Globalization has changed how we travel. Gone are the days of hauling a phrasebook around to look up words in a grocery store or sound out phrases at a bus stop. Google Translate now replaces the phrasebook for most of us, if you even need that. Most well-worn paths are lined with signs in English, and you’d be hard pressed to find a large sized city anywhere in the world where you couldn’t use English with someone. Nonetheless, I still like to push the idea that travelers should also be language learners.
Traveling is inherently a people-driven pursuit. Whether your motivation is food, relaxation, adventure, or just getting away, these are all experiences that are enriched by spending them with the locals. Being transported to a different world is to live life as another person. So how does learning a bit of the language help with that? It gives you a way to assimilate.
When you speak the language of the country you’re in, experiences and opportunities will open up in a way that they might not otherwise. People will feel less of an “us vs. them” mentality towards you. It will turn otherness on its head. Without the language barrier, people tend to let their guard down and see you, at least somewhat, as one of them.
You don’t have to be fluent in a foreign language to break this barrier down. True comfort and fluency takes years of study and practice, and just isn’t a practical goal for a two week trip in Thailand. Hell, even knowing a few words can help with building relationships. Taking the time to learn about someone’s language and culture goes a long way to winning their friendship and respect. Some of my oldest and closest friends I met through being interested in their language and culture. I’m still friends with the bartender at a bar I used to frequent in Athens because I asked her how to say “cheers” in Greek. I started talking to one of my oldest friends because I asked him to teach me some Swedish. At the time, I didn’t know a single word of Swedish. Ten years later, I’m conversationally fluent and have been to Sweden numerous times. It’s almost a second home. I took an interest in a new language and culture, and it changed my life and how I see the world.
Next time your planning a trip abroad, take an afternoon and try to commit a few phrases to memory. Dig a little deeper into the people, experiences, and culture around you. It might surprise you.