Should You Learn a Language to Travel?

World travel exposes individuals to new countries, new cultures, and new languages.  It’s all very exciting, but it can also be mildly terrifying – especially if you’re facing a language barrier.

If you’re a native English speaker, congratulations!  There are a lot of countries that speak English, if only partially.  After all, English is widely recognized as the most powerful language in the world.

For those who have learned English as a second language, I also congratulate you; English is one of the hardest languages to learn with its subtle nuances, quirks, and exceptions.  Most who speak English natively don’t even speak it properly, and we’re constantly studying it throughout our lives.  Truly, I commend you; I don’t envy that undertaking.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

And though you may not be fluent in English, I think you have another advantage over native English speakers.

In all my travels, I have found that non-native-English speakers tend to have a penchant for learning other languages.  Europeans, especially, know English, French, Spanish, and German, among others.  For most Americans, learning a second language is an overwhelming task, and I’m willing to bet native English speakers rank lowest in those who are multilingual.  Sure, Spanish is taught in most schools, but it’s never an expectation that we’d need to become fluent to survive our adult lives; it was merely an elective.  This is not the case in other countries.  If you want to travel or work with foreigners, you have to learn English.

As someone who aspires to someday be at least bilingual, I envy those for whom languages come easily.  I missed that conditioning when I was young, and it’s much more difficult as an adult.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

If you’re reading this, it’s probably safe to say you’re probably fluent in English (or have had the page translated – in which case, welcome!  It’s cool to think someone is so distant he or she needs to translate my page to enjoy its contents.  Please do say hi in the comments below (even in your native language), and I promise I’ll do my best with Google Translate :)).  You already speak the most versatile language.  Most locations – especially those that cater to tourists – have an adequate supply of bi- or multilingual folks, and you can usually get by with little to no foreign language knowledge.  So when traveling, why bother learn a new language?

We got to dust off our old Spanish lessons when we went to Costa Rica.  For the most part, those with whom we conversed spoke English quite well, and we relied on that heavily.  However, the comedy routines at the resort were almost entirely in Spanish.  I was glad that I could string together a few words to at least glean a vague gist as to what was going on.  I would have enjoyed it more were I fluent, but at least it wasn’t entirely lost on me.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

Aaron’s first excursion overseas (and my first outside of my military-brat upbringing) was to the Land of the Rising Sun.  We agreed that he would concentrate on planning the activities, and I would focus my efforts on learning some of the language to help get us by.  I already wanted to learn some Japanese, anyway, so that worked out.

When we got to Japan, I personally found it invaluable.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

Sure, most spoke at least halting English, especially in Tokyo.  But there were a number of occasions where it proved quite useful to know at least a few words.

“He said ‘eki’; it’s near the train station!”
“‘Dame’…  They can’t do that.”
“Wait!  That says ‘deguchi’; that’s the exit.”

And while my pointing skills became quite honed at street vendors, I was proud being able to whip out “futatsutsu, onegaishimasu” (two of each, please).

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

My favorite, though, was just after we took a dinner cruise on Tokyo Bay.  There was only one other English-speaking gentleman on the boat.  As we were filing off the boat, I casually asked a woman next to us in line, “Did you have fun?”  At the deer-in-the-headlights look she gave me in response, I quickly amended with, “Tanoshikata desu ka?”  Her face instantly lit up, and she nodded enthusiastically.  “Hai, hai!”  She proceeded to compliment me on my Japanese, beyond the moon I knew any of it.

That moment, alone, was worth the year of study.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

And beyond the communication capabilities, learning a language grants insight to a country’s culture.  The two are so intertwined, it’s impossible to learn one without the other.  This education beforehand taught me etiquette I might have otherwise missed, and I was less at risk of unintentionally offending.

That knowledge lent me confidence in a scary, foreign land, and I used it more than even Aaron realized (he thought we simply skated through our vacation there with nary an issue).

Could we have survived both Japan and Costa Rica without any secondary language?  Sure.  Am I glad I had it anyway?  Absolutely.  Even if all we could do was read a few words here and there, our understanding of our surroundings were greatly augmented by our preparation.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Learning a new language is daunting and extraordinarily difficult.  But it’s incredibly rewarding.  Besides, I have found I’ve learned a lot about my own language because of foreign studies.  It also stretches your brain and opens the door for alternate thinking.  And I’ve always believed if one truly has a legitimate interest in visiting a location, some meager effort should be put forth to at least attempt to learn some of the language.  You’ll ultimately get more out of your visit, you’ll feel more comfortable while there, and you might just make someone’s day when they discover you cared enough to try.

So even if you have a few languages under your belt, if you aspire to travel the world, there’s no better time to whip out your Duolingo and quiz yourself on some new vocabulary from your next destination.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

How many languages do you speak?  How have these helped you in your travels?

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2 thoughts on “Should You Learn a Language to Travel?

  1. Hi Brianna, this post made me think about the reasons American seem to be so language ignorant. My observation of interactions between Americans and non-native English speakers or people who speak no English is that the American typically seems annoyed. I’ve even heard some say to me “why do these people come here on vacation if they don’t speak English”. On a few occasisons I’ve had to remind some people that the next time they travel to a country where some other language than English is spoken, the native person might be saying or thinking the same thing about them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Khurt, I agree with you. I resent the notion that everyone *has to* learn English if they want to come to America. I think *everyone* can benefit from learning at least some of the language of the country to which they’re visiting, but it shouldn’t be a requirement. Americans usually already know English, and they feel that’s all they need to know. That makes me sad, as you learn so much more than words when studying a culture’s native tongue. We’d all benefit from being more multilingual 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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