5 Reasons you should learn the local language for travel (PLUS resources to get you started)
Why is learning the native language the best idea?
Learning the local language of the destination you intend to visit provides an opportunity to enrich the travel experience (and boost your confidence).
1. Directions and ease of travel.
Imagine arriving at the airport, and being able to learn your way around without the aid of a Google translator or the cheater fine print (a.k.a. the English translation in small lettering under the signs). How much more comfortable would you be if you were able to read maps and communicate effectively with your taxi driver or when asking a local stranger for directions?
Not only that, but you would save so much time if you were confident in your ability to read street signs and train maps or to relay directions to your taxi or other transport drivers. Time spent Googling and guessing could otherwise be spent at that museum or restaurant you’ve been dying to try.
2. Avoid awkward faux pas.
Welcome to your first French lesson on the blog! Faux pas in French literally means a ‘false step’ and refers to a social blunder that everyone at one time or another, has made either in their native language or not.
If you don’t make your whole trip without stumbling, no worries, these things happen! Be able to laugh at yourself, shake it off, and know that your faux pas will probably be a funny story that you recall with a chuckle among countless other amazing travel memories.
3. Avoid dangerous situations and misunderstandings
There are many things that can be misunderstood or confused which can possibly result in dangerous situations for the traveler. Warnings about local environmental factors that a foreigner may not be aware of, local neighborhoods where it may not be safe for tourists, and even an understanding between you and restaurant waitstaff about a food allergy can all result in a ruined vacation.
4. Demonstrates courtesy and respect
This all comes back to the CTC ethos of reciprocity. You’re a guest in someone else’s home, after all. The native language may not be your language and you shouldn’t assume that everyone can (and is willing to) speak it. There are some who will try and accommodate, but in many places, these folks are the exception and not the rule. By attempting to converse in the local language you demonstrate respect as a visitor. Even if you miss the mark on your pronunciation, most folks will appreciate you trying.
5. Make friends!
This is where the real fun starts! Easily one of the most valuable takeaways from a trip is the friendships and connections that are created. One of the simplest ways to establish a friendship is through communication in a common language. And human connection is what CTC’s small group tours are all about!
Advice and resources for learning the native language for travel BEFORE your trip.
So now that you’ve got some good ideas as to why you should learn the local language before you travel, let’s get into how to learn another language.
First off, you don’t need to be fluent to get by when traveling, BUT the more vocabulary and command of the language you have, the more in-depth your experience will be.
That being said, here are some of our favorite resources and tips for learning a new language. I recommend a combination of several.
Please note there is no affiliation with any of the links or apps listed here. These are simply tools that I have been introduced to in the past and found to be helpful.
The ‘Ultra Learning’ method.
Scott Young is an author and blogger who has performed “challenges” or “experiments” in learning. He approaches each challenge with a goal of strict focus on learning that subject in its entirety (or at least the extent of a well-established proficiency). He details his challenges and the results of each in his blog and writes about the concept of Ultra Learning in his book of the same name.
In his approach to language, he completed a challenge that he called, “The Year with No English.” In this challenge, he and a roommate agreed to take several trips abroad with the goal of learning the local language of each country to a conversational level of proficiency— and they would do this without speaking a word of English to each other or anyone else.
The idea behind this is to create a scenario where there would be a complete immersion in a language and culture, without being able to reference back to their familiar English. They would learn Portuguese in Brazil, Spanish in Spain, Korean in South Korea, and Mandarin in China and Taiwan. They would write, speak, read, and listen to only the local language for the whole trip. The results were pretty successful given the undertaking, with Mandarin being the most difficult for them to grasp.
Benny Lewis: Fluent in 3 Months:
Benny Lewis is a “professional polyglot” and online educator. He is fluent in seven languages and has confidence in conversing in several more. His website offers learning programs to become fluent in a language in 90 days with the guarantee of being able to have a conversation with a native speaker by the end of the challenge.
The website also offers TONS of free resources for learning key phrases in multiple languages in his blog and newsletter. Check out Benny for a jumpstart on your language-learning journey.
Other online resources for language learning
The technology is fabulous when it isn’t so distracting! There are countless tools available to get you through your trip or support your language-learning journey before you depart on your vacation.
