I know that many people travel the world who speak only English, or only their native language and English. And if this is you, you might have at some point wondered if your experience would be any different if you could speak the language of the locals.
Even as an active language-lover, you can’t learn all the languages in the world, so I happen to have both the experience of going to a places where the language was completely foreign to me and I couldn’t understand a thing, and going to a place where I could speak with and understand others in another language without any problem. So I know that the two experiences are so different from each other, and can really shape your experience in and your view of that country. Let’s compare them!
If you do not speak the native language, you are instantly restricted in terms of meeting local people and forming genuine friendships with them. Basically, the only people you can talk to are those who have learned English (which certainly restricted my options a lot in places like France and rural Italy). Of course there are people everywhere who will try to include you and communicate with you even though you can’t speak a word of the same language, but generally this isn’t the case, as people are people and they get bored and frustrated. If you are with a group of people, even if they all speak English, chances are they will talk to each other in their language and speak to you in English only when they want to say something to you. In other words, you cannot add your input to a group conversation or really be a part of the group.
You get to know people better in their own language. In a second language, they will probably be struggling to come up with the right words, thinking about grammar structures, etc and they probably wouldn’t be able to express themselves as fully and as naturally as in their native languages. If you can understand someone speaking their language, they are likely to talk more, tell you things in more detail, explain things properly. All because it is easier and more natural for them.
They tend to trust you more. Knowing you can speak to them in their native tongue will make them feel closer to you and more like you are one of them, rather than some weird obnoxious foreigner who just expects to be understood. If you are speaking in English, well… expect it to be a lot harder for people to open up to you, chat with you, and accept you. People will be more inclined to get to know someone who has put in the effort to get to know them.
Do you want to understand a new culture, become immersed in a different world with traditions and rituals that change your way of thinking and open your eyes to a way of life you had never even imagined? Language and culture go hand-in-hand. Over time, the culture has shaped the language and vice versa. In fact, some might say that it is actually impossible to fully understand a culture if you can’t speak the language that this culture is associated with.
>This affected me the most deeply when I visited the Amazon rain forest in Colombia. We spent a day trekking through the jungle, and we arrived at a ‘maloca’ (or a traditional town hall for indigenous peoples). The ‘abuelo’ (chief) invited us inside the town hall and we sat with him for a good hour, consuming the substances that are so essential for their day to day life and listening to the abuelo talk as he explained about his community’s customs and way of life, their beliefs and traditions. We got to ask him questions and we learned so much about some people completely different to us. I was blown away by the whole experience and the whole time thinking thank god I can speak Spanish. The experience wouldn’t have been nearly as meaningful if I couldn’t understand him, or if I’d needed someone to translate for me.
Finding your way
It’s easier to get around. You can ask for help and understand directions. You can read road signs. This foreign land is your oyster if you know what is going on around you.
>My portuguese might not be the best, but I was so thankful I could speak it in the countless times when we got helplessly lost in Brazil, and local people helped us to find our way. I also remember when I was in Paris, I got lost around the outskirts of the city (not in the touristic parts) and ended up sitting outside a superette for over an hour waiting for my couchsurfing host to get off work so I could go somewhere. Because I did not speak any French, I was completely lost on my own.
If you cannot speak the language, chances are you are relying on someone else, be it a more language-savvy friend or a native speaker to help you navigate and get what you want. While this is extremely handy (and we can’t thank these people enough), if you travel in this way, you basically have to treat this person like an extra limb: if you lose them, you will be quite powerless. And if you have a disagreement, or this person doesn’t want to do the same things that you want to do.. well, you are on your own, my friend. Because they have the advantage, you must be a very good suck-up to get your way.
>When I went to Italy, I went to visit a friend who lives in a lovely seaside town called Celle Ligure, close to Genova. One day I wanted to visit Genova city, but unfortunately my Italian friend wanted to stay by the beach and hang with her friends (fair enough). I didn’t even know how to catch the train by myself, or where to go, and no-one in that place spoke English, so I had to flag that plan. And to this day I have never been to Genova.
In general, locals will hold something of admiration and respect for someone who has made an effort to learn their language. You will get lots of praise and encouragement, and more importantly, you are less likely to be scammed by dodgy people who try to take advantage of foreigners. It is a common (but of course wrong) illusion that someone who can speak your language is smarter and more clued up. You are less likely to get hurt and if you do, you can explain your situation to get help. Another thing is trying to negotiate at markets in English vs in the native tongue (believe me, it makes a world of difference).
Going to a new place and getting by in English is, well…easy. Although it can sometimes be more challenging than speaking the native language, what I mean is that you would not be challenging yourself in any significant way. Rather, you will be forcing locals to challenge themselves and improve their language skills, while you don’t learn anything of any value.
On the other hand, if you go to a place and attempt to understand people, attempt to connect deeply with others – feel your tongue moving in a different way as it tackles a new language, feel your face flush as you realise your starting to understand what people are saying, get what you want by negotiating with people, and make memories in a different language… your experience is going to be that much more rewarding. You will go home maybe a little less refreshed and relaxed, but you will go home with a new skill, maybe a new outlook on life, and probably a lot more local friends.
Overall, I suppose the need to learn the language of the country you are visiting does depend on your intentions for travel. If you want to see the main attractions, bond with fellow travellers, stay in hostels and stick together in groups or get a guided tour then you probably don’t need the language as much. If you are more interested in nature and architecture and generally non-human forms, you are probably okay. Likewise, if you’re only planning to ‘skim the surface’ of a country and not stay for long, it probably doesn’t make too much sense to bother learning a whole new language either.
But if you are interested in culture, in history, in knowing and understanding people then it is certainly the best thing you can do. If you want to get off the beaten path, explore unknown places, learn local customs, or connect to people in a meaningful way, then learn the language of the country you are going. It will be the best thing you do, and you will surely thank yourself for enriching your travel experience x 1000.
If you agree with me, great! It is time to move to the next step, and find out how to make the most of your time travelling to learn a language.
I know that it is not easy to just learn a language out of nowhere. But if you put in the effort, and you are genuinely interested, it is definitely doable for anyone. If you don’t believe me, see my post about how I learned a language fluently for more insight.
What do you think? This is just my personal experience, but in your experience, is learning the language of the country you are travelling to worthwhile or a waste of time? Do you learn the language of the countries you visit? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!~