How Much of a Foreign Language Should You Know when Traveling?

Language Travel Phrases

I used to be fairly good at speaking Italian. After my three months abroad when I was nineteen, I felt at least conversational—I could hold my own whenever I was chatting with a resident from Venice. It was great to have this skill as a traveler, because you learn so much more about whatever culture you have immersed yourself in by talking with locals; you get the true flavor of that place.

Unfortunately, my Italian’s kind of gone downhill (I plan to take lessons again when I return in October), but it made me think about how much of a language you need to know when you are traveling and immersing yourself in a new society. It’s not always possible to have an in-depth conversation with someone you meet at the hole-in-the-wall bar down the street from your hostel, but at least being able to say a polite hello can make a world of difference.

Specifically in Venice, greeting shop owners and waiters with a confident “ciao” and being about to order in Italian gained more respect than stumbling through the menu with mispronounced words. In a prickly town like Venice, you were much more likely to have good service or get accurate directions from the people there if you spoke a spattering of Italian.

Which isn’t to say that just because you don’t know the language that you shouldn’t take opportunities to visit places where you might be completely clueless. I loved going to Barcelona and not being able to decipher Catalan—the conglomeration of Spanish with French and Italian influences made it almost impossible to understand. Also, luckily, the Barcelonans are a lot more welcoming to tourists than Venetians.

With English so widely spoken in the world now, the chances of finding someone who can point you in the right direction when you are lost are that much higher—so you don’t need to feel as though you need to be fluent in order to get around. You might not have the deep, philosophical conversation over a glass of ouzo that you wanted, but at least you can find a place where they serve it.

I’ve made it a new travel goal to know a few essential sayings of whatever language is most prominent in the country I’m headed to. A simple greeting can transform you from a bumbling tourist to a competent traveler. I just won’t be surprised when the locals continue to speak to me in their native language instead of switching to English!

Image courtesy of Kat.

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