Travel Travel Prep

Hola! Bonjour! Hey…Should I Learn a Language Before Travelling?

It’s a question we all ask ourselves at some point in our lives: should I learn another language? But how often do we actually do that?

We may download an app, only to let it fizzle out and sit unopened on our phones. We might spend money on DIY language learning kits, but they never get read or played. We feel complacent with our English language, because it’s the most spoken language around the world.

But isn’t that ignorant of us? Should we really expect others to know how to communicate with us, rather than the other way around?

I’m sat having a coffee at a coffee chain. I’m in the city, and I can hear murmurs of conversation around me. Snippets of gossip float to me, until I hear words and sentences I can’t understand. The French twang of accent comes from someone as they order a coffee in English. A table across from me are talking to their kids in Spanish. Language is all around us. It seems a shame not to be taking advantage of that. I’m currently learning the Welsh language, and hoping eventually I might be able to hold conversations in my native tongue. Living in Wales, I was surprisingly not exposed to the Welsh language, until I started my current job.

‘In total, I have visited 89 countries and counting,’ Hannah at Hannah’s Holidays tells me. ‘I have been travelling since 2004, on and off.’ Hannah’s visited countries include Japan, Brazil, India and Iceland. ‘I signed up for some Spanish evening classes. I knew I would be spending approximately five months in Spanish speaking countries. I wasn’t too sure how much English would be spoken (over there) and didn’t want to rely on it anyway. As the class is only one hour a week, it is not enough to become fluent, but I can definitely manage tourist Spanish to a decent level.’

Hannah also found that whilst travelling to other locations, the ability to be able to speak their native tongue would have come in handy. ‘I went to Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia a couple of months ago and found that whilst Lithuania and Latvia had plenty of English speakers, Belarus had a limited amount. Russian was the obvious language that it would have been useful to know.’

Hannah realised that for further travels, she would need to explore other languages. ‘I am off to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan next month and so decided to learn some basic Russian prior to this trip.’

It’s true that learning a language is a very complex thing to do. It’s always important to remember that there is no need to be fluent, especially if you are going to a country that you might not visit again for a few years, if at all. ‘I try to at least know ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in local dialect,’ Hannah says. ‘Personally, I think it’s very important to be able to speak a little of the local language.’

I would agree with Hannah. I regularly visit Turkey. It’s usually because my mother loves the place, and it’s a place where the whole family meet up. My sister lives in Australia, so the rest of the family meet her there. Since being in Turkey, we’ve picked up little phrases, and we know how to say hello.

Edinburgh based travel blogger, Serial Jet Setter, moved to France at age 19. ‘I’ve been travelling when I can and as often as I can ever since.’ Naturally, she speaks the French language fluently. ‘I wish I could learn ALL the languages but I’m currently focussed on learning Spanish.’

It interests me to see that so many people are keen to learn Spanish. The Spanish language seems like the go-to. ‘I’ve always had a passion for languages, and for some reason I’ve always been drawn towards the Romance languages. I’m currently in learning for Spanish for an up-coming trip to South America.’

Serial Jetsetter continues, ‘I think it’s really important to make an effort. Local people really appreciate it and it really adds value to your overall travel experience.’

Learning a language can enrich your sense of culture. Many of us travel to see what life is like in other parts of the world. I don’t know about you, but I try not to appear to be a major tourist, although of course, I know I do.

‘I’ve found local people to be very receptive of my attempts at speaking their language,’ Serial Jetsetter continues. ‘You are able to find out about things to do, places to eat and drink, that you may have not found out about otherwise.’

There are many language learning options out there. It’s up to you what you decide to do, and how you decide to do it.

‘I spent a month in Italy last September.’ Donna at Travel and Turmoil explained. ‘I took a few Babbel lessons before I went.’

There’s also always the option of Google translate. I have been abroad and used translate, in the hopes it would make communication better, but sometimes it just makes it worse.

‘You can always use Google translate, but of course, if you are remote you might not get a signal.’ Donna said. ‘Google translate is not always perfect, but I find if you use short sentences and easy vocabulary, it does a better job.’

Those who are learning, or have learned another language, definitely notice that it helps. Maybe the ability to speak another language to somebody makes them appreciate you, and maybe even makes you more approachable. How many times have you felt somewhat intimidated when someone starts speaking to you in a different language, and you have no idea what is being said?

‘It’s a sign of respect,’ Sarah at Sarah’s Sojourns says. ‘Even if you only learn a few phrases, such as ‘sorry, I don’t speak your language. Do you speak English?’, that’s still a lot more than a lot of tourists and a lot of people really appreciate it.’

Learning the local areas language also gives you a sense of confidence. ‘It makes you much more confident,’ Sarah said. ‘Especially knowing food terms. I don’t eat seafood and so being able to know if it’s meat or seafood really helps a lot when deciding on meals.’

‘I spent a year living in China,’ Sarah said. ‘I definitely plan on returning, so the more Chinese I speak, the easier it’ll be for travelling.’

Sarah also appreciates languages which are dying out. As a Welsh man myself, the Welsh language is regularly under threat. Truth be told, where I grew up, the Welsh language is not widely used. The further you travel into Wales, especially towards the North, you will hear the language spoken more widely. It’s their first language. As I’ve grown, and because of my job, I’ve realised the importance of being able to speak the Welsh language.

‘I’m Scottish,’ Sarah explained. ‘I think it’s important to learn and help revitalise Gaelic.’

Whatever you want to achieve from your travels, it may be worth noting that learning basic phrases is a good way to get yourself prepped. Simple phrases such as hello, how are you, and ordering from a menu will go a long way. It may also enrich you, and ignite a spark you didn’t know you had: that learning a language can be fun, and extremely worthwhile.

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