few words?


Ready to dive in on your next trip? Here’s what I did.

Learning Icelandic with Drops

I started studying Icelandic shortly after I arrived at the airport. That gave me just over an hour of study time before I even got on the plane.

Because I’m in California and had a layover, it took about 16 hours to get to Iceland. A lot of the time, traveling to a new place doesn’t take that long and some of that time should be used for sleeping. Plus, a 16-hour cram session just didn’t sound like a good idea.

Rather than spend my entire travel time studying Icelandic, I spaced out my study time, doing a few sessions of Drops before taking a break to do something else (like eat, sleep, or even watch a movie!).

Whenever I started to feel learner’s fatigue come on, I took a break so I wouldn’t burn out. This meant that in total, I studied 268 words in Icelandic on the plane with Drops.

Was it enough vocab to get by on a trip?

Learn a new language with Drops

It was. I was able to connect with people on the trip in a way that wasn’t otherwise possible. For example, on some of the tours I did, I was able to impress the guides and get more local insider information because I knew words like “thermal water”, “volcano”, and “snow”. Even if it was just one word, they were impressed I knew anything at all--many tourists don’t make this effort. And because of this, they opened up and we had “real” conversations. What I learned went beyond the name of this waterfall or that landmark.

I was also able to go the coffee shops that were popular amongst locals rather than the chains haunted by tourists. I could order “one latte” and “one Icelandic donut”, understand the cost because I had learned numbers, and then enjoy a secret moment of pride that I had convinced the baristas I was either a local or high-level speaker.

Didn’t I need grammar?

Not in this instance. I wasn’t trying to have conversations in Icelandic yet. Instead, I was just trying to piece together what I could and make an effort. You don’t necessarily need grammar to put together “one” + “coffee” + “please”. And even if you do (like in a language such as Hungarian--yay cases!), you’ll still be understood if you make grammatical mistakes.

How much did I remember and for how long since I only studied for a short period?

I still remember a few words in Icelandic like “hello”, “water”, “toilet” and “thank you”. Certainly, important words if I ever end up back in the country. Beyond that, I don’t remember much else. But this doesn’t bother me.

My goal was never to learn Icelandic for forever. It was only to learn enough to make my trip to Reykjavik more enjoyable.

To Sum Up

While waiting until you’re on the plane en route to your destination means you won’t have enough time to master your new language, knowing even just a few essentials in the language will help make your trip more enjoyable and open up opportunities that you may not have had otherwise.

“Please”, “hello” and “thank you” in the local language is an incredible start to an even more incredible adventure.

Learn a new language with Drops

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