I’ve always had a fascination with foreign cultures; I figure it must be a genetic predisposition. Being a frustrated traveler at 10 years old though isn’t easy, so I found ways to assuage my wanderlust while not leaving home. One of the best things I ever did for myself was to learn foreign languages. I soon found that like travel, I also had a genetic predisposition to languages and truly enjoyed the process of learning about far away places through their words and phrases. It wasn’t until I was older though, when I truly started to travel regularly that I finally understood the importance of language when you travel.
You don’t have to be fluent
I think many people are intimidated by new languages because they think it will be too hard and they don’t want to be embarrassed by mistakes. But you don’t have to be able to discuss philosophy in a foreign tongue, you just have to know enough to be dangerous. I used to speak French fluently and know enough of German and Spanish to understand certain words and phrases. I can barely communicate in German, but what little I understand and can read helps me whenever I’m in a German speaking country. Even if it’s enough to say, “I’m sorry I don’t speak German”, that helps! I was in a restaurant in Switzerland recently and my ability to speak half German helped us get a server who spoke English. Do I wish I could speak German fluently? You bet, but I don’t and I realize those limitations, but being able to read key words (like Danger and Do Not Enter) has helped me countless times.
Makes life easier
If you brush up on key words and phrases before traveling to a new country, you will save yourself time and money. Before leaving on a recent trip to Italy, I made sure I knew how to order certain food staples (coffee and croissants) and ask basic directions. Instead of asking everyone if they spoke English, I was able to figure things out on my own and not look like an uber-tourist. From a purely logistical point of view knowing bits and pieces of a language helps you get on the right trains and navigate a new city with ease. It doesn’t take a lot of advance preparation to be able to nail down the language basics and the rewards are well worth any level of effort.
Closer to the culture
One of the things I love most about learning a new language is how much I learn about the culture. Languages aren’t taught in a vacuum, they necessarily must also include lessons in history, cuisine and even etiquette. Learning a language helps you appreciate a new country in ways you wouldn’t otherwise. You understand why things are done in a certain way and you learn to appreciate new cultures for those reasons. People are also much more willing to engage with you if you learn a new language, even if it’s not perfect. I once had a twenty-minute discussion about politics in Marrakech with a street vendor all in French. Had I just walked up to him, asked for directions in loud English, that cultural interaction would never have happened. Even if you aren’t fluent in a language, it says a lot about you as a traveler if you take the time to learn new phrases in a foreign language. It says that you want to explore and learn, that you aren’t just there for the photos and to tick items off of a list. Travel is all about the experiences and the people you meet and there’s no better way to enhance both than through learning a new language.
My language skills have helped me out all around the world. Between English, French, Spanish and German there have been few places where I haven’t been able to at least get a rudimentary message across. There are exceptions however. For me personally, while I can learn a few phrases in Thai I just can’t read it, no matter how hard I try. Japanese and Chinese are even almost impossible for me to learn even the most basic phrases in and I absolutely did resort to a “Do you speak English” mentality in Tokyo. But on the whole, the time and effort I have invested into learning new languages just hasn’t made travel easier for me, it’s made it a lot more fun.
Do you speak a second (or third, fourth) language? Has it helped you on your travels?
written by Matt Long