When we reminisce about our travels it is usually the headliners that come to mind first: that first glimpse of the Taj Mahal; the chiming of the astronomical clock in Prague; breathing in the stench of the Chouara tannery in Morocco.
We forget all the minor, trivial things that we love about travelling, such as sampling the local cuisine, spending a foreign currency, or attempting to speak a different language.
I love languages though, they’re one of my favourite parts of travelling. I love learning them, hearing others converse in them and attempting to speak them myself.
Many of us think learning a foreign language is too difficult, too time consuming or too boring (or all three). We think it requires years of patience and painful effort, expensive books and classes. And worryingly, a lot of us are of the belief that learning a foreign language is a waste of time, since “everybody speaks English anyway.”
Not me though. I definitely think knowing another language (or two) is an advantage when travelling. As well as helping you out of all sorts of tricky situations, being able to communicate in the local language can actually make travelling more fun…
Learning a foreign language isn’t “all Greek”.
Though I started learning French at the age of 11, it wasn’t until I was older and started to travel more that I finally understood the importance of language.
I actually did a French degree as part of my university course, however I’ll be the first to admit that my pronunciation and grammar is probably not as au fait as it was back then. But as well as French, I also studied Spanish and German at secondary school.
Though by no means fluent in either, I can understand enough Spanish to know that when I order “tortillas” in a restaurant, I’m not going to get a packet of Doritos, or if someone tells me they’re unwell and have “constipado”, they just need a packet of tissues and some Nightnurse, rather than prune juice and laxatives.
Learning languages does come easier to some than others, I appreciate that. But it’s really not as difficult as some people believe – you just have to be willing.
My dad, who hadn’t been on a plane until he was in his 40s, is a great example: a few years ago he taught himself basic Italian using those CDs that come free with the Daily Mail. Fast-forward a couple of months and he booked a seat on a plane to Milan and took himself off to watch his beloved Tottenham FC versus Inter. Once he arrived he bought a ticket from a tout and sat happily amidst the home team, proudly supporting Spurs and speaking the little Italian he knew with the locals. He had a great time.
When knowing the language has helped…
If you’re currently reading this thinking “What’s the point in speaking French or learning German? Everyone knows English anyway.” then I urge you to think again. There have been so many occasions over the last few years where knowing a foreign language really has been handy. For example:
- When negotiating taxi rates and making sure I wasn’t short changed when travelling solo around Cartagena, Colombia.
- When haggling down the cost of a handmade leather pouffe while in the Medina in Fez, Morocco.
- Being able to understand what things are on the menu, and translating for my travel comrades.
There are also times when knowing the language would have helped…
- That time I went in search of the Skywalk in Dolní Morova but didn’t know a word of Czech, so didn’t realise the chairlift at the top of the mountain would shut at 4pm (resulting in my friend Solo and I being stranded, and consequently falling down aforementioned mountain).
- That time my friend TJ and I went on a jeep safari in Turkey, where everything was explained in Turkish (resulting in us getting absolutely soaked, as we didn’t know that the entire “safari” would be one big water fight against rival jeeps).
- That time my friend Hannah and I went to Rhodes and took a boat trip to St Paul’s Bay, and I was given a piece of paper to sign before boarding (turned out I’d signed myself over as second in command and captain of the boat should anything happen to the real captain/pirate).
My language skills have helped me out all around the world. Between English, French and Spanish there have been few places where I haven’t been able to at least get a rudimentary message across. Obviously there are exceptions, but this just makes me keener to learn more languages. Polish or Russian maybe?
One thing is for certain, the time and effort I have invested into learning new languages hasn’t just made travel easier for me, it’s made it a lot more fun.
Do you speak a second (or third, fourth) language? Has it helped you on your travels? Let me know in the comments below.