When I meet other travellers, it's great to be able to share stories and relate to them in ways that only nomads can. Because of this I do like to spend time with other travellers when I can.
However, most of my time is actually spent socialising with locals, most of whom speak little to no English.
It does frustrate me that many other travellers simply don't care about learning the local language, sometimes not even learning basic pleasantries; even well seasoned travellers claim that English is all they will ever need.
Far be it from me to criticise their way of travel, since my own travels are perhaps ‘less authentic' than others when you take into account how I have no interest in trying local beers (I don't drink), or eating local food with meat/fish in them (I'm vegetarian). I make no exceptions to this.
I also prefer cities over villages, and some will tell you that you can only get a true sense of a culture in more traditional and simple backgrounds.
Perhaps for many travellers, I'm missing out on a lot and I understand where they are coming from. But there is one thing that I feel defines my own personal travels that I wish I would see more of in other travellers: speaking the local language.
It's not that hard to get by in the local language
The obvious main reason not to try is because it's too hard for you. This falsity all in your head.
There are so many things medium to long-term travellers (a genuine holiday of a few days is different) who bring their protective English bubble with them around the world don't seem to realise:
- It's not that hard to learn a local language. Killing this ridiculous hard myth is a major focus of this blog. I hope to convince as many people as possible to ditch the BS natural-talent excuses, the vicious circle of “I need more time“… and to just speak!
- Even if you're in a country for just a few weeks, you can learn a huge amount of what you need from a phrasebook. One way to remember these phrases easier is explained in the Language Hacking Guide, but that chapter (along with another one) is free to anyone subscribed to the RSS of this blog or who joins the Language Hacking League e-mail list.
- When you speak even the basics, almost all cultures in the world will patiently listen to you and try their best to understand you. The only exceptions to this in my experience have been a couple of major cities in France (that take some getting used to) and English speaking cultures. Just because you wouldn't have the patience to listen to a foreigner stumble in English in your home town does not mean that they would not give you the benefit of the doubt when you are in theirs. Many are amazingly appreciative that you are trying.
You can save a LOT of money!
Travel isn't as expensive as people think it is. But I've gotten incredible deals by haggling in the local language, even when my level of the language was weak. This is one reason I can live in such nice big apartments (to host Couchsurfers) all the time; my general policy is to avoid agencies with websites in English, or advertisements from the owners written in English.
Of course, I did that here in Medellín; here's a video tour of where I'm living:
You might think that I have won the lottery to live here (especially for the amazing place I had in Rio), but I know for a fact that I'm paying much less for my rent in these places than most readers in North America and northern Europe are for simple apartments. This is obviously partially due to taking advantage of currency rates in South America, but it's also largely thanks to searching and discussing prices in the local language.
Other travellers seem oblivious to the fact that they are always paying an “English tax” when dealing just with locals who speak English. Yes, English is “everywhere” and you can usually find what you need, but you are paying a price for the privilege to get filtered into the English-speaking camp nearly all the time.
A different side to culture
Travel for ‘culture' is such a cliché that there is a whole industry in many places around feeding that culture to tourists. Seeing traditional dances, and trying (as I mentioned) food becomes the core of travel for so many people, and they do indeed learn a lot about the country from that.
The ‘culture' I seek is simply to have real friends from the country. This is why I do end up avoiding other English speakers a lot. I'm not in Colombia to hang out with Australians or Brits. Even my current language mission is just a few hours a day, with the vast majority of my socialising being with Colombians and in Spanish.
Of course, there are plenty of locals who speak excellent English, but it's a tiny demographic in many countries, even if you keep meeting them. The way we travel tends to have us gravitate towards who we are looking for. Because I am more random in who I meet, most of my friends couldn't say much more in English than “the book is on the table”.
English's “dominance” in the world is an illusion.
When your social circle only exposes you to the 1% of a country that speaks perfect English, or if you only speak with the upper class, then you will believe that illusion. Most of all the friends I have in the world can't even read this blog without clicking the Google Translate option I installed for them.
If you rely on English you are mostly limiting your exposure to locals that specifically work in the tourist industry or the upper class who have graduated university, ignoring everyone else. If you travel to savour food, take photos, visit museums etc. then that's great – but if you travel for cultural purposes, how is not trying to at least basically communicate with the vast majority of people you come across going to give you an authentic view of life in that country?
Such a hugely different experience
When I think back to the first six months I spent living in Spain, I would have to say that it was doing what I see most English speaking expats doing when they go abroad. I had lots of fun, went to lots of parties and had a great time, but I was living in a bubble. I would do anything to maintain my English bubble, like looking for restaurants with translated menus or relying on others to interpret for me when someone from outside our group would annoy us with Spanish.
My friends were all other foreigners or Spaniards that were more motivated to spend time with us to improve their English rather than out of genuine friendship.
Then one day I made a really important decision to really learn the language. The rest of my time in Spain and in pretty much every other country since has been completely different. I've talked to an old Czech lady about her experience in World War II, shouted conversations across a dinner table with a huge southern Italian family, and made lots of interesting small-talk with random interesting people at bus stops and parties.
Most important of all, I have gone out with those locals, and made some lifelong friends. If I was limited by one language to do this, then I would have quit my travels many years ago, but even after almost a decade it is constantly interesting to meet new people from across the world. Travel becomes an even more beautiful thing when you take the wrong language out of the mix.
The limits of my language means the limits of my world – Ludwig Wittgenstein
Do you think you could expand your travel horizons and speak with some more locals? You might have to initially feel stupid due to making mistakes, and frustrated that you can't party with other English speakers all the time, but the benefits are absolutely endless.
Let me know what you think in the comments below, or share this idea with your friends on Facebook.