Before we dive in on this topic, I just wanted to share a quick update with you guys. I’ve recently made the decision to expand the focus of my blog. It will now not only focus on travel guides and travel tips, but on languages as well. Like travel, linguistics and language study is another of my passions, and I’m excited to share that with you!
Languages and travel, especially international travel, go hand-in-hand in my opinion. I never quite realized it until I studied aboard as a college student. But as my Spanish improved, so did my understanding of the culture in Spain. Whenever I travel now, I make it a point to learn at least some basic phrases of the languages of the countries I visit, instead of relying solely on English. I’ve found that it is always a bit easier to connect with people when you at least start the conversation in their own language. I will cover the reasons why I think languages and travel are strongly tied together, and the benefits of learning a bit of a new language when traveling to a new country.
1 | Better Interaction with Locals
As I mentioned above, you can often get much better interactions with locals when you can start a conversation in the local language. I’ve found this to be more important in some countries (e.g., France), than others (e.g., Iceland), but it’s a really great practice to take up regardless of where you go. I admit, learning languages is difficult, but you can simply start with greetings as they can be relatively easy to learn with little practice. At the very least, you should practice your “Bonjours”, “Holas”, and “Guten Tags” before heading on your trip. Using local greetings, you are more likely to get a smile from the person you are addressing, and you demonstrate your interest in the local culture.
2 | Minimized Reliance on English
So if you are reading this post, I am assuming that you can speak (or at least read) fluently in English. On one hand this is great as English is the current lingua franca in our world. You will likely find someone who speaks English in most places that you go, although it may be harder to find English speakers based on your travel destination. In cities / countries where English is not as common, you will have difficulty navigating daily situations without some knowledge of the local language.
For example, in countries such as Cuba or Colombia, I’ve spent the better part of most days not speaking any English in conversations with locals. Another personal example is that I experienced several instances where words / signage in Greece were not written in the Latin Alphabet. My brief study of the Greek alphabet helped greatly in these occasions!
I will say, don’t let a limited working knowledge of the local language hinder you from travel. You may just have to get used to being more expressive with your hands or using tools on your phone to help you out when needed. If you don’t have time to memorize new phrases, I recommend writing them down in a small booklet or on your cell to carry around for reference.
3 | Improved Cultural Understanding
If you spend time really diving into foreign language study, it can greatly improve your understanding of the local culture. As I mentioned in the intro, I came to this realization during my time as an exchange student in Spain. I noticed how expressive my teachers and classmates were when speaking, and started to do my on research on this. I found that Spanish sentences are typically longer than English when describing the same things. This example shows that native Spanish speakers experience things differently, and that is expressed through the language. I’ve also found the Spanish to be more affectionate to strangers in both language as well as physically. There is no fear of personal space, so people tend to stand closer to each other than here in America. In fact, it is very common to greet others with kisses. These are just a few examples, but you can see how language and cultural norms are tied together!
“As well as learning vocabulary and grammar, you’re also unconsiously learning a whole new way of seeing the world. There is an inextricable link between language, culture, and cognition.” –Professor Panos Athanasopoulus, Lancaster University
**Note, the descriptions above are not meant to sterotype anyone in any way, just some things I observed in my time living there.
4 | Improved Mental Function
The last benefit I’ll speak to in this post is the benefit that language learning has on your mind. Language learning can lead to growth of the hippocampus and areas of the cerebral cortex. These areas are associated with memory, thought, and action. This can lead to improved memory and sharp thinking as you age. They WAY that you think and experience your surroundings may also change – a theory known as Linguistic Relativity. For example, in Japanese there are more terms for the different shades of blue than there are in English. If you decided to learn Japanese, you’d start to distinguish colors in this way too.
Final Thoughts | Languages and Travel
The link between languages and travel is often overlooked, but I believe that it really is an important one. I hope that I’ve convinced you to at least start researching languages before you venture out of the country! I really can’t get enough of learning about other languages, and hope you got a sense of my enthusiasm here :).
If you have, you may want to check out this website called iTalki. This is the website that I use to keep my Spanish skills sharp. I also use it to learn the basics of other languages when I travel. The best part about this site is that you can either do a language exchange with other students for free or take paid, structured lessons for as little as $5 an hour. Check it out!