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?
23 thoughts on “Importance of Language When You Travel”
I speak 4, though 2 are not so good these days. I think it’s sooo important to learn a couple of words of the language of the country that you will be traveling in. At least out of respect!
and you don’t have to be fluent either to benefit!
If you don’t have a thing for languages or just don’t have the time or desire to learn the key phrases before you travel, you might want to look into using an app such as the Talking Translator. It translates whatever you want to say and it’s pretty cool-we’ve tried it!
I think it’s really important to learn some basic phrases when visiting another country that speaks a language other than your own. It’s just polite. And as a solo traveler, I feel less lonely and isolated in a foreign country when I can at least communicate a little bit with other people. I do speak some German (I took 5 years of it in school, but haven’t really used it since), and very little Spanish and French, just a few phrases in each. But even just knowing that little bit helps. As you say, being able to say “I’m sorry, I don’t speak ________, do you speak English?” helps enormously to build bridges when you’re traveling outside your native country.
I couldn’t agree more and great tips in regards to solo travel!
I so agree with the article about trying at the very least to learn a few new words for each country you visit. Also, I have truly enjoyed your photographs from other posts, you are an amazing photographer with a keen eye and sense of composition.
Very kind of you to say, thank you!
Learning a few phrases before heading to a new country seems like a no-brainer to me but I hadn’t really considered it from the viewpoint of said country’s natives. Interesting! Great advice for international travels… though I really think you could pick up some Chinese if you worked at it! Personally, I’m fluent in 2 languages (Spanish).
Very good post. I love traveling and languages, so far I can speak english, some french and italian, a bit of german, my mother tongue spanish and have been studying chinese for 5 years (veeeery hard to get, specially writing). When went to China most people were very polite when they reslized I was trying to communicate in their language. Not to say it is funny and teaches you respect others too.
Wow! I was blown away by this. Everything is so true! I love learning languages as well and love interacting in a different language even if I hardly know it, which can make it a little embarrassing sometimes. Embarrassing moments are generally memorable though, and I’ve learned the most from them!
Due to the fact that my mother tongue has less than 8 milion speakers, I absolutely agree with what you explain in the post. We receive lots of turists every year and we appreciate their efort to learn how to say words such us “Thanks” or “hello”.
But…to all native English speakers: some of us have spent years trying to learn your language so, please, don’t be sure that everybody is able to understand you or, what’s more, that there’s a sort of law that makes it compulsory to speak English. At least be understanding and do not speak so fast!
Thank you Gemma for adding your point of view! It’s something we all need to keep in mind.
Gemma, agreed. One of the best things that working with people for whom English is not their first language is that I’ve had to slow down, relearn this language that I take for granted, and be careful with how I use it.
May I ask, what is your first language?
I speak passable Spanish [high school Castiliano+various dialects of Mexican/Central American honed by many years of working with patients/families for whom English is a second or third language], have some American Sign Language, and bits & pieces of German [more Low German than High] and Danish, with a smattering of French. Oh, and I once spent a year with a bilingual Sanskrit/English Bhagavad Gita and a Sanskrit/English glossary & learned to recognize some patterns, though I’d never say I could read Sanskrit.
I wish my skill with other languages were more developed & less fragmented, but what that’s taught me is to remember that I once didn’t know & had to learn English, that the English I know is Californian-English, and that I don’t know how it sounds to someone whose ear is not attuned to it.
Language is such a gift. Thank you for a thoughtful article.
Thank you Jan for sharing!
I agree; speaking other languages can be useful when travelling. But learning another language also gives you an insight into other cultures and the opportunity to see things differently, to experience a new Weltanschauung – world view. :-) I use five languages on a daily basis and can get by in three more. Each one I have learnt has taught me a lot about the countries/cultures where they are spoken. Don’t give up on learning German, Matt – it’s not as difficult as you think! ;-)
I would love to think I can speak French fluently – 5 years at a French immersion, 6 months in France, and a Bachelor’s Degree in French Studies should certainly have given me the ability to speak like a native, but I make mistakes as much as the next person. Occasionally, my grammar mistakes have made the French roll their eyes, but for the most part, they are glad to not have to speak English (even if they can fluently). When my family were visiting me in France though, I found I had to teach them to say ‘do you speak English’ in French. If you assumed they spoke English without asking, many people would pretend not to understand, even if they could. It was quite amusing (for me).
This makes me want to try out more languages! Knowing just the basics can make such a difference, especially in different cultures, love embracing languages!
My native tongue is English. I have intermediate Italian and I can get along using that in Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries. My French and Japanese are a bit better than basic. And I know some words and phrases in Russian, Arabic and German.
One of my favourite travel memories is of dining in a little restaurant in Venice where we had a four way conversation going between the Italian waiter, me and a couple who were from Germany but had some French and Italian. Priceless!
If you’ve learned the jargon of where you want to go, you are only then free to immerse yourself. You go to a place where you can marinate fully in not just the sounds and songs and idiomatic expressions, but the people and the colors and smells that make the language something even more than a set of characters written out in a certain order.
Hi everybody :)
I took french courses at DP Langues when I was traveling in Reunion Island and it was wonderful !
I can read in 23 different languages and speak in 6 of them.Though I haven’t had much opportunity to travel,but it’s my dream and one day I’m going to fulfill it for sure
After reading your personal experience, I am sure, I will enjoy my foreign tours. I am going to explore the world, from coming oct/nov. Your article inspire me to learn some key words/phares of other languages. I am sure after learning, in your words ‘ I will be their not just for click pic…..A Big Thanks to wright your experience.
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