4 Reasons Learning a Foreign Language Will Change the Way You Travel
I still remember when I traveled to Poland for the first time.
I was 25 years old and knew one single word in Polish: poniedziałek (Monday).
When I landed in Warsaw, I almost went crazy trying to find the plane that was supposed to take me to my final destination, Wrocław.
I thought for sure at least one person in the international airport would be able to speak either of my native tongues, English or Spanish. Nope!
I was lucky enough to find a fellow Spaniard who’d been living in Warsaw for a couple of years. He helped me find my gate at the last second, right when the doors were being shut.
12 years later, I’m still living in Poland. I have my own business, a mortgage and numerous close friends.
How did I make that jump? Well, it wasn’t easy, that’s for sure! But the one thing that made my life easier was learning Polish.
Why should you learn a foreign language?
There are plenty of reasons for people to learn a foreign language.
Do you plan to look for a better job abroad? You’d better start learning the language of that country, then!
Do you want to have the time of your life while on vacation? Hmm… it sounds like you may need some language skills for that.
Are you interested in meeting people from another country? I bet they don’t all speak English, so how are you supposed to do that easily?
I could go on for hours, but I’ll spare you.
Here’s what I’m getting at: whatever your personal reason may be, learning a new language in today’s world is almost a must.
So if you’re going abroad, whether for a few days or for good, learning the local language should be the first step in your journey.
Many people go on vacation without knowing a single word of the local language.
That’s fine. I don’t judge them! But they’re just tourists while abroad.
I personally believe the best way of spending your time abroad is by learning at least a little of the local language.
I speak from experience. You don’t want to feel what I felt when I landed in Warsaw and didn’t even recognize the bathroom signs!
You don’t want to look into the unknown, wondering where on Earth your bus is. Or whether that place is a restaurant or a library.
For this reason, I’ve created a list of the four main benefits of learning a foreign language for your travels.
In actuality, each benefit includes some sub-benefits, so you’re actually seeing several reasons to learn a language!
Treat this guide as a starting point, then submerge yourself into other posts that can help you once you’re abroad and make the most out of your journey.
Don’t just be a tourist. Be a local!
4 Reasons Learning a Foreign Language Will Change the Way You Travel
1. Be more than just a tourist
If you decide to visit a foreign country for your next vacation, you should consider learning something more than just hello and thank you in the native language.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to feel like a typical tourist when I travel.
Knowing at least the basics of the country’s language can make the difference between getting the best dish in the world or the worst grub in the universe!
Be more than just a tourist, and your vacation will get promoted to first class.
Here are three benefits of aiming to be more than just a tourist:
Get to know stuff only locals know
When you travel to a foreign country, you want to see that cathedral everyone talks about, throw a coin into that fountain everybody clogs with one-pence coins and visit that building every tour guide seems to recommend.
But what if I told you the real way of visiting a city is through the eyes of a local?
I’ve lived in five countries so far and, granted, I’ve been to all the oh-so-famous places everyone talks about. But I’ve also discovered museums and smaller churches a thousand times prettier than the ones all tourists visit.
By becoming conversational in the local language, you’ll be able to get in touch with the right person at the right time.
And you’ll end up seeing stuff you would have never imagined existed if a native hadn’t shown it to you.
Enjoy hidden gems everywhere you go
Just as you can find churches or museums no one visits because they aren’t touristy, so can you end up drinking the best coffee at the most magical, hidden spot of the city. Or enjoying the most amazing view of the whole town from that vantage point only a few locals know about.
You can only learn about these amazing places if you have contact with locals, which means you’ll need to speak a little bit of the local language. How else would you be able to know about these gems?
When I was in Barcelona for the first time, I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t even enjoy myself.
I went back two years later and decided to let a good friend of mine show me his favorite places in the city. A couple of hours later, I was drinking lemonade among fairies, wells and trees!
