I love learning languages. They unlock new opportunities and open all kinds of doors when you visit a new destination. Even just learning a few words and phrases and deepen your travels immensely. In this guest post, Michele from The Intrepid Guide highlights the top reasons why you should invest in learning a new language before your next trip.
My first trip outside of Australia was to Italy. I had dreamed of visiting ever since I was little. I was so excited and nervous about my first big adventure that I planned each day in detail. I booked skip-the-queue tickets and outlined my whole itinerary so I wouldn’t miss a thing.
But what I didn’t account for was the language.
I’m the daughter of an Italian immigrant but I didn’t learn Italian growing up. We spoke English at home; the only Italian words I knew I could count on one hand.
While I had a great trip to Italy and saw amazing ancient monuments and world-famous art, I only scratched the surface of what Italy has to offer. I could barely buy my tickets in Italian let alone engage in friendly conversation with the locals. I felt insecure in my decisions and annoyed that I had learned Italian beforehand.
When I got back to Australia, that’s exactly what I did. Deciding to learn Italian changed my life forever, including where I lived, how I traveled, and my career.
Learning the local language is one of the best decisions you can make before any trip. Learning even just a few phrases allows you to communicate and experience travel in a different way. It adds depth and nuance to your trip, making it more memorable while also opening the door to new opportunities.
Here are 6 reasons you should learn the local language before your next trip.
You’re Less Likely to Be Ripped Off
One of the easiest ways to ruin a trip is being stuck somewhere or needing help but feeling entirely helpless because you don’t speak the local language.
Then there are the moments when you know you’re being ripped off but don’t have a clue how to get yourself out of it. This is especially true with taxi drivers.
Knowing the local language helps you in two ways:
First, you become instantly more likable to the other person. People don’t tend to rip off people they like. In fact, after a bit of small talk, you might even get a discount or some other kind of special service.
For example, during a language holiday in Florence, I had a friendly chat with the owner of a high-end store for a good ten minutes. He asked why I was there, then shared some interesting history about the famous Duomo (cathedral) located nearby, and I told him how much I loved Italy.
Before leaving, he gave me a beautiful zipper envelope pouch for no other reason than because he enjoyed our conversation. Years later, I still use the pouch and reminisce about that special day in Florence. The rest of that trip was a blur except for this unexpected interaction.
The second reason you should dive straight into the local language is to demonstrate that you have some level of understanding of how “things work” locally. The other person may assume that you’ve visited before and know your way around and how much things cost. This gives them less reason and opportunity to take advantage of you because you’re demonstrating you’re savvier than the typical tourist.
Then there are the moments when you know you’re being ripped off but don’t have a clue how to get yourself out of it. For example, some taxi drivers at Rome’s Ciampino Airport run a racket where they grossly overcharge tourists going into the historical center. An American friend of mine experienced this first hand during her visit.
Luckily, with her basic Italian, she managed to find another taxi driver willing to charge her the correct flat fee and avoided being ripped off.
Before I leave home, I always make sure to learn at least these two key phrases:
These work hand in hand to show the other person you’re not one to be taken advantage of.
It’s Easier to Make New Friends
Meeting new people and making friends is one of the biggest rewards of traveling. And it all starts with a simple greeting like Ciao!, Bonjour!, !Hola¡, Hej!, Konnichiwa!, or Ni Hao!
On a girls’ trip to Sicily, I was traveling with four of my closest English-speaking friends, who all spoke various levels of Italian. On our first night, we found a restaurant located off the main street. It was overflowing with locals, with no tourist menu in sight. Seated across from us was a small family. The head of the family, la mamma (named Maria), was intrigued by the five of us and invited me over for a chat. She was so interested in the story of how we all came to be in her hometown and this local restaurant.
After a brief conversation, all in Italian, our newly adopted mamma invited us around to her home the next day for afternoon tea! When we arrived, Maria welcomed us with two traditional homemade cakes. We stayed for a couple of hours, laughed, and took a photo together.
Before leaving, Maria gave us her recipes for both cakes. To this day, being invited into Maria’s home remains one of my most vivid and cherished travel memories.
When getting to know someone new and making friends, we often ask each other the same sorts of questions, for example, “What’s your name?,” “Where are you from?,” and “What [work] do you do?.” etc. The answers you give form your biography, which you will repeat more than you think. So, when picking up any new language, I learn my biography first. This way I can confidently initiate conversations and respond to these common questions. Sometimes the scariest part is starting a conversation, but if you know your bio inside out, this becomes less of an issue.
It’s the Right Thing to Do
The most important reason to learn the local language is that it’s polite. It doesn’t matter if you travel to the Netherlands or Norway, where people are known to speak excellent English — the thing to remember is that you’re a guest.
Think of it like you’re visiting a friend’s house. Do you wipe your shoes before entering or maybe even take them off? This sort of common decency comes naturally, without really thinking about it. But since we travel less often than we visit a friend’s home, it’s as if we forget how to be polite.
No one expects you to become fluent before a trip, so even if you aim to only learn “Do you mind if we speak English?” in the local language, this nice gesture will be better received than if you shout, “ENGLISH?!” (Shouting never makes anyone better understood anyway.)