Learning a new language is a fantastic challenge. In my 23 years, I’ve tried to learn Chinese, Welsh, Russian, Italian, Japanese, Farsi, Spanish, Korean, French, Cantonese and Tagalog… each with varying levels of success. You wouldn’t be wrong to assume that given the above, languages are a pretty substantial part of my life which is why a blog post I read this evening left me rather sad.
I found myself reading a blog this evening which advocated not making the effort to learn a foreign language when travelling. In fact, it advocated not even bothering to learn the basics such as “hello”, “please”, “thank you” and the like. It encouraged readers to learn to get by without words and simply draw on the power of non-verbal communication.
Now there’s a lot to be said for non-verbal communication and I’ve been in places where I don’t speak the language (good times Nepal!) and have relied on good old sign language to get my point across but I must say, what a difference it makes when I do speak it. I acknowledge everyone is entitled to their own opinion but I wanted to share my thoughts on why learning a language is easily worth the ‘trouble’ and the fantastic benefits it can bring on your adventure.
As a kid, my school holidays were spent in France and this was back when I was of an age that two weeks felt like a lifetime. I learnt very quickly that the local kids weren’t particularly interested in speaking English and so, I had a choice to make; speak French and make friends or don’t speak French and don’t make friends. It wasn’t a difficult choice to make – I was a sociable child and I wanted friends.
As an adult, I quickly realised nothing had changed. Not only did I still want friends but most people (especially the French!) were still not particularly interested in speaking English. Sure, if I got lost or stuck people would try to help me and occasionally conversations would get started through sign language but without a common foundation, there wasn’t really anywhere for them to go and they soon fizzled out. Non-verbal communication can only take you so far.
Nelson Mandela once said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”. Admittedly I don’t think the kids in the French playground were familiar with this adage but it rings true – if you show that you’re invested in the place you’re visiting, that you’re interested and perhaps most importantly that you care, that place and its people will inevitably care for you.
To comments such as these, the standard response is something along the lines of “but I’m terrible at languages” or “I just can’t speak a foreign language” and to that I say “Rubbish!”. Everyone can learn a language – even you can, you’re using one you’ve already learnt right now. I think the difference is a question of expectation – no one is expecting you to arrive with a degree of fluency that enables you to eloquently engage in discussions on modern affairs. Just a few words, even if pronounced so badly they’re barely recognisable, will make a world of difference. If I think back to when I started to learn Korean, my first attempts at speaking must’ve sounded so alien, my friends probably thought I was speaking a different language entirely and yet they encouraged me, corrected me and thought it was amazing that I was even bothering to try. (When I then went and got a degree in the language, well, that really confused them!)
Then there’s the practical reasons for speaking the language. It’s so much easier to get around. I can guarantee you’re much less likely to miss that train/plane/boat if you know where you’re going. You find things you need much faster (bathroom, anyone?). You know what you’re ordering. You know what you’re buying and I guarantee you will save money. If I was to calculate the amount of money speaking Chinese has saved me from scams in China, I’d probably have enough to cover a return airfare (albeit on a really cheap airline going via somewhere like Ukraine). You will also get lots of things for free – some which you will want (like trips to karaoke, tasty snacks and free-flowing alcohol) and some which you won’t (like fish eyes).
In Cuba, speaking Spanish to a farmer saw me invited into his home for cup of coffee, a cigar and a private tour of his tobacco farm. In Korea, speaking Korean led to TV appearances, attending government conferences and discovering amazing drinks like 꿀막걸리 (honey rice wine) – and yes, those points are prioritised correctly. In China, speaking Chinese not only saved me loads of money and helped me avoid fish eyes but also saved me from the dire consequences of bathrooms having no toilet paper (to the lady who passed me the paper under the door when she heard my cries for help, I’ll forever be grateful). Rather randomly, in Mongolia, speaking Chinese and Korean made sure my sister and I got fed. Simple as.
And we haven’t even considered the benefits of travel to the language learner. For those invested in learning a language, it doesn’t just stop after you’ve finished class. The world is your classroom. I can’t even begin to count the colloquial words and phrases I’ve learnt courtesy of friends and strangers that I’ve met on my travels and I’m not going to lie, the stuff everyone apart from your teacher teaches you is also substantially more useful. Do I really need to be able to discuss the contents of my pencil case? No. Do I need to know how to call the taxi driver out for scamming me or how to tell the bar tender to make it stronger? Yes. Yes I do.
I must admit it frustrates me how I’ve heard acquaintances (relegated from the friend level) berating tourists for poor English skills when I’ve heard the same people brag of their ability to get by abroad while speaking only English. Is this really something to be proud of?
Language makes travel more meaningful for everyone involved. After all, why would you want to just get by?