Faremax Top Logo
Faremax Side Logo

Learning The Language.

Travel is immensely rewarding and enjoyable. It really does broaden the mind: meeting people from different cultures and learning about how their view of the world is different from yours is an enriching experience. You may not agree with a particular society’s ideas about, say, the role of women – but understanding how those ideas have formed can give you a great insight into what makes human beings tick.

It’s a shame, then, that so many people are put off travel by trivial worries. Probably the most insignificant of these, and the one most often mentioned by nervous travelers, is the so-called ‘language barrier’. One could understand people being worried about being robbed in Lagos or catching malaria in New Guinea. The chances of getting beaten up or infected are vanishingly small, if you take the right precautions, but they do involve physical risk. But in the US ‘the language barrier’ is one of the top three most-cited reasons for not traveling. It’s as if we’re more worried about embarrassment than physical danger.

Language isn’t a barrier at all. It’s precisely the opposite – a way into other people’s lives, cultures and traditions.

The fact that you’re reading this article shows you have one enormous advantage in the language marketplace – you speak English. It’s a mongrel language, made up of bits of old French, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, ancient Scandinavian languages and lots of other odds and ends of tongues that have been scooped up and used over the years. Because of its mixed roots it’s very flexible and adaptive – much more so than French, for example. This is one of the factors that have made it the world’s dominant language. Wherever you go you’ll meet people who speak at least a little English. In an emergency you’d have to be somewhere very remote indeed not to find an English speaker. In most of the world’s big cities all companies and institutions have at least one person who speaks the language, especially if the organization’s business is tourism.

There are compelling reasons, though, for learning at least a little of a country’s language before you travel there. It certainly makes things easier. Trying to talk to people in their own language can be enormous fun. You’ll find that ninety-nine times out of a hundred the person you’re talking to will be surprised and delighted by your efforts. This is especially true of foreign waiters. Personal experience suggests that ninety-five percent of English-speaking tourists are too self-conscious or worried to talk to service staff in their native language. That’s a shame, because even making the effort will almost always result in better service and a friendly smile.

This isn’t true everywhere. Some Parisian waiters are so sick of school kids practicing their language skills on them that they pretend to be English. But it’s worth a try, especially in more remote parts of the world.

Here are some tips to kick-start your language learning experience!

  • If you do nothing else, make sure you know the words for ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘excuse me’, ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’. Those seven words are more useful and important than any others. You can learn them in less than ten minutes.
  • A few weeks before you travel take some night classes in the language of the country you’re visiting. If you can’t, get hold of a ‘teach yourself’ book. If you follow the book route, make sure it has an accompanying tape or CD: it’s important to hear how a language sounds, and it’s difficult to get a sense of sound purely from the printed page.
  • It’s impractical to drag a huge dictionary around a foreign city. Most guidebooks have a glossary of phrases in the back, but often these are a little short. A pocket phrase book is really useful – the best ones on the market are by Rough Guide and Berlitz. They can also come in handy for ‘pointing’. With some languages it’s important to get the pronunciation just right, or you won’t be understood. This seems odd to us, but languages like the Chinese dialects rely on pronunciation for meaning. If you get stuck you can always show your interlocutor the appropriate page in your phrase book!
  • If you already speak a foreign language, don’t automatically assume you’ll be understood. The language in remote areas of some countries can be very different from the language of the capital, and can even be difficult for other native speakers. Find out about the dialect of the area you’re visiting. This problem can also happen in reverse. Say you’re a native New Yorker and you learned Italian from your parents or grandparents. Most Italian Americans get their roots and their language from southern Italy and Sicily, where the dialects can be thick and difficult. If you go to northern Italy, say Milan or Venice, and speak ‘your’ Italian don’t be surprised if the locals don’t understand a word and think you’re Slovakian. American Spanish speakers should have less of a problem in Madrid, but some of the versions of German and Norwegian spoken in Pennsylvania and the Mid West are, apparently, completely incomprehensible in Berlin and Oslo.

So have fun with your languages, and remember that using them can be the most satisfying aspect of any vacation. Pick up just a little of any language and you’ll soon learn the great lesson that travel teaches: we are all much more alike than we are different.

© 2001-2012 Faremax, Inc.  All rights reserved.
faremax.com and its contents are trademarks and/or service marks of Faremax, Inc.
Use of this Website constitutes acceptance of the User Agreement and Privacy Policy