The Bonus of a Common Language

So, you’re off on a trip somewhere, everything is booked and there are a couple of months to go. You’re wondering, should I learn the language? Doesn’t everyone speak English these days? Do I really need to?

There are some obvious bonuses to speaking the local lingo. At its most basic level, knowing how to say please and thank you, excuse me, hello and goodbye is a basic courtesy – you are a guest in this country after all. Learn a little more and it makes things like shopping and restaurants easier and you might even feel confident enough to barter at the local market with your skills. Taken a little further it’s really useful when, as undoubtedly happens, you need to argue with a taxi driver who’s trying to rip you off, or explain to a hotel that you do indeed have a booking. Finally, if you’re confident enough, you can strike up conversations with the local people. This gives insight into their world, a way of learning about their culture, talking about your own, finding similarities that put you on a common ground.

Can I learn enough to make it worthwhile on a short holiday?

This is up to you. At the very least I’d learn some pleasantries, either from a phrase book or from your guide so that you can smile and say thank you when someone brings you your dinner. Some people go all out and there are ‘holiday’ language courses for the more common European languages such as French or Spanish. These are very short courses geared towards teaching you the sort of phrases you need when you’re on holiday in a place.

The Big Trip

If you’re going on a long trip, taking some time out and spending a significant amount of time in a certain area then I’d definitely recommend it. It gives you a head start with getting around and getting to know people. Spanish, for example will get you around a lot of Latin America, some of the Caribbean, Spain and even the southern states of the US. Portuguese is spoken in Brazil which covers a vast area of South America and parts of Africa and French will work in the Caribbean, parts of Africa French speaking Canada and various countries in Europe.

Which language should I learn?

Which language(s) you choose to learn really depends on your destination(s). I chose Spanish as I was travelling for a few months in Latin America. If I’d been there longer I might have had a go at learning a little Kaqchikel which is the Mayan Language spoken by the indigenous people in the area where I did some volunteer work. Or maybe in South America I’d have tried to learn a little Quechua, spoken in the Andes of South America. I’ve also tried to learn a little Portuguese, for interests sake, which I will certainly try to revive when I finally get to travel to Brazil and my school girl French often comes in useful!

Do your research, find out what language is going to be the most useful to you in your chosen destination and, if there is a choice, what might be most accessible for you to learn, both practically and in terms of difficulty.

How to learn

There are many modes of study these days from the most simple phrasebook, a teach yourself kit with mp3 downloads or CDs, evening or weekend classes locally or even, basing your holiday around acquiring a new skill and learning in country. A bit of internet research can often show you language schools in country where you can take lessons in the morning and spend the afternoons exploring your new location. This option is particularly good if you are spending a larger portion of time abroad. Teach yourself kits often languish on the bookshelf of good intentions but a local class can yield a new hobby and new friends. There are pros and cons to every method so choose one that suits you.


However you choose to learn, whatever method you choose and whichever language you decide on, learning a language is both challenging, hard work and fun. Once you’ve acquire some skills it’s great to go out and try them out – locals are often delighted to help you along and it really helps you to engage with local life and culture.


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