The first time I boarded a high-speed train in China, I couldn’t make out the Mandarin on my ticket. In my mind, the Chinese characters were just weird shapes.
My friend and I had to go off the cuff, so we assumed the tickets were for general seating and chose random seats. It took all of five minutes before two Chinese businessmen huffed and puffed and kicked us out of those seats!
If I’d done some basic research on travel phrases in Mandarin Chinese, I could have avoided having a train full of locals stare at me like I was an idiot.
When you visit a non-English-speaking country, you have two choices: Learn the local language or risk looking like a fool.
How Can You Learn the Local Language?
If you aren’t already enrolled in school, you might wonder how you can study the local language of the country you’re visiting. There are several great options for travelers.
- Go to a language school. Many people travel to a foreign country primarily to attend a language school! Search for programs in the area you’re visiting. Let’s say you’re spending your gap year in South Korea. When you aren’t working or traveling, attend some group classes at the nearest language school.
- Find a language partner. Conversing with a native speaker one-on-one does wonders a textbook just can’t. Try a website such as italki, which sets you up with language exchange partners via video chat. Or if you’d rather have an experienced teacher help you, opt to pay for a tutor instead. Click here to join the italki network.
- Watch TV and videos. Hearing native speakers talk helps you grasp pronunciation. Whether you want to watch French films on Netflix or Spanish learning videos on YouTube, language learning is only a mouse click away.
- Self-study with FluentU. Downloading an app is an easy way to learn a language on the go. Try FluentU free for 15 days to watch fun movie trailers, news reports and more to hear your target language! You can even download files for offline use so you can watch fun videos during the plane ride to your destination or on a train ride from one city to another.
6 Reasons Travelers Should Learn the Local Language Before a Big Trip
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1. Learning the Local Language Will Make Life Easier
In a country where few natives speak English, not learning the local language is a recipe for a hard life.
Once you learn the language, you’ll be able to navigate daily activities in that country. There are numerous ways life will become easier.
- Restaurants. Most non-speaking travelers resort to the “point and hope” method of ordering food. But when you know the local language, you can order specific foods you know you like or want to try. You’ll also look like a boss when you go out to eat with your non-speaking friends, which is always a plus.
- Transportation. Getting on and off at the right bus stop is difficult enough in English. It’s way harder in a language you don’t speak! The same goes for taking trains. And taking taxis. And basically any time you need to move from point A to point B. Where you are, where you’re going and how you get there is all going to be communicated in the country’s native language. If you’re in a big city, you might hear some English translations of train stops. But the farther away you get from the capital, the less likely you are to hear any familiar words.
- Signs. If every sign you see is just random squiggles, there are bound to be problems. Where’s the bathroom? Which way is the subway? What’s the name of this road? Which side of the road should I be driving on? Signs are everywhere, and they’re often important.
- Avoid miscommunication. Most visitors who don’t speak the language struggle to communicate even the simplest things to locals. Suddenly, trying to buy a shirt or deposit money at the bank becomes lost in translation.
2. Language Is the Best Way to Experience the Culture
In Chinese culture, obligation to one’s family is one of the most important aspects of life. The family is there to protect you and be your support system. The larger the family, the more beneficial the relationships are.
This strong family unity is beautifully reflected in the word for “everyone,” which is 大家 or dà jiā. This word literally translates to “big family.” The more you study Mandarin, the more you see the importance of family reflected in the language.
When you learn stories behind the language, you learn what a country’s priorities are. That’s when you start to understand a culture.
You can read, hear and think about a culture, but the best way to experience a culture deeply is to speak its native language.
3. Locals Love to Hear You Speak the Language
Everyone likes it when people show an interest in them.
Learning the local language is the ultimate way to show you care about the local people and culture.
When you show that you care about another’s way of life, you show that you are a compassionate, thoughtful person. This display of empathy will open all kinds of doors.
You’re more likely to have support when you need it. When people see you’re genuinely trying to speak their language, they’re more than happy to help you find your way when you’re lost, order the food you want or meet new friends. In fact, they might even buy you a drink!
Locals generally love helping out foreigners on their language journeys. It’s a fun way to bond and build rapport.
Even if your accent is weak or you’re still a total beginner, the natives will appreciate your effort.
They’ll love that you’re attempting to assimilate into their culture. You’re not just another tourist obsessed with taking the perfect Instagram photo. You’re now becoming a local yourself.
4. Meet People Who You Never Would Have Met Otherwise
The world is filled with amazing people. But not all of these people speak English.
If you have the language skills necessary for daily communication, you’ll open up your ability to talk to thousands of new people!
Chat with your taxi driver. Make small talk with the store clerk. Get to know the man who sits next to you on a long bus ride.
Once you learn the local language, the people you meet every day have the potential to become your new business partner, best friend or soul mate. That’s pretty thrilling!
And you don’t need to be fluent to get started.
When I traveled around Myanmar, I spent a couple weeks in a city called Yangon. I only knew the basics of the Burmese language, but I was determined to practice those few phrases at every opportunity.
One street vendor was so taken with my efforts that he spent 30 minutes trying to communicate with me about his family, work and life philosophy. Not only did I leave that conversation with new language skills, but also with a free bag of food and a hug!
But the conversations are just the beginning.
Once you learn to communicate with locals, you learn about their lifestyles, hopes for the future and how they became the people they are now.
Hopefully, this understanding will diminish your prejudices.
You come to understand that these people are more than an embodiment of a stereotype. They are individuals with stories.
By speaking others’ languages, you learn more than words and phrases. You learn to know and accept people who are different from you.
5. Learning a New Language Is Good for You
Ask yourself this question: Do you want to become a more attractive, intelligent and marketable human?
I’m guessing the answer is yes!
Check out this video by the British Broadcasting Corporation that breaks down the advantages of learning new languages.
As your brain develops these skills, your confidence levels will skyrocket. And who doesn’t like being confident?
Learning a new language benefits you in the business world, too. The more languages you have under your belt, the more marketable you become in this increasingly global business world. Having language skills on your resume will make potential employers take notice.
6. Keep Meeting Native Speakers When Your Trip Is Finished
You might think, “Why waste time learning Portuguese? I’m only going to be in Brazil for two weeks!”
But the more you travel through the years, the more opportunities you’ll have to whip out these language skills and meet new people
And let’s say you’re back home and see a French person struggling to communicate in English. If you speak French, you can help them out just like French people helped you on your trip! Assist them in hailing a taxi, ordering food or figuring out where they need to go.
As a speaker of another’s local language, you’re now instantly able to befriend thousands of people all around the world. The more proficient you become in this language, the more you can reach out to people across the globe!
As an engaged and intelligent traveler, make sure you don’t waste this chance to get out there and learn the local language!
Now maybe you can avoid being yelled at by Chinese men in public.
Eric Michelson is a nomadic, philosophizing, peace-minded pluralist. He hopes to help bridge the divide between the diverse factions of the world by exploring various perspectives brought on by personal experience. You can follow Perspective Earth to learn more about him and his work.
And One More Thing…
If you’re excited to communicate with locals abroad, you’ll love using FluentU. FluentU makes it possible to learn languages from music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks.
With FluentU, you learn real languages—the same way that natives speak them. FluentU has a wide variety of videos like movie trailers, funny commercials and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.
Didn’t catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover your mouse over the subtitles to instantly view definitions.
You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s “quiz mode.” Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It uses that vocab to give you a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.