Should I Learn a Language for Traveling? The Answer is in 5 Simple Questions

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Behind a stack of language textbooks a student rests his head onan open book

Whether going to Costa Rica for three weeks or France for three days, you need to consider learning the local language before traveling. I can almost hear you sighing into your screen, because you know you don’t have to know the local language to enjoy traveling. Also notice I said ‘consider’ not ‘commit to’. “Should I learn a language before traveling?” is a common question. There are plenty of destinations where you can get by with English, but sometimes you want to do better than ‘get by’. Learning Japanese was one of the best decisions I made, and so was not learning Icelandic. But how do you know if you should learn a language for traveling or not?

Here are five questions I ask myself when deciding should I learn a language. Think about your next travel destination and answer them as you read. The answers give you an idea whether it makes sense for you to learn the local language or not.

  1. How long is my vacation?
    • If I’m visiting Russia for the weekend (humour me) I’m not going to sign up for Russian 101. But if I was traveling for a month, I would learn a few phrases and take a look at Cyrillic. The longer I spend in a country where I don’t understand what’s going on, the longer I’ll be uncomfortable and confused. Ick.
  2. Am I likely to visit other countries that speak the same language?
    • Spanish is spoken is over 20 countries. Greek…not so much. I’m more likely to learn a widely-spoken language so I can use it again.
  3. Do I already speak a similar language?
    • I’ve studied French, giving me a head start on romantic languages like Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian. With Arabic I’m starting from zilch. If I already have an advantage I like to use it.
  4. Will I use it when I come home?
    • There’s a chance I’ll be able to use my newly-learned language after I come home, but there’s a chance I won’t ever hear or speak it again. If it’s going to come in handy talking to my neighbours, friends, or co-workers I’m more likely to want to learn it.
  5. Is English spoken in the country I’m visiting?
    • If not—Japan—I’ll put more effort into language. If so—Thailand—I’ll put less. It’s that simple.

What did you come up with? If you can answer your question “should I learn a language?”, great! If your answer still isn’t clear—or you’re not happy with the answer you got—consider the advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages:

  • Ask anyone a question: you’re not restricted to talking to the people at the tourist desk anymore! Help anyone help you by learning to speak to them.
  • Read signs: stores, entrances, and bathrooms are no longer a mystery. You won’t mistake an ear-cleaning salon for a currency exchange ever again!
  • Restaurant menus are useful: read which meal has the beef, and which has the fish. Wait staff will be thankful that they don’t have to translate the entire menu for you.
  • Relax more, stress less: what is the announcement at the airport saying? What is that guy asking me? Which bus goes where? These things stress you out when traveling; they disappear when you understand the language.
  • Bargain sneakily: if you’re not fluent, saying a few words in the local language could sound terrible, which is hilarious. When vendors start laughing, they relax their guard and you can bargain easily. Unfair? Maybe. Effective? Indeed.
  • You get smarter: apparently learning another language can fend off Alzheimer’s, keep your brain healthy and generally make you smarter. The New York Times says so in this article about the benefits of bilingualism.  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-benefits-of-bilingualism.html Awesome!

 

Disadvantages:

  • Time consuming: learning a new language is going to take time. If you can’t commit you might be setting yourself up for failure.
  • Intimidating: practicing a language means making mistakes. Lots of mistakes. Embarrassing yourself is never fun.
  • Accidental insults: saying the wrong thing can make people angry. The words for ‘cute’ and ‘pathetic’ in Japanese are similar. You don’t want to mix them up.
  • Confusion: mashing two languages together in your brain can make things more confusing instead of less. You could end up jabbering a hybrid language-mess, confusing everybody (including yourself).
  • Frustration: no matter how hard you try, you can’t ever know everything about a language. Face it, all languages—even English—are constantly changing. Keeping up is tough.

Now you know how to decide whether you should learn a language for traveling. Answer the five questions with your next vacation destination in mind, weigh the advantages and disadvantages, and you’ll know how to answer “should I learn a language?”

 

Knowing you should do something and actually doing it are different. For tips, techniques, and advice on learning languages, check out Fluent in Three Months, a website dedicated to helping people learn languages.

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