Do you ever gaze with wonder at people who spill out foreign words effortlessly – muchas gracias, molto bene, mais bien sur – and sound like a native (even though you know they’re not)?
Or perhaps you’re more like… this?
If you love travel but stumble over your merci beaucoups, why not study a new language while you travel? It doesn’t have to be for long and you don’t have to become fluent but sometimes, even a few words help.
Learning a new language in a new country can do a lot for you – including some things you might not expect.
1. You’ll open up to new cultures
The fact that you’re traveling already opens your mind, but knowing a bit of the language sends out a different message: that you care enough about where you are to try to communicate according to their rules and customs, not yours.
Have you ever noticed how eyes light up when you try to communicate in someone’s language? If you’re not fluent you’ll likely be put out of misery with an answer in English but – you tried and that’s what counts.
2. You’ll be helping promote understanding
Conflict and disagreement usually happen when we focus on our differences, not our similarities. By learning someone’s language you’re focusing on things that bring you together – even if in the end they want to practice their English rather than your Spanish.
3. It’s a great way to get to get to know a country and will change your travel experience
Of course you can get your information from a guidebook or from Wikipedia, but by studying a language you’ll be learning about what underlies a culture – not to mention things like literature and films. You’ll also be opening doors into families and festivities that might otherwise remain closed to you.
The fact that I learned to speak basic Thai when I lived in Bangkok showed me another facet of the country as I made Thai friends, was invited to ceremonies and gatherings and welcomed into homes because I wasn’t a ‘total foreigner’.
4. The whole world does not speak English, contrary to popular belief
Of course you’ll get by in English in touristy areas but if you want to head off the beaten path and visit less travelled countries or regions, your English might be as useful as a ruble note in Kansas.
5. Learning a language can challenge you and build your confidence
Imagine how you’ll feel after struggling through a sentence and actually being understood?
Better than waving your arms around, isn’t it!
Learning a language is not easy and overcoming the barriers to learning one is certainly reason to rejoice and feel awfully good about yourself once you’ve left your fears and your doubts behind.
6. What if you want to do more than travel?
Seeing the world is a wonderful thing but sometimes, we want to push it a bit further, whether through volunteering or going on a pilgrimage or retreat. Why not do something culturally adventurous like take a few language lessons?
7. Learning a language can boost your brainpower
Absolutely true! Read this BBC article if you don’t believe me. Not only does studying a second language boost your brainpower but it apparently delays dementia. I don’t know about you but this reason alone works for me!
8. Languages give you professional advantages
In this globalized world there’s every chance an extra language or two will help you in finding work. People think (not necessarily wrongly) that individuals with language skills are smart. “If you speak languages you can probably do other difficult things”, the thinking goes.
9. You’ll understand what people around you are saying
I’m not suggesting you should eavesdrop but knowing what people are saying – especially if they’re saying it about you – can be a matter of safety (or of making new friends). I somehow feel more included, protected even, when I know what’s going on around me.
10. What if you decide to move to another country or stay for a while?
Many of us ‘stop’ in a country for a few weeks, months or even years. If you want to put roots down, speaking the language will jumpstart your stay and save you many months of arduous translation and paperwork.
11. Languages can help you trace your roots
If your ancestors are from an English-speaking country, you’re fine. But if they’re from somewhere else, tracing your family roots might be a bit more difficult.
I’m in that situation: I’d love to know more about my Turkish ancestors but I’ve long-forgotten the language and even Google Translate can’t really help me find my way through genealogy forums.
Everything I’ve said above comes from my own experience.
I’m one of those fortunate enough to have been brought up in a multilingual household. I spoke French with my mother, Turkish with my father (I don’t speak it anymore but would love to learn it again), Spanish at school (I was raised in Spain), and English later on.
At university I studied Italian and later learned Portuguese. Then there was a bit of Thai and the Cyrillic alphabet, mostly so I could navigate Moscow’s subways.
My own parents spoke many languages, so there’s no question – I had an unfair advantage.
Knowing languages changed my life.
I’ve found jobs and made friends because of language. I traveled more deeply and authentically because of that closer contact.
Even in countries where I don’t speak the language, I never feel like a complete outsider, because language itself is my friend rather than my enemy. Even if I don’t speak a word, I still don’t feel completely locked out and know that if I tried, I’d learn.
For me, that’s the heart of learning a language – the taming process which allows you to flow with it rather than fight against it.
People tend to be shy about speaking a language when they don’t speak it well. Rather than use the ten words they know, they refrain in the belief that no skills are better than poor skills.
So speak up! Use the few words you know. Try not to be shy. I massacre languages all the time, launching into some whose names I can barely pronounce. It doesn’t matter. I tried.
