Why Learning the Local Language is the Most Important Trip Preparation You’ll Ever Do

Julie Schwietert Collazo from Novoarte's Travel Blog
Boy with ball in Yazd, Iran

Boy with ball in Yazd, Iran. Photo by kavanadb.

All trips require preparation.

Some of you reading this are obsessive planners. You buy more guidebooks than you could ever read, cross-checking, highlighting, circling, dog-earing, and list-making about all the places you’ll stay, eat, and sightsee. You scope online forums for travel advice, putting a black mark through the name of the bar that has closed in Caye Caulker since the guidebook was published, or making the decision that you won’t visit the local market after all—it seems too many travelers have been pick-pocketed.

Some of you reading this consider yourselves spontaneous, living for the moment and priding yourself on your ability to figure out your itinerary as you go along. But even if you count yourself in this group, you’ll occasionally need to do some planning: gathering all the paperwork for a visa or buying a ticket to get back home.

But regardless of which group you’re in, I’ll bet you’re missing out on the most important preparation of all: learning the local language.

Stop. Don’t even trot out the same old arguments: Learning a language takes too long. I’m too old/too busy/too carefree. I’ve gotten along for years without speaking the language. Not speaking the language is its own form of communication, and it works just fine for me.

I know. And it’s all true.

So now that we have that out of the way—now that we’ve accepted all of your excuses as gospel truth—let’s move on to the reasons why learning the language is important trip prep.

1. You’ll learn a lot more than words… you’ll learn about the culture.

When I was 15, I won a scholarship to study Spanish in Costa Rica. In my daily immersion classes, I expanded my vocabulary and improved my grammar, but just as valuable were the lessons I learned about tico culture: local foods, the absence of a military in the country, and gender relations. I still remember learning—and singing–a song by the pop star, Cristian, “No podras,” with the rest of my class, which introduced me to popular music in Spanish. I still listen to his music today, 16 years later.

Even if you’re doing a language class at home or online, almost all language courses include units or integrated content about culture. These lessons in local life will help you understand more about what you see and experience once you’re there, opening up the possibility of experiencing every moment of your journey more fully.

2. You’ll have more meaningful interactions and be more responsible and self-reliant.

Sure, smiles and gestures go a long way; non-verbal communication is surprisingly effective, especially for casual exchanges. But let’s say you find yourself in a jam, like Christine Gilbert. Her husband got sick with the mumps in Madrid. While she had a little Spanish under her belt, she found that “[a]t the clinic, we’re plunged into a Spanish only world, where we don’t have the vocabulary to express ourselves.” Clearly, an introductory class in Spanish won’t teach the world for “mumps.” But it might just give you the vocabulary and the confidence you need to communicate in a tense situation or a medical emergency. When you have a basic mastery of the language in the country where you’ll be traveling, you’ll feel more at ease, knowing you can verbalize your needs in the event of an adverse event.

3. You’ll be a better ambassador of your country.

Sound corny? It’s not, especially if you’re from the United States (despite the thrilling overnight improvement in international goodwill fostered by Obama’s inauguration). We all have a responsibility to be representatives of the countries where we were born.

As globalized as the world has become, we know shockingly little about one another’s countries and cultures. And what we do know is often filtered to us by the media, which tend to represent only certain interests. When you can speak the local language, you’re far more likely to be able to answer questions that curious locals have about your country and hometown, and you’ll be able to ask questions—and understand the answers—that your acquaintances will be eager to share with you. You can share a smile… but wouldn’t it be 100 times better to share a story?

4. You’ll be more likely to develop lasting relationships and memories.

When you don’t speak the language of the country where you’re traveling, your interactions and memories will be captured in non-verbal moments—smiles, handshakes, embraces, a dance, or two beer bottles clinked together. That’s all good, but what’s even better is when you can develop relationships and memories that are rooted in words, allowing you to return (mentally and physically) again and again.

This is especially important when you’re traveling long-term or when you’re planning to turn into an expat. Living in Mexico City for part of the year, I’m so grateful to speak Spanish—I can greet and hold conversations with the guard in my apartment building, the woman who sells vegetables to me every day, the employees at the laundromat, and the guy who likes to talk politics at the newspaper stand. I can ask for help changing a fuse when my lights go out. I won’t live here forever—but speaking Spanish allows me to develop relationships with the people around me that would not be possible without a shared language.

5. And if none of the preceding reasons convince you: You’ll be able to barter and haggle more effectively.

Resources:

There are lots of resources to learn a foreign language, whether at home before a trip or as part of your early trip experience. Take a look at these articles to get some ideas about how and where you can begin to learn a foreign language:

About the author:

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a passionate traveller and writer who splits her life between New York City and Mexico City. She is the managing editor of the Matador Network. Her personal travel blog is Novoarte's Travel Blog.

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Discussion »

  • #1Audrey

    Great article, Julie!

    We definitely fall into the latter category of traveler (we’ll figure it out as we go along), but the one thing we are actively planning in advance for this next segment in our journey is intensive language courses (Guatemala). I don’t want to spend a year or more traveling through Central and South America if I can’t chat with the taxi driver about politics or talk with woman selling fruit at the market about her family.

    I love that you include being a better ambassador as one of the reasons to learn a local language. I couldn’t get over how curious people were in the Caucasus and Central Asia about America – in many places we were the first “real” Americans they had ever seen. They wanted to know if what they saw about America on TV was really true (they have a high distrust for their own governments and news). If I hadn’t been able to speak basic Russian, I would have missed out on this great opportunity to share my own country. As I answered their questions about America, I was able to ask how things were in their country regarding these same issues. Although, at times when the entire market was gathered around to talk with us it became a bit intense!

