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.  So we’re analyzing whether it’s actually necessary to learn the language of the country you’re about to visit.

We have been traveling now for more than five months, and we have been exposed to over 10 different languages on this trip, alone… across multiple situations and with various levels of fluency.

So is another language required for your trip?  Let’s take a look.

I love you wall in multiple languages

English around the world

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.  If you had to know just one language, English will generally get you very far.

If you don’t speak English, you probably aren’t reading this article 🙂 (unless you’ve translated the page – in which case, welcome!  It’s cool to think someone is so distant ze 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! :)).  But if you are reading this (translated), you have likely already learned a second language already.  If you want to travel, it would probably greatly benefit you to learn either some of the local language or some of the quasi-universal English.

Monkstown Castle sign in English and Irish

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 non-phonetic words, subtle nuances, quirks, and exceptions.  Many 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.

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

The ease of learning a new language

Aaron writing Pura Vida in the sand

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.  This is likely largely due to the fact that multilingualism is viewed more as a necessity than a luxury with so many dominant languages in close geographical proximity.

For most Americans, learning a second language is an overwhelming task, and at least according to this article, the least multilingual countries in the world are (in order): Canada, the UK, the US, and Australia – the countries where native English is most dominant.  Sure, Spanish is taught in most of our 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.

Aaron walking across a Costa Rican suspension bridge

As someone who aspires to someday be at minimum 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.

Is learning a new language useful?

If you’re reading this, it’s probably safe to say you’re probably fluent in English.  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?


Aaron in front of the Hotel Los Volcanes sign

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.  But we also stayed at a resort frequented more by locals than by tourists.  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.

We are practicing our Spanish with our handy Duolingo app now, ahead of the next major leg of our trip: South America.  We will be out in more rural areas, and we don’t trust that we’ll find English everywhere we go.  While most in the cities should understand us fairly well, there’s no need for those in the mountains to speak it.  For our own daily survival, it would behoove us to know at least some key phrases.


Japanese writing on a wall

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.

Japanese spa sign

We spent most of our time in the urban areas, and 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.  While most study English in schools, much like our abysmal Spanish, many don’t have a reason to practice it and lose their confidence in their proficiency.  They will prefer to say nothing than to risk insulting you.

Hot tip: don’t ever ask a Japanese person, “Do you speak English?”  They are far more likely to just say “no” and move on.  Rather, if you ask your question in English, most will at least attempt to help you, even if they aren’t confident in their English.

“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 of being able to whip out “futatsutsu, onegaishimasu” (two of each, please).

Dinner plates on the Tokyo Bay cruise

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 (with whom we were conveniently seated).  As we were filing off the boat, I forgot the language barrier and 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, over the moon that I knew any of it.

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

Other benefits

Laarne Castle sign in Dutch

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.  However, I still had plenty of “baka gaijin” (stupid foreigner) moments.

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).  And the people with whom we interacted were obviously grateful that we had even bothered to make an effort.

Warning: be careful to not come across as knowing too much of the language, or they’ll take off in a whirlwind of syllables and leave you in the dust of confusion!

So is learning a foreign language necessary?

Japanese lanterns at a sentou

Could we have survived both Japan and Costa Rica without any secondary language?  Sure.  So is it really necessary?  No.  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.

And I should say that not everyone speaks English.  Sitting now in Montenegro, far fewer people speak English than they did back in Croatia (we’ve been spoiled).  Sadly, Montenegrin isn’t in Duolingo, so we’ll have to try a bit harder with the Google Translate.

We couldn’t learn all of the new languages we’ve encountered before visiting, but the knowledge we gained elsewhere was still useful.  Though we never learned any Portuguese or Italian, our history with Spanish allowed us to understand at least a few conversations in those countries… certainly far more than if we hadn’t studied it before.

Aaron behind a direction sign in Croatian

Our recommendation

So though learning the local language isn’t always required, we highly recommend picking up at least some of it.

Learning a new language is daunting and extraordinarily difficult.  But it’s incredibly rewarding.  Sure, there’s Google Translate, but you might not have the best service, and the system is far from perfect.  Besides, I have found I’ve learned a lot about my own language because of foreign studies.  It stretches your brain and opens the door for alternate thinking.

Google Translate screenshot of a burger menu being translated from Portuguese to English

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.

Even if you can’t take a full course on the language before you go, try to practice some key phrases.  These essentials from The Portable Wife are a great set to get you started.

If you already have a few languages under your belt, you’re off to a great start!  And 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.

Welcome to Japan sign

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

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Should you learn a language to travel? | Over 6000 languages are spoken in the world - should you familiarize yourself with a few? Having been exposed to a dozen different languages all around the world, see what we think here! | BIG tiny World Travel | #foreignlanguage #worldwidelanguages #travellanguage #internationaltravel #shadeadventuresLanguages abroad: how far will English get you? | Over 6000 languages are spoken in the world - should you familiarize yourself with a few? Having been exposed to a dozen different languages all around the world, see what we think here! | BIG tiny World Travel | #foreignlanguage #worldwidelanguages #travellanguage #internationaltravel #shadeadventures

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12 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.

    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 🙂

  2. We’re getting ready to jet off to Laos and Cambodia and my language cheat sheet is printed and ready. I’ve been asking my students at school to help me with pronunciation. So far, Lao seems easier to pronounce than Khmer, but we’ll see…
    I was disgusted a few years ago when a local major metropolitan school district removed the foreign language requirement for high school graduation. That’s going backward!!!!

    1. That’s so awesome you’re making sure to be prepared ahead of your trip! I’m certain the locals will really appreciate the effort 🙂 And I agree – it’s sad to see school systems removing foreign language programs in this globalized world. Language is so important for kids, especially!!

  3. I’d agree, it certainly isn’t a requirement to learn a language but it definitely adds to the experience if you do know any.
    My German is relatively good and Spanish is slowly improving so I get by when traveling. I’d love to be properly fluent in at least one language but I’m not sure it’ll ever come without living abroad for a significant period. Until then I’ll keep practicing 🙂

    1. That’s a great place to start, Jason! I’m nowhere near fluent in anything, but I keep practicing my Spanish and Japanese on Duolingo! There are also some online exchange programs/apps that let you talk to real humans.. I might look into joining one of those for better immersion 🙂

      1. Definitely. I think fluency takes a while, Duolingo is definitely a good starting point. I’m really enjoying the stories that they added too.
        That sounds like a great plan!

      2. I love the stories! I wish they were available for all languages. I even picked up some kids books on our last trip to Japan. Reading is an excellent way to improve proficiency 🙂

  4. I grew up in the USA, but my mother believed in being multilingual. Even at a young age she had me attend classes outside of school to learn Spanish. During college, I lived in Madrid for a semester and that is when I really became fluent. However, in the years since college, I haven’t really had anyone with whom to practice speaking.
    My husband, who knows no Spanish, and I will be going to Spain next year, so I downloaded Duolingo to dust off my language skills. I was surprised by how much I remembered, although my speech is rusty. My husband tried to tell me that I wouldn’t need it, but after reading your article, I am glad I am doing this and will sally on!

    1. I’m somewhat jealous of your language influence from such a young age! That makes it so much easier. I still aspire to be fluent in even one other language!

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