Ever since that day, each time I travel to Barcelona, I always go to El Bosc de les Fades (The Fairies’ Forest) and enjoy their coffee surrounded by magic. There are hidden gems everywhere, so don’t miss yours!
Don’t eat like a tourist ever again
Being just a tourist also means eating like just a tourist.
When I first traveled to Sarajevo, I knew nothing about the Bosnian language or Bosnian cuisine.
As a result, I usually went to places where the menu had pictures. I opted for dishes I could either recognize (namely pizza and burgers) or be sure wouldn’t kill me (I’m allergic to nuts).
While in Sarajevo, I found a job as an English teacher and decided to learn Bosnian so that I could really enjoy my stay.
After three weeks, I discarded the pizzas and burgers and start trying delicacies such as dolmas and sirnica.
More than 15 years later, I’m still in love with traditional Bosnian cuisine. My friend Velma, who cooks the most delicious sirnica in the world, always makes sure to keep some for me when she cooks.
I couldn’t have known sirnica (or Velma!) if I hadn’t studied Bosnian and met her in Poland years after I left Sarajevo.
Do the same and learn enough of that foreign language to open doors to hundreds of delicious dishes everywhere you go!
2. Face hardships easily
Obviously, nobody likes encountering problems.
However, every time we leave our country and enter unknown territory, we’re bound to have trouble if we aren’t prepared.
There are three specific situations that will become a walk in the park if you know the local language:
Have you ever taken the wrong train or ended up in the wrong part of the city? I have. Especially in foreign countries!
Knowing a foreign language can save you from getting lost in the middle of who-knows-where-ville.
Even if you just know the basics, you’ll be able to read timetables, choose the correct mode of transportation and arrive, safe and sound, at your destination.
If you’re just unbelievably lost, knowing a little bit of the local language will allow you to ask for directions from a passerby. You’ll finally be able to finally make it to that restaurant the hotel manager recommended to you. (Oh, and you understood that hotel manager because you speak the language!)
One of the most terrifying feelings for a traveler must be coming down with something in a foreign country and not knowing the local language.
If it’s just a cold, then it’s fine. You go to the pharmacy, buy some pills after pointing with your index finger for 20 minutes and listening to that poor pharmacist repeat the same No la entiendo, señora (I don’t understand you, ma’am) for the 57th time, go back to your hotel (if you can) and call it a day.
But what if you break a leg or, heaven forbid, have an accident and wake up in a hospital? You surely want to understand what the doctors are telling you, don’t you?
I don’t want to sound sensationalist, but knowing a little bit of a foreign language can literally save your life.
You don’t want to be in a situation where you feel terrible and have to explain what’s happening to a nurse whose best English language skills are saying Hello and One beer, please.
I always used to feel a little unsafe when traveling to a country whose language was unknown to me.
Now every time I plan a trip, I always start by learning the language of the place I’ll be traveling to.
This has helped me feel more safe and be more aware of what’s happening around me.
Imagine you’re on the bus and someone tells their partner in crime they’re going to steal your bag. You don’t speak the language, so you don’t know it’s about to happen and don’t do anything to defend yourself. You get mugged. End of the story.
Now imagine the same scenario… but this time, you understand the language.
You can prepare yourself! You can grab your bag, hide it, sit on it… You can even get off the bus on the next stop and start running to a safe place.
Knowing the language can save you from trouble. Be as ready as you can!
3. Enjoy the culture
Let’s assume for a second that you’ve already started learning a foreign language so you can grow as a person.
You want to know more about the language you’re learning and decide to visit a country where it’s the native language. How can you take advantage of the situation?
Here you have a couple of tips to get you started:
Get to know the culture of the language
You’ve been investing time and money into learning the foreign language, so you wouldn’t want to waste your vacation days. The best complement to that grammar and vocabulary knowledge you’ve acquired is submerging yourself in the culture of that language.
Grammar books are amazing. I love grammar books.
But no one has been able to teach me more about Poland than Poland itself.
