Learning languages for traveling

Within our world there is approximately 7.4 billion people, there are 7099 languages spoken according to the “Ethnologue: Languages of the World”. Being able to speak these many languages is something no one is able to do. However, when it comes to traveling, being able to speak the language of the new country is a huge advantage. Communication builds an automatic trust between locals and visitors. Travelers are less likely to have fear in a new country when they can easily ask for directions and make conversation. The gap between the different cultures doesn’t seem as large when people are able to understand each other. Learning a new language will only benefit you greatly because it will connect you with another part of the world.

Locals respond really well to people who speak their native tongue, it is especially fun to be able to speak something that people assume you wouldn’t. Due to my German heritage, I usually receive surprised looks when I open my mouth and Spanish flows out of it. But I love this and always use this to my advantage when I am traveling.

The world is more connected and it is not unusual for people to speak multiple languages that they learned from either their families, for work, or from traveling. An important lesson to be learned is never judge a book by its cover and assume someone won’t be able to understand you. Sometimes when I am in a different country, at first I purposely will only speak English in public places such as the grocery store. In Hispanic countries people assume that I am North American and that I don’t speak Spanish, and sometimes I catch people talking about me.

There was a grocery store in the Dominican Republic that I went to every week, and the same man would always talk about me to his coworkers in a joking way. How he was going to propose to the “gringa”, but how she would never say yes because she can’t speak Spanish. One day as I was picking out produce I turned to him and said ‘…you know I can’t understand you, right?’ his mouth dropped and his coworkers and I started laughing and laughing. After that day, every time he saw me he would snicker and make note to ask me about my life in Spanish.

It can be really intimidating to go somewhere new and try to understand what’s going on. Not only is it scary but it is a very humbling experience to be thrown out of your element. Without the ability to communicate the independence of a person is instantly taken away, because they are completely dependent on a translator to convey their thoughts and wishes. Ideas can easily be lost in translation and this form of communication can often put people in an overwhelming situation.

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One of my friends who spoke Spanish was traveling in Colombia, and had complete dependence on her travel partner to help her with every part of her day. From translating menus, ordering at restaurants, to asking for directions, she would require assistance. She told me that it was really strange to not be able to do basic things. As her month abroad progressed she learned new words and was able to pick out words on menus and understand simple conversations, however it was frustrating not being able to freely communicate the way she wanted. When she did learn words it was hard for her to practice them because she felt afraid of how locals would react to her.

The truth is that it really doesn’t matter how bad your pronunciation is, or if you mess up new words, saying something is better than saying nothing. Locals will not laugh at your for trying, instead they will be happy that you are trying. People will always appreciate the effort, and body language is a huge part of communication. Even if you say a word in a sentence completely off, there is nothing to worry about because most likely a local will still respond positively. Sometimes accidentally saying the wrong word can create a hilarious situations and you will always remember to never make that mistake again.

One of the cringiest mistakes I made, is when I tried to translate the English phrase of ‘you suck’ into Spanish. I meant it as a playful, friendly, and innocent statement to one of my male friends because he was teasing me about being clumsy. However, this did not come across as I had hoped and instead I called him a blowjob. To make the story more awkward, I was standing in a church and many members of the congregation heard me. To this day, I am very cautious about translating English slang literally into Spanish because I understand how wrong it can sound.

A lot of people would like to learn a new language but understand that it isn’t their strong suit, there are a lot of tips that people can use which will make learning easier. The first one is knowing what your learning style is, know how you retain information and then try repeating new words 7 times over, draw pictures, write it down, use the world in conversation, listen to music and videos, or create a memory map. A memory map is using a familiar place, such as the layout of a house or a familiar route, they attaching words to an area or scenario. Usually the more strange you make a memory map the easier it will be to remember.

Often people are not motivated to learn a new language, and I am really guilty of this, I always say that I want to get better at French or German, but months go by and I haven’t picked up a textbook or done anything. Classes are a good way to force yourself to be motivated, knowing that you have specific hours dedicated to learning every week people are more likely to learn. Then there is homework on top of that to retain the information of the class better.

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For a more organic way of picking up useful phrases, go to a new country and hangout with locals. Purposely put yourself in situations like dinner parties, where you will understand almost nothing, but constantly listening to a new language will shape your ear to be attuned to new sounds and rhythms. Becoming conversational takes time and a lot of effort, it is important to be patient and wait for language skills to develop.

A large portion of speech is displayed through actions making it a lot easier to understand what is going on by watching people around you interact. Through body language and tone of voice we are able to sense what the theme of a conversation is, whether it is serious, playful, angry, upset, or friendly.

While it is still perfectly acceptable to travel to a country that you don’t speak the language, understanding even a little bit can make your experience in the country so much easier. Morocco was really difficult for me at times because my French isn’t strong enough to be conversational and I knew zero Arabic. I felt completely lost for a large majority of that trip because I needed my friend to translate a lot for me. I still had a really good trip, yet I can imagine how much more in-depth the trip would have been for me if I had been able to talk to locals and ask them about their days.

So many people travel with only knowing one language, and this is perfectly okay to do, however do not make the mistake of being a linguist elitist. English is one of the most common languages in the world, yet the idea that everyone should learn how to speak it while an English speaker is exempted from the work to studying a new language is absurd.

In many expat communities around the world that I have encountered, there is a theme that some internationals have. They believe that instead of attempting to speak the national language that locals should just learn English. This is so backwards for many different reasons, the most prevalent being that these expat communities are residing in a different country and not willing to learn about the culture that they have chosen to live in. Many expats do learn a local tongue and make an effort to be a part of the culture surrounding them.

If learning a new language isn’t an option for you, the next best thing is having a travel buddy that is multilingual. Not everyone has friends that are fluent in multiple languages, so then at least pick up a guidebook and learn how to say ‘hello’. Languages aren’t everyone’s strong suit, but don’t fret, it is true that in most tourist hotspots locals are fluent in English. It’s not mandatory to learn a new language as a traveler, but I suggest it because it will only help you abroad.


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