On the Road

Learning Languages Guide


Learning a new language can be done for free. It will win you friends, deepen your travel experience and may even get you laid – what better motive could you ask for?

What do you call someone who speaks 3 languages?

Trilingual.

What do you call someone who speaks 2 languages?

Bilingual.

And what do you call someone who speaks only 1 language?

An Englishman.

The above joke could serve for many Americans, Australians or Canadians that didn’t grow up speaking French. It’s just so easy to get by speaking English in most places that there often doesn’t seem to be much point in learning other languages – it should be up to everyone else to make the effort, right?

Thus, at least, goes the attitude of the average holiday maker asking the way to the beach at the top of their voices. But then the willingness to learn a language is often one of the dividing lines between a tourist and a traveler. Once you understand what the hell is going on around you, it revolutionizes your experience of a country.

Until after the Second World War the world language was still French and no member of elite sets in other countries would let a dinner party go by without letting slip the odd platitude en Francais. Once Britain ceded control of the world to the US though, the ensuing cultural imperialism of Walt Disney, pop music and Hollywood meant that English became a staple worldwide. English is the international language of business and now the internet is making it even prevalent.

Yet the influence of English only goes so far. There are more native speakers of Mandarin and Spanish these days and, depending on the geography and politics of a country, English may be way down the list as far as priorities go. Take a country like Morocco, for instance, and you’ll find that most people speak Arabic, followed by Berber, French, Spanish and English coming in 5th place.

Sadly, most travelers wince at the thought of learning another language and miss out on a whole dimension of their experience abroad. Confined to speak only English they only get to talk to locals who are working in tourism or come from a rich background and so get a distorted notion of what the country is like.

Not to mention that if you understand the local lingo you’ll get cheaper prices, stay safe as you understand the warnings of which neighbourhoods to avoid and you’ll be able to walk up to that hot local in the bar and say something breathtakingly witty – or maybe it will just be your accent they’re laughing at but either way, you’ve made contact.

The other point is that people are really touched when you make the effort to learn their language and won’t just write you off as another ignorant tourist.

Learning languages also opens up pathways between the left and right side of your brain and so (probably) makes you live longer. You may also encounter whole new sides to your personality when you speak in another tongue, becoming progressively more macho, fatalistic or outspoken depending on the language in question.

No good at languages?

Crap. Just about anyone can pick up a new language to at least simple conversational level. It just takes 2 magic ingredients – time and effort. So open your mind, roll your tongue and open yourself up to a whole new lingual world.