Before You Travel To A Foreign Country, Practice Their Language

Tom Malone/Adventure Tribune

When I travel to another country, my main goal is to experience that place’s culture. I accomplish this in a few ways: sightseeing, food, politics, art, and, most of all, by talking to people. In order to have conversations with people from other countries, I make a point to practice their language prior to embarking on an international adventure. But, why?

Communication gives me chances to ask questions and experience a culture from that culture’s perspective, but I can only communicate with someone from another country by speaking their language. In order to have a meaningful conversation, I feel the need to utilize their native language.

Also, I find that I’m more well-received and accepted by a foreign country’s people if I attempt to speak to them in their language. When I at least attempt their language, people are more inclined to help me out and share their culture with me.

I view the attempt at a culture’s language as a sign of respect. If I enter someone else’s culture, I should adapt to that culture, not the other way around.

Americans tend to have a negative travel stereotype abroad; we’re loud, dumb, and arrogant. I’ve seen plenty of American tourists try to speak English (loudly) to people in Spain, and then get frustrated when the Spaniard doesn’t understand them. Part of my efforts to learn a foreign country’s language comes from my desire to not play into the American tourist stereotype.

Now, I definitely don’t claim to be fluent in every language of the countries I travel to; that’s absurd. I do try to memorize the basics: common nouns and verbs, mostly.

As a native English speaker, I struggle to communicate with people from non-English-speaking countries, yet I also find enjoyment in this communication barrier. For the most part, people are willing to help you try to say what you mean to say; many people find enjoyment in helping out this ignorant foreigner who’s trying to speak another language.

I want to visit every country in the world, but how am I supposed to communicate with over 7 billion people who speak over 6,900 living languages?

I’m traveling to Peru this summer. Though I studied Spanish in college and lived in Spain for a while, I don’t speak Spanish every day, and I would never pass for a Spaniard; therefore, I need to refresh my skills before I enter South America.

I focus on verbs first. Typically, I don’t even bother with tenses, either. Most people will understand the verb and they can figure out who you’re talking about. Then, I focus on nouns that I anticipate needing to use. Directions, food, transportation, etc.

Also, I always bring a pocket dictionary with me in that country’s language. If I’m in a bind, I can always find the word on the fly.

One thing I don’t rely on, however, is a language app. Language apps only work if you have cell service or wi-fi connectivity. My phone doesn’t work outside of the country, and many places I travel to don’t have wi-fi access like we’re accustomed to here in the United States. Also, if I find myself in a situation where I really need to know a certain word, my guess is that I won’t be near enough to civilization to type in a wi-fi password.

Aside from being able to communicate with people, you’ll also find yourself growing smarter. Studies show that learning a new language creates more connections within your brain, and the more languages a person knows, the more intelligent they become.

So, on that note, I need to start practicing French before I leave for Paris. Next month. Au revoir.


Tom Malone is the Editor-In-Chief of The Adventure Tribune and author of adventure novels, like Across Americana. He is based in Denver, Colorado, where he adventures through the Rocky Mountains while not traveling abroad.
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