DEBUNKING A FEW FOREIGN LANGUAGE LEARNING MYTHS
So far it’s been mostly rosy but let’s not fool ourselves, learning another language isn’t always simple and it’s not always fun.
Most people can learn a new language if they really put their minds to it but a few cannot, at least not easily.
If you have dyslexia, you may find it hard to read or remember foreign words. If you were terrorized by your fifth-grade French teacher, you may have a blockage that makes you run a mile every time someone mentions French. And if you don’t like learning, learning a foreign language might not be a joyful experience.
ONE WAY TO LEARN A LANGUAGE IS – IN SCHOOL
Many of my friends prefer the comfort and predictability of a language school, one with formal classes for students.
Few cities don’t have a language school, and they vary – some are for young people, some for adults, and many are mixed. Some schools are residential, while others offer simply day classes – you stay in a hotel or with a family but make your own arrangements.
Most any language study course will help you find a host family if you need one – and I would far prefer this option than living on-site in a language school or living with other students.
Learning a foreign language isn’t that easy for most people and the temptation to drift back into English is strong once you’re away from the teacher’s watchful eye.
My personal opinion? Immersion works best.
Anything less offers an opportunity for escape and slows your language learning.
A friend of mine took a course in a school in southern France where students spend all day together, including meals, with the teacher. Each time they’re caught speaking English, they get fined 1 Euro! Since this is a month-long course, this can turn out to be expensive…
WHERE SHOULD I GO?
Choosing a country to study a language abroad is every bit as challenging as choosing travel destinations, but with the added factor of language.
Think about it…
If you want to study French, you could of course go to France – but also to Quebec, Belgium or Switzerland. You could even consider a course in West Africa or the Caribbean, where colonialism means French is spoken widely. Spanish could take you to Spain, but also to most countries in Latin America, from Mexico right down to the tip of Argentina or Chile. Want to learn Portuguese? Portugal, of course, but also Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde…
Arabic will take you to North Africa and the Middle East (there are plenty of countries in this region where a woman alone can feel quite comfortable), and Chinese can be learned in China, Hong Kong or Taiwan.
And you can learn a language in a third country.
Why not study French in Laos at the Alliance Française or German in Bangladesh at the Goethe Institut? Along with others like the British Council, these organizations promote their own culture around the world and often give language lessons (along with staging plays and showing films and holding readings).
So think about where you want to go and what you want to do… whether you want to immerse yourself in culture, history, adventure, nature, politics… and make your decision accordingly.
STUDY A LANGUAGE ABROAD WHILE VOLUNTEERING
Volunteering offers excellent opportunities for language learning.
As a volunteer abroad you’ll be in an ideal position to learn a language, and learn it well. Most volunteers live and work in the communities they are helping, and many volunteers may find they are the only foreigner around.
I remember a Peace Corps volunteer in southern Ethiopia telling me she had to drive an hour just to get to the nearest English-speaking person – and as she didn’t have a car, there was absolutely no one she could talk to. It took her only a few months to start speaking what is a tricky language to learn.
As a volunteer you may be living on a farm, in a forest ranger station, in a rural village, or in an inner city neighborhood – where foreigners are extremely rare. You can take advantage of this and immerse yourself in the language. There really is no better way to learn!
TAKING THE FIRST STEPS IN LANGUAGE STUDY OVERSEAS
If the reason you’re traveling is to learn or brush up on a language, you might want to get started before you leave.
You could do this in several ways:
- Take an audio course before you go. I highly recommend the Rosetta Stone series. I acquired a (very basic, admittedly) knowledge of German this way and you’ll find plenty of language courses here.
- Download some free language podcasts. I did incredibly well with a Brazilian Portuguese series from a university in Texas.
- Join a beginners’ course at a local school or community college – and get a head start on your language.
- Start practising on the web – there are more free language courses online than you can count!
- Buy a phrasebook and start reading it.
- However you do it, learn a few basic words like left, right, slow down, love (in case it’s declared to you), exit, entrance, bathroom… (Here are some more tips on how to learn a language.)
- Find groups of people who speak the language in your community. Even if you can’t converse with them, you can begin to become familiar with the language’s sounds.
- Watch cable or satellite television, especially movies or news programs where you might catch a word or two. Again, this is about becoming familiar with the sound. Before I went to Brazil for six months, I watched plenty of Portuguese television (especially Brazilian soap operas!) so the language wouldn’t sound so foreign. And I learned a lot about society as a result…
- Find a conversation buddy and talk on Skype. I had a great Brazilian conversation buddy in Rio and we Skyped every Monday night for months. My spoken Portuguese improved hugely and I made a new friend. You can find your own buddy at My Language Exchange or at other similar online conversation sites.
Hasta la vista, and bonne chance!
— Originally published on 10 January 2011