Things my mother said: the gift of bilingualism

Last year, a friend of mine discovered that my parents never learned English despite moving to England in 1969.

He raised a brow in askance. “But you speak it so well,” he said, a cheeky smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as he lampooned those who had oh-so-magnanimously paid me the same compliment in the past.

He, a British-born Asian like me, knew there was no reason for me not to speak English well. After all, I was born, raised and educated in England.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be snarky about the compliment. After all, English is my second language despite the fact that I write, think and dream in it (and only it). Continue reading

travel skills: old Indian man in yellow turban

What is the world’s most diverse country?

When Sadiq Khan was voted in as London Mayor, he announced his city ‘the most diverse and fantastic in the world’. This triggered interest from the BBC which ran a podcast examining his claim. The podcast named the Canadian city of Toronto as the most diverse but in doing so, highlighted a number of methodological problems that also apply when measuring the world’s most diverse country. Continue reading

how to improve your vocabulary

How to improve your vocabulary: 6 tips for language learners

After five months in South America followed by several months of self study, I’ve finally got a handle on Spanish grammar. I’ve now shifted focus onto vocabulary which is much more fun. As part of my efforts, I’ve put together six tips on how to improve your vocabulary, along with useful tools that will help at each juncture. If you’ve successfully improved your vocabulary in a foreign language, share your secrets in the comments below. Continue reading

Most popular languages being learned around the world

At Atlas & Boots, we have mentioned Duolingo in nearly all our language posts, be it expert tips for learning multiple languages or tools for lazy learners. We are big fans of the app and were intrigued by its recent findings on the most popular languages being studied around the world.

The team mined data from every country in the world over the course of three months to identify the most popular languages being studied by its 120 million users. The results are fascinating. Continue reading

travel skills: balloon flying

10 travel skills to learn in 2016

We at Atlas & Boots are occasionally approached for our “expert advice” on travel. We find this in equal parts flattering and embarrassing. After all, what makes an “expert traveller” anyway? Is it just knowing how to pack well, where to buy insurance and how to collect air miles? Or does it run deeper than that?

We asked our readers what exactly constitutes an expert traveller. The resulting list of travel skills gives us – and our readers – something to aim for in the year ahead. Continue reading

Tribesman in Papua New Guinea, the most multilingual country in the world

The world’s most multilingual countries – ranked

As guardians of the world’s lingua franca, we English have little incentive for learning a second language. A few years of infrequent lessons from beleaguered GCSE teachers aren’t nearly enough to instil multilingualism on a personal level.

This is a shame because on a country level, the UK has a very healthy degree of multilingualism. There are 56 languages spoken across its lands meaning if we chose to, we could likely learn a new language from someone who speaks a different one. Continue reading

Hardest language to learn: Japanese script

What are the hardest languages to learn?

We’ve written before about the best language to learn based on a number of different criteria. The verdict was French which, as a Romance language, is relatively easy for English speakers. (We stress the word ‘relatively’ because all language learning takes effort.)

Some of the most interesting data in the article comes from the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) at the US Department of State. The FSI trains diplomats in language learning and maintains an internal ranking of language difficulty (specifically, how long it would take a native English speaker to reach proficiency). Here, we examine 10 of the hardest languages to learn based on FSI rankings. Continue reading

7 expert tips for learning multiple languages

I’ve always thought of myself as an avid learner, someone who enjoys challenges and discovering new things. In truth, I’m only avid when I have a choice in what I’m learning. Ahead of our extended stay in France, I thought I would approach French with the same zest with which I studied Spanish.

