About a year ago, Daniel and I were in Morocco looking to get from Rabat to Fes. We had just left our riad and had flagged down a taxi, and we were informed by the taxi driver that we would have to switch to another one in order to make it to the bus station—in French. Arabic is the official language of Morocco, but almost everyone speaks French, as well, after colonial presence.
English wasn’t going to suffice—I was going to have to dig deep and find my college French that I had worked so hard on four years ago. It wasn’t easy, but I managed to direct the taxi driver to the bus station and thank him profusely for his help. (I swear, the Moroccan people are some of the nicest in the world.)
This wasn’t the first time I was glad I knew some of the language of the country I was visiting. I felt the same in Nicaragua, living in Italy, and making friends with some French people in Nice. I try to pick up a new language every few years and have found that it not only enriches my life, but it also makes connecting with local people that much easier when I visit a new place. We’re lucky that English is so commonly spoken around the world, but I’ve found that solely relying on my native tongue hasn’t always been the best way to meet people or learn about my location.
I really felt this when we were in South Korea for a month. There was definitely a language barrier sometimes, and even though there was no way I was going to learn how to speak Korean in a month (though I did take lessons and loved it), I could at least say “thank you” and “hello.” I will never forget how happy the local people seemed when I made an effort to communicate in their language.
I’ve talked a lot about the difference between being a traveler versus a tourist on this blog, and while I still believe that you’re always going to be a bit of both, learning the basics of the local language can help you a lot to feel like you’re a part of a culture. Tourism can be a blast—especially when you’re hopping from locale to locale. But in order to make real connections, showing that you are really interested in a place and its culture can make your travels really memorable.
I try to learn a few phrases before I travel to a new place now. Some of them I completely mispronounce, but the local people never seem to take offense and will politely correct me. I try to learn “hello,” “thank you,” “good,” and “good-bye.” You’d be surprised at how much you can get across just with a few words and how much that can mean to the people you meet on the road. Also, it’s okay to make mistakes. No one would expect someone from a foreign country to know English perfectly, either.
For me, traveling is about connecting with others and pushing myself to think in new ways. Being able to communicate (in whatever small way I can) has really added a lot to my journeys and has been eye-opening for me to understand how different cultures function. I encourage all travelers to learn a phrase or two when they head to a new destination in order to make some new friends and to immerse themselves in a new place.
Have you learned another language that has helped you on your travels?