Google Translate, the hero of all travel abroad-ers. This handy (& free) little search function translates any language or dialect for you, instantly. Use it for when your memory or pronunciation fails you and you juuust can’t recall that one word for
It’s an excellent fail-safe for when you’ve studied the local language of the country you’re visiting, but failed to account for that new travel buddy that you met in your group tour and he only speaks [insert their native language].
A note about solely using Google translate for travel: While this app is excellent for efficient real-time translation purposes, I’d recommend NOT relying on using it all the time during travel. Not only does this keep you in your comfort zone, but also, life happens when you travel too. What are you going to do when you don’t have a cell signal to access the internet? Or if your phone battery dies? Or if you forgot it at the hotel?
It’s always a good idea to do a bit of language prep before you depart.
Babbel is another program for language learning that is customizable based on your individual needs, goals, and learning style. With options for self-study or community learning, Babbel will get your language learning off the ground soon. They offer three different types of payment plans: 1-month, 3-month, and Lifetime. Their customer questionnaire also allows for lesson customization based on what fluency level you’ve set your sights on and how much time you have to dedicate to practice.
This language learning app boasts a “based on science” approach to learning the language. Their “bite-sized” lessons incentivize progress in much the same way as other video games, with levels being “unlocked” after enough points have been earned. They have over 30 languages to choose from, and push notifications on their phone apps are delivered by their Owl mascot so you won’t forget to practice (Like, ever). Google “Duolingo owl” to see what I mean…
Most folks prefer learning from the comfort of their own homes. However, language classes at the local college are always an option if you’re the type of person who needs the routine or structure of a classroom setting to learn and you have the time to commit to it.
It’s common knowledge that for real learning to occur, you should practice how you play. Meaning if the goal is to be able to have a conversation with a real person in another language, THE BEST way is to learn by speaking to another person. So, hire a tutor. A native-speaking language tutor can provide even more personalized attention in your language-learning journey, you can always hire a language tutor. With websites like Fiverr and Upwork, you can vet and hire a private tutor to get you going in a new language or take your learning to the next level.
Fully embrace the immersive travel experience. In truth, technology can be a great tool to learn a new language for the purpose of travel, but it can also be a crutch. Having the comfort of Google translate in your pocket can remove the incentive of fully embracing learning a new language. It’s easy, it’s quick, it provides a solution you need and you can move on.
Make a deal with yourself to NOT speak your native language while you’re on your travel experience. Maybe if you’re on a small group trip, you can make a friend, and you can hold each other accountable to speak the local language. See what happens. See how much more of the language you can come home with when you challenge yourself to the task.
Some tips for DIY Travel Language Prep
Listen to podcasts in your new language. Many offer “The News in Slow [Language]” (i.e. slow Spanish, slow French, etc.)
Read news articles or switch your web browser to the new language to get used to reading. When you’re reading, speak the words out loud to practice pronunciation
Label items around your house with their translation in your target language and say them aloud so your brain begins to associate the new vocabulary with familiar items
Simple words and phrases you should learn in the local language for your trip
Think of the common scenarios you encounter during your daily life in your own language.
Write ‘em down, translate them to your desired language, and practice before your trip. Keep them in a note on your phone or notebook in case you forget them during your trip. If you’re not sure what phrases you may need to know, here are some suggestions to help you get by:
*This is not an exhaustive list, in bold are phrases that are most commonly used in travel
1. Greetings, gratitude, and cordial phrases
Do you speak [language]?
Thank you very much
Please excuse me
May I please have…?
How are you?
I am well.
See you later.
My name is …
What is your name?
It’s nice to meet you.
Where can I find the train station/taxis/airport/bathroom?
Where is the bank/ATM?
How far is it to…?
How can I get to…?
This is the category of vocabulary phrases that you hope you never need but will be glad that you have. Even if you’re not the person using them, it’s important to be able to understand them for your own situational awareness and safety.
I need help.
Can I help you?
I need medical attention.
I need to speak to the police.
Call emergency services!
I am allergic to…
Traveling abroad to a place that has a different language can be daunting, but a little preparation in speaking, reading, and understanding the local language will go a long way in deepening your travel experience.