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Where are all the language tourists?

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In this day and age travel is so easy and cheap that taking a “gap year” is becoming more and more commonplace.

Travel before settling down into your job or even before going to college is something a large number of Europeans and Australians have been doing for well over a decade. I'm glad to see that North Americans are starting to do this more regularly too.

And what people do during this extended travel period is quite impressive; many of them get to do incredible things they have never done before – for example I just went scuba diving for the first time this week, and I can tell you if you have never gone that it really opens your eyes to a whole new world, and makes you so aware of your body in different ways.

As well as this, people take photos to inspire others, eat local foods, learn local dances, and make many international friends. Most of these will be with other travellers (that's to be expected due to more common ground), but occasionally they will indeed make a real connection with (beyond ordering food off…) some locals.

English is pretty widespread, so if you don't mind restricting yourself to the university educated or those that work in the tourist industry, then you can indeed get by fine just with English, and you can even make lifelong and deep friendships with those locals.

Nothing wrong with being a tourist

Luckily, I meet many foreigners who do speak the local language. These are usually expats, who didn't follow the typical route of protecting themselves in an English speaking bubble. As expected, they have no “language talent” – they just realised that if they are going to be in the country that long, not learning the language is going to limit them too much and necessity becomes their fuel to learn it.

Since I don't live permanently in a country and thus can't quite call myself an “expat”, unlike some travellers, I have no qualms with relating to use of the word “tourist”.

I'm touring, and I'm living a non-local lifestyle in many things I do (such as being vegetarian), and staying in temporary accommodation rather than getting a long-term lease. If I know I'm definitely leaving, even if it's not for 3 months, I still consider myself a “tourist”, even if my lifestyle is not quite what you would consider of a typical tourist.

I'm not one for site-seeing for example (which is an excellent way to get to know a place, I just am not so interested in architecture and museums/history), but I usually do that at the end of my stay.

Backpackers are tourists too, even if they don't like the lack of romanticism and adventure associated with the word. I find the whole thing quite ironic that so many will constantly ask for the “non touristy” destinations on travel forums (frequented almost entirely by other tourists).

If these same people ended up in a 20 person village with no running water, then they'd quickly change their mind. The world is becoming developed and tourism is part of that development. Even small “non touristy” towns have resources to accommodate tourists. It's an important industry that helps the economy of the local country when done right. The tourists (both backpackers and resort stayers) before me have paved the path to make access to places as a foreigner that much easier, and I'm eternally grateful for that, even if that path happens to be “beaten”.

But there has been something that has constantly annoyed me in 8 years on the road:

Why aren't there other language tourists??

So, accepting that we are all tourists and interested in different things (so if you travel for scenery or food and I don't, that's quite alright!) what has constantly confused me is why there aren't other language tourists?

Every time I meet someone and tell them what I'm doing, they're always so amazed at the idea. And in almost a decade travelling, I've never actually met someone else who is definitely travelling (so they know the investment they make is not one for speaking the language for their entire life every day) and also focused on speaking with locals. Why is that?

Perhaps I'm simply missing them just barely, but I usually start my time in a country in a more typically tourist-like situation (so I'm still in hotels in the Philippines and will hopefully have an apartment from next week), so I meet plenty of other travellers in each country, just before I transition to the time where I'm simply not being in situations where I'd meet them at all (i.e. spending time with people who wouldn't use English socially).

I'm sorry but to me it just doesn't seem like that clever or unique an idea to be a tourist and to have “get to know locals” as the main priority in your travel criteria.

If you think you can do this only using English in any non-restricted way in countries where English is not an official language or not in very developed countries like those in Northern Europe, then I would have to kindly ask you to take your head out of your ass.

Yes, you can make great friends with the well educated, or those whose job it is to speak English, but after that you can't talk with most people normally in terms of getting to know them. Sorry but them knowing how to count to 100 so they can sell you a t-shirt (to some people, this will count as the vast majority speaking “some English”) doesn't count in terms of you really trying to get to know them.

Even here in the Philippines I got a regional bus and ended up sitting next to a lady who was transporting chickens (do I get my non-tourist badge for doing this? Oh goody(!)) Since I was struggling so much with my Tagalog I tried to use some English with her and she just gave me a blank face. Conversing was only possible with my very limited (but imaginative) language skills and body language. And this is in a country where English has official status!

And here come the excuses…

Actually I know the answer to the question, but I'm still asking it in the hope that others might start thinking more about it to realise the fallacies.

The real reason there are very few language tourists is because of excuses. Plenty of people would love to do it, but (while or before they are travelling) they have no time, no money, the “language gene” located a few strands up the 14th chromosome (or whatever) is missing for them (ignoring the fact that they already clearly speak a language so this is quite ridiculous), only a “select few” like me are lucky enough to be able to do it (yes, just me… and over a billion others who genuinely speak more than one language). Sorry if that's not the case in your country, but places like India with people who speak 5 languages being almost the norm show that wealth and travel really have little to do with it.

Or maybe you're too old? I was also too old when I started – it's a good thing I ignored that excuse.

Or maybe you'll only be in the country for a few weeks, so it's not worth the effort. The only real “effort” I have in my travels is trying to convince other people of how easy this process of learning a language really is when you do it right. Grab a cheap phrasebook. Learn off the phrases and use them. It will be hard the first time and not so hard the second time. You can even learn enough to get by pretty well in just one weekend or on the flight over.

Maybe you don't like hearing that the reason you aren't speaking your language is actually due to empty excuses rather than some decision about you cast by destiny at the beginning of time. Well tough cookie. The purpose of this blog isn't to show off my travel stories; I want to slap some sense into people until they learn languages.

As I said at the start, if you are a tourist with other goals, then great. I'm not interested in attacking people who are simply interested in a holiday or a cultural experience that involves things you do, rather than getting to know locals with little restrictions. But if you are interested, then it's time to realise what is really holding you back.

The day when I meet enough travellers (as well as more expats than the current small number I'm meeting) who say “Cool! Me too!” rather than “Wow, you're so amazing!” will be a great day indeed.

Of course, I'll have lots of encouragement and advice to try to point people in that direction – I've got lots of goals on this site; selling the Language Hacking Guide on the side supports me as I learn my own languages and helps me save up for more expensive future immersion experiences like to learn Japanese and Russian some day (since I'd like to do them in the capitals), but what I'd really like to do with this site and the increasing readership is simple:

I want to change the world.

I want as many people as possible to communicate confidently in other languages, no matter what their background is, and I want everyone to realise that (even if school convinced you otherwise) everyone, including you, can learn other languages in a lot less time and effort than you might think.

And it's working; I'm starting to get more and more e-mails from people who are confirming that (surprise surprise) actually trying to speak actually works. Hopefully you'll be sending me yours soon 🙂

Looking forward to meeting more language tourists