10 Reasons to Learn a Foreign Language
By Mark-Anthony Villaflor of 365TravelDates
*This blog post originally appeared in Cultural Reflections.
We tried Swahili in Tanzania, we are picking up Spanish in Central America, and we speak English and Tagalog at home or when we want to have a private conversation. We get sneaky about bargaining in Latin countries and speak in Mandarin, because if we spoke Tagalog the locals would understand the numbers (Tagalog sometimes uses the same numbers as Spanish). The Chinese even have signs for different numbers. Six is a hand that looks like the “hang loose” sign. We love language, because when you have certain experiences you want to share and describe them to others. Of course like many magical experiences, you can’t fully describe what you feel in words, but if you had more you would certainly try.
Here are 10 reasons (plus one bonus one) to learn a foreign language and enhance your cultural experience while traveling (or talking to your wife):
- Eat Better: One of the greatest things about travel is food. Being able to ask and speak to locals to find hole-in-the-walls and mom-and-pop shops is invaluable for the traveling foodie. The food described by the exotic local chefs is intoxicating. Your mouth savors each word (even if you don’t fully comprehend) and can’t wait for a bite. When we say Sarap! (Tagalog word for delicious) with a big grin on our clearly-satisfied faces, locals know that we’re talking positively about their food. Tell it in their local language. Also, when you are looking for ingredients, it’s great to have a list of words to take with to the fresh produce market.
- Save Money: If you already look Gringo (fortunately for us we’re brown), you’re likely to find the prices are higher, even on local products. If you come in speaking the language, you have more authority. If you look familiar and speak the language, then they might not glance twice. Go into a Chinese fake market without any knowledge of numbers or greetings, you will be eaten alive by their absurd starting prices.
- Save Time: You can either look through your guide book and search the Internet or you can simply ask. Whether it’s food, accommodation or a pharmacy, they’ll get you closer to where you want to be and usually faster.
- Better Transportation: One thing that’s different overseas is that there’s efficient (as opposed to America’s) public transportation. Being able to read a map in Spanish (it’s no different than English, North is still North) and knowing that all “major” cities in a country are connected through a bus system means I only need to find the bus station where my bus connects to the next city. When you are taking public transportation, communication eases the stress of a travel day especially when there are a bunch of connections.
- Better Accommodation: We arrived in Panama and went straight into the mountain town and retirement community of Boquete. We went around asking for short-term rentals (all the local housing around us was full). We got a two-bedroom apartment for $400 in the same neighborhood at this Eco-Garden, and after speaking to the garden owners (our neighbors) found out they had two casitas for rent in their beautiful four-acre eco-garden that also runs as a local tourist spot. We are glad to know we have the option for a two-bedroom rustic garden home surrounded by a place people pay to relax in. We quickly became friends with them and they have kindly allowed us to use the garden area to blog and relax. Each day before blogging in the garden, we sit in the living room and discuss different topics to help with our Spanish.
- Understand History / Current Issues Through Local Perspective: The Chinese are building a canal through Nicaragua and its beautiful lake. I asked many people about the canal and they all gave me their opinions. Weird thing was I hadn’t yet asked a local. When I finally did, a taxi driver went into a raging fit about the canal, the government working with the Chinese and went on to tell me about Nicaraguan politics and its history. Meanwhile, Camille was in the back speaking to two German friends in English. The driver, animated and driving his taxi through it all, made for a special drive to the bus stop.
- Find Work and Volunteer Opportunities: We constantly look at the community boards outside different establishments. There are always classifieds for housing, stuff for sale and work/volunteer opportunities. Sometimes they are in English, often times not.
- Easily Understand Other Languages: If you know Spanish and English, you’ll have a pretty good working knowledge of the Tagalog languages. Entiendo español pero no hablo (I understand Spanish but I don’t speak) has allowed people to continue the conversation and encourage locals to continue speaking. If you’ve been studying abroad in Argentina speaking Spanish and find yourself in the neighboring Portuguese-speaking Brazil, you will be able to understand each other (to a certain extent). Latin-based languages such as Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and French have many similar-sounding words as their roots are Latin.
- Laugh and Smile More: Initiating with locals is easier for the foreigner given the cultural context. Often times, we find that non-Westerners are pretty reserved. They’ll smile, if you smile first. They’ll also talk if you say “hi” and initiate conversation. Swahili has been our favorite language to try learning so far. Saying anything local like “jumbo,” hello, somehow releases smiles and repeating phrases provided by locals gives off laughter. “Pole pole,” slowly slowly, was one of first phrases we learned in East Africa. We then learned that “Hakuna matata” or “no worries” was a real phrase. Tanzanians always say to muzungos (foreigners), “Pole pole hakuna matata” finishing with “This is Africa.” This explains a lot about African time.
- Hold Local Customs: Never walk into a market, shared rides or homes in Latin America without greeting people. I thought it was the strangest thing to greet strangers when I entered a restaurant and say to them “buen provecho” (good eating or enjoy your meal). However, I found it very pleasant when others did this to us. “Provecho” is also said when you are leaving others that have just started their meal. In the Philippines, we say “mano po” (hand please) to our elders upon entering a home and take their hand to our head as a sign of respect and blessing. These are all great ways to keep in custom when abroad. Sometimes they’ll even get you brownie points with the locals.
- Fall in Love: You will fall more in love with people, a community and culture when you know and can get into their culture through discourse. You foster friendships, give and receive in more ways than one by being able to speak the local language. You will smile and laugh more, which leads to your heart expanding as you swap stories and share your own culture and language with your hosts.
Next Topic: Lost in Translation (March 26, 2015)
Q1: Do you speak a second (or third, fourth, etc.) language? Which one(s) and how did you learn? #CultureTrav
Q2: How has speaking another language helped you in your travels? Ever teach someone your own language? Share a story. #CultureTrav
Q3: What keywords and phrases do you feel are important to learn before traveling to a new place? How do you learn these? #CultureTrav
Q4: Do you feel language is an important part of a culture? Why or why not? #CultureTrav
Q5: Have you ever attempted to speak the local language and mispronounced something? Share the story! #CultureTrav
Q6: How do you overcome a language barrier while traveling? #CultureTrav
BONUS: Share a word in your native language that you identify with and its English translation. #CultureTrav