  • #2previously.bitten

    While there is not always the time to learn a language, just taking a moment to learn a few key phrases is key. Before I headed to Japan for the first time, I spent a number of hours learning basic sentence patterns, a handful of words, and some introductory grammar.

    Not only does this make it easier to convey your ideas – you also know when the people on the train are talking about you!

  • #3lara dunston

    Great points! Agree that learning a language is the best prep you can ever do, but like previously.bitten I think the minimum prep should be a few essential phrases, including greetings, taxi directions, and how to order a meal – for starters.

  • #4Gary Arndt

    This all falls apart if you are visiting more than one place where more than one language is spoken.

    Learning a language is certainly a good thing if you are going to spend a long time in a place with one language, it is hard to do if you are going to say SE Asia, where you would have to learn Thai, Khmer, Vietnamese, Lao, Bahasa Malaysian, and other smaller dialects.

    I’ve found locals usually more interested in practicing their English with me than trying to each me their language. I’ve had entire English classes swarm around me to practice.

    The reality of travel is there are two languages in the world: whatever the locals speak and English. If English isn’t your native language, learning that will do the most good.

    Learning “hello”, “thank you”, “please” are fine for anywhere, but the investment you put into a language will depend on the time you will be spending.

    Also, not all languages are equal. Most major European language will probably have study guides available. Smaller languages will be impossible to learn before you get there (I haven’t seen many books on learning Fijian)

  • #5crissy

    Learning local language is hard but worth the effort. Short time travelers could learn the basics while those staying long can appreciate the importance of knowing it in dealing with the locals.

  • #6Huckleberry

    Bravo! I couldn’t have said it better myself. Helpful too. I never knew that there were free language websites out there.

    happy travels – Huck

  • #7Julie

    Thanks for your feedback, everyone.

    Clearly, when you’re traveling to many countries, you won’t be able to learn all the languages. But what I’m advocating (albeit subtly) here is not just learning other languages, but taking a slower, more engaged approach to travel rather than just rushing from one place to another.

  • #8Thomas

    Great post! I can certainly relate to your Costa Rica experience. As a Spanish speaker I was surprised by the differences between my own Spanish and the local language in rural (and urban) parts of Costa Rica. During my two years in Costa Rica I wrote a dictionary of Costa Rican Spanish terms and still blog about Costa Rican language and culture (almost) on a daily basis.

    My experience also inspired me to create CityDictionary.com, which captures local language in the US.

    Needless to say, I am on board with your argument. Thanks for the great post. I particularly like your latest comment, which is spot-on. You’ll never be able to learn all languages, but that shouldn’t prevent you from trying to make connections between how people communicate and the broader culture. While no one is equipped to make those connections after a few days of travel, it can be enriching to seek out proper sources beforehand and try to make the most of your adventures.

  • #9Steven Roll

    Agreed. I studied Spanish like crazy before my trip to Costa Rica only to find that most people in Costa Rica speak English. But at one point the owner of the B&B we stayed at sent us to this restaurant that was very far outside of the city. Wherever we were, no one spoke English. I’m happy to say that it was my Spanish (as poor as it may be) got us back home.

  • #10Harry

    I have generally been pretty lazy in the past. I am out in the Philippines at the moment and making an effort to learn Tagalog. It really does make a difference and leads to a lot of laughs – and I think a little respect. Only problem is that as soon as I get out of Manila into the provinces, every province speaks a different language!

  • #11soultravelers3

    I agree with you wholeheartedly Julie! It is true one can not learn every language, but when you know a language well, it makes a TOTALLY different experience than when you do not know the language.

    Even in many parts of Europe, we fine MANY places where locals speak NO ENGLISH. Often the people who do speak English are people connected with the tourism or housing industry, so it keeps one from connecting to the real local culture.

    I so agree with you too about going slower and immersing deeper and language is a part of that and it WILL get better just by doing that.

    We experience this very clearly, because we see how much deeper we can connect with the authentic native culture in Spain ( where we speak the language) and say France or Germany where we do not.

    Even Italy and Portugal are easier for us and we can connect more deeply, because our Spanish helps.

    The better you know the language, the better you can know the culture and local people. We see that clearly too because my Spanish is the weakest, I can see how I am left out, compared to my daughter and husband.

    Tim Ferriss has some cool ideas on how to learn a language quickly and I know people here who have become fluent in Spanish in 5 months.

  • #12Stuart at Travelfish

    I thought this was a great read until I got up to the bit telling the reader that:

    “We all have a responsibility to be representatives of the countries where we were born.”

    Really? Why?

  • #13Beijinger

    It is a good point,learning a local langauge is a easy way to improve the mutual understanding with local people when you are traveling and get better experience from the trip.

  • #14Claudia

    This is a great article!!!! I couldnt have said it better myself! I speak English and Spanish. When people visit my country, Mexico, they expect us to speak English, the idea many people have abot Mexico is not what it really is….It is a shame that people canT really enjoy such a rich country, culture, people only beacuse of the language… GREAT ARTICLE!!!!!!!

  • #15Milton Wongso

    Thank you so much for posting the article. One tough challenge is to learn a language with different characters than your own like Chinese Kanji characters.

    My mother tongue is Indonesian. I can easily pick up English due to its similar alphabetic nature with Indonesian – we use A-Z English alphabets.

    Chinese characters have its own language characters. I think the best way to learn is to get immersed in the society. The more often you practice is, the better chance you’ll master it.

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