In reality, I’ve halfheartedly completed three (out of 78) levels in Duolingo and left it at that. It’s not that I’m resistant to French but that I don’t want to dilute my progress with Spanish. With this in mind, I spoke to a number of polyglots and multilinguals to see how they acquired their numerous languages. They shared a wealth of information, the best of which is shared below. Continue reading

Beginners' French: language hacks for word endings

Beginners’ French: language hacks for word endings

Once our journey around the world officially ends, we’ll be heading to France for a few months before finally returning to London. With only a short-course French qualification to my name (from my school days nearly 17 years ago), I need to improve my French quick smart. So far, I have been tackling the task digitally with a combination of Duolingo and the Michel Thomas Method. I’ve been using Duolingo for Spanish throughout South America with mixed success, but the Michel Thomas Method is a promising new approach for me. Continue reading

5 useful travel apps you probably don’t use – and 5 others you probably do

As travel writers, we’re often asked about our favourite travel apps. For a long time, we stuck to old and reliable apps that performed prosaic functions like looking up locations and searching for accommodation. In recent times, however, we’ve discovered a number of fresh apps that provide unique services perfect for travellers. If you’re looking to refresh your list of useful travel apps, have a look at our curated list below. Continue reading


39 Spanish phrases I used most in South America

Like many Brits, I have never been great with languages. It’s not for the want of trying. Over the years I’ve made sporadic attempts at learning German, French, Greek and even Swahili, none of which have been very successful.

When arriving in South America I was a little nervous to say the least. My meagre Spanish consisted of a few words I had learnt from Spanish friends back in London, and most of those would only be appropriate at a football match. Luckily, I had Kia whose Spanish is far more advanced than mine.

Of course, I couldn’t rely on Kia all of the time. There would be times when she wouldn’t be by my side and more importantly I didn’t want to spend several months in South America not interacting with the people I met. I set about practising Spanish on language app Duolingo, writing down a few phases here and there and testing them out on unsuspecting waiters and hotel staff along the way. Continue reading

5 language learning tools for the lazy learner


Duolingo has long been one of my favourite language learning tools. Its clever features gamify the learning process, goading students into returning time and again. Learners are given a fixed number of lives per level; make three mistakes and you’re booted back to the beginning. Your progress is plotted against your daily targets with colour coding making it very clear when you’ve missed. There is a leaderboard so you can play with a group of friends and vie for the top spot, not to mention the fact that finished levels need to be ‘powered up’ regularly or they begin to fade. If you have the slightest streak of competitiveness, this will work like a charm. Continue reading

Hitting the language barrier

Hitting the language barrier

Why travelling in South America has given me a newfound respect for my parents

I check the clock for the third time in five minutes. It is now 11.40am, a good forty minutes past the time we were expecting our transfer to Cartagena’s bus station. I flex my shoulders and try to relax. Peter always tells me I worry too much; that I get too uptight about loose schedules and tardy transfers.

A few minutes later, our Airbnb host Nadia sticks her head in the door. She says some words. I catch enough to understand that she’s saying our bus leaves in 20 minutes. I know that already. She ushers us out the door and says she’ll call a taxi instead. Downstairs, we wait. Instead of hailing a taxi, she speaks to two lads on motorbikes and then gestures for us to get on. Continue reading


What is the best language to learn?

We rank the best language to learn based on fact-driven criteria to help you choose the right one for you.

Over the last two years, I’ve spent some time learning Spanish. Progress has been slow but steady. I’ve taken a 10-week evening class at UCL’s Centre for Languages, completed levels 1-3 of Rosetta Stone and finished the Duolingo tree, meaning I can sort of carry a conversation, but always peppered with mistakes and pauses. If I can become more comfortable with making mistakes, I’ll hopefully improve vastly over the next six months as we travel through South America.

Peter is keen to acquire a second language but isn’t yet sure which is best. It’s a dilemma many would-be learners face, and it often stalls their efforts altogether. What if I choose the wrong one?

Below we take a look at the best language to learn based on different criteria, offer suggestions under each category and examine whether or not each criterion is actually a good way of deciding which language you should learn. Continue reading


5 language learning myths

One of the things on my bucket list is to learn Spanish fluently. I learnt the basics during my GCSEs (16 years ago!), took an evening class at UCL in 2010, and have also dabbled with Rosetta Stone and Duolingo. In the lead-up to our big trip, I decided to get serious and enrolled on a Rosetta Stone course online. I tested at intermediate level B1 and am currently working my way up. Meanwhile, Peter is brushing up on his basic French. Between us, we should have large parts of the South Pacific and South America covered. Continue reading