By being in the country and experiencing everything it has to offer first-hand, not only have my language skills gotten better… I’ve also been able to grow as a person by incorporating a new culture into my heart.
When you actually visit the country and speak with natives, you gain a deeper perspective of the people. How do they behave? What do they do? When do they do it?
You live their lives for a few days, weeks or months. You can go where they go and do what they do because you understand what they’re saying and what’s happening.
By understanding this new culture, your mind grows, your vision of the world changes and you become more tolerant because you’ve been able to experience what was once unknown to you.
The history and culture of a country are reflected in the language (and vice versa), so you’ll learn about what you’re studying and why.
For example, did you know that Spanish sounds more romantic than English because of its longer vowels and softer consonants? No wonder Latinos are so appealing!
Engage your senses with foreign media
If you’ve already started learning a foreign language before your trip, you can engage your senses every second of your journey.
Imagine going to the movie theater on vacation and enjoying a local movie that’s not available outside of that country.
Imagine not having to pay three times more for your American newspaper. You can just buy the national one and understand what you’re reading.
Finally, imagine the thousands of additional books you can buy and read. Or the hundreds of TV programs you can watch both on vacation and back at home!
Knowing a foreign language will have your senses engaged before, during and after your trip. You’ll be able to visit millions of websites that aren’t available in English, listen to podcasts only native speakers have heard of because they’re completely monolingual and even listen to (and understand!) music in that foreign language.
There are really only advantages to learning a foreign language. Your senses will be thankful.
4. Experience your vacation, don’t just survive it
This last benefit is quite obvious to me, but I’ve come to the realization that not everybody looks at their trips to a foreign country as an opportunity to grow and make new friends.
Here are a few benefits to actively experiencing your time abroad rather than just drinking and sunbathing:
Get the most out of your stay
Have you ever returned home from a vacation and wished you could have done more while away?
If you know the language, you’ll get the most for your time and money on your trip.
You’ll make memories a simple tourist couldn’t ever make. You’ll feel proud of yourself for going one step further and making that little effort that changed your next vacation into the vacation of a lifetime.
When you finish your trip and travel back home, you’ll feel satisfied and eager to go back. You’ll have experienced new things rather than just survived time away, and the money spent will be worth it.
Start learning a new language now so you can get the maximum benefit possible from your next vacation.
Practice your language skills
Time abroad will give you time to practice the language you’ve been learning in a real-life setting.
You’ll be in the country, surrounded by the language, with native speakers who can give you immediate feedback. All of this for free!
Well, you pay for the flight and accommodation. But you aren’t paying for textbooks or language classes.
Ideally, all your communication will be in the foreign language. You can push yourself and throw yourself into situations to see if you can get through them speaking only that language. If you struggle and need more practice, good news—you’re surrounded by locals you can practice with!
Do you want to see if you can get to the museum without looking at a map? Ask for directions in the native language until you reach the museum.
Or would you prefer to practice your food vocabulary? Go to restaurants and bars and try to engage in conversation with the waiters.
The sky’s the limit! You’ll go back home with better language skills after as little as a couple weeks, not after hundreds of hours of studying grammar and vocab in a classroom.
Make new friends
Humans are social beings. We love traveling, interacting, talking and laughing. And while solo travel is great in its own way, we naturally crave being around other people at some point on our trip.
When you know a foreign language, you can meet and get to know new people because you have something in common!
You can meet people online before your trip.
Local people can tell you where to go, what to visit, where to eat and what to avoid.
Even after your trip, knowing a foreign language can help you meet new people and make friends all around the world or at home.
Just like me with my friend Velma! She’s from Bosnia, but I didn’t even meet her until we both lived in Poland. Isn’t life crazy?
Learning a foreign language before you travel isn’t just advisable. It can also be necessary.
Doing so will help you fully enjoy your vacation, feel safe, experience what local people experience and really feel at home while abroad.
Don’t just go on vacation, live that vacation! Stop being a tourist and start being a local.