Why Learning the Local Language is the Most Important Trip Preparation You’ll Ever Do
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.
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:
- 10 Steps to Becoming Fluent in a Language in 6 Months
- 8 Free Online Resources for Learning a New Language – [I’ve personally used the BBC’s site and find it wonderfully comprehensive and accessible, appealing to a wide variety of learning styles]
- 7 Tips for Learning a Foreign Language on the Road
- 5 Questions to Ask When Picking a Language School
- Top 10 Spanish Schools for Waves, Wilderness, and Buena Onda
- Top 10 French Schools for Waves, Wilderness, and Bons Temps