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