Have you ever wanted to travel abroad but the language barrier intimidated you? The feeling is understandable, but you shouldn’t let that stop you from seeing a place you really want to see.
There’s plenty to be said for learning another language, but do you need to?
Benefits to Knowing More Than One Language
If you speak another language, you can get to know a country better than the non-speaker.
For example, you can head over to Italy, and go around seeing the Colosseum, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and other tourist attractions without interacting with a single Italian.
If you knew some Italian, you’d be more inclined to ask people questions: it could save you a big headache when purchasing train tickets, or help you avoid ordering something truly gruesome off a restaurant menu.
If you know it well enough, you can engage in a deeper conversation with a local and get a taste of what their culture and life is like.
We took a taxi ride in Lima and the taxi driver wouldn’t stop talking. His very colorful conversation included topics such as how difficult English phonetics are, the problem with Mexican drivers, and a free tour of the city sites we passed en route.
If I hadn’t had some sort of decent Spanish knowledge, I may have thought the taxi driver was out of his mind. When you don’t know the language someone is speaking, they can be intimidating; perhaps even scary. If you know what they’re saying, chances are they’re amiable people.
Driving becomes much easier when you can read the signs.
If you’re from the United States, you could get a chance to see how local newspapers are reporting on President Trump. Warning: you may not agree with their bluntness.
Not to mention, learning a new language helps a person understand their native language better.
I took several years of Spanish in school. Knowing this has opened up nearly all of South America, all of Central America, most of the Caribbean, and Spain to travel.
Getting around in those countries is much easier since I can speak the local language to read signs and ask questions if I’m unsure of something.
Not only that, but since Spanish is a Romance language (derived from Latin), it will be easier for me to pick up a second Romance language.
Even if I don’t add a new language, I can make a good number of educated guesses as to what things mean in that language.
But Do You Need To?
Those examples I gave above will certainly enhance your travel experience, but you definitely don’t need to know the local language to have a good trip.
It might benefit you to learn important phrases to ask basic questions or call for help in an emergency, but in most places that’s all you need to know.
I am lucky in that English is my native language. Most Western European countries have a high percentage of people that speak English as a second language.
Other countries will usually have it in tourist spots, though many times it will only be to the extent that they need it.
For example, they may know how to haggle prices in English and tell you about the quality of their goods, but they won’t understand when you ask for a restaurant recommendation.
Be aware though that as an English speaker, you can’t just assume everyone speaks English or even wants to.
People that have financial stakes in tourism tend to speak the language of the country that sends the most visitors to their home country (places with a high percentage of French tourists may have French as their second language).
Tips for Learning
There are many ways you can learn a language outside of the traditional classroom setting (but I still think that’s important).
Many people around the world learn English from watching American television shows, movies, and listening to English language music.
I sometimes put a tv show on with Spanish subtitles or Spanish audio on Netflix. It helps to put on something you’ve already watched a lot so you are already familiar with the storyline.
The same can be applied for any major languages. I say major languages because you’re going to have a lot of difficulty catching a show in Breton, Manx, or Basque.
Lots of people recommend apps like Duolingo or Memrise. Personally, I think Duolingo is overrated. It’s good as a supplement, but it doesn’t expand on grammatical rules as the idea is teaching you a conversational language. The problem is that it doesn’t catch all the verb forms you would use in a back and forth conversation. The app has its benefits, but I don’t like it because too many people think it’s all they’ll need.
A good source of learning is a newspaper in the targeted language. Most newspapers write in a pretty basic/moderate level of proficiency, and it reports on topics people will read and discuss. In my opinion, it’s one of the better ways to learn how people read and write in their native languages.
A more casual approach is to read foreign-language magazines. If the magazine is about a topic you’re interested in, it makes it easier to maintain interest. I like to occasionally look up travel blogs in Spanish to see how much of it I can read.
What’s your take on learning a language before travelling? Leave a comment below!