How important is it to speak the language when visiting a new country?


In many ways, us English speakers have it pretty easy when we’re travelling. The majority of the time you will find people who speak your language or at least have a grasp of what you are saying. It’s quite normal to take a guide book with you when travelling abroad, and usually it contains a few common phrases to help you navigate the language barrier. But, how often do you actually attempt to speak to people in their native language?

Perhaps it’s a fear of embarrassment – worrying that we might pronounce something wrong or be misunderstood. Some people have a tendency to only travel to countries where they know they’ll be understood and have never even thought of trying to speak the native language. Then again, maybe it’s just pure laziness.

I had this debate with a friend I was travelling with a couple of years ago. He argued that it was personal preference whether we attempted to speak another language or not. I disagreed, countering that it doesn’t matter how little of the language you know, locals will appreciate you trying. It’s simply good manners. For example, everyone knows ‘bonjour’, ‘merci’ and ‘au revoir’ so if you were visiting France why wouldn’t you make the effort to use them?

At the very least I think you should learn the basics before travelling; whether it means investing in a phrase book or asking your hostel staff to teach you a few words. Words like, ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ can make all the difference. If you pick a few key words and practice using them, you’ll find that you start to pick up other words as well.

Of course, if you’re travelling for an extended period of time, you might even consider taking a language class to give you a more in-depth understanding. There are lots of resources available for you to teach yourself a new language. Of course, simply immersing yourself into the culture and lifestyle of a new country is the best way to pick up the language without even realising.

Learning a new language is a great skill to have. There will always be those sticky situations where you need to ask for directions or report a stolen item. Or maybe you just want to chat to a nice girl/guy at the bar! It’s times like these when knowing another language can really come in handy, and save you from getting lost in translation.


Image credit: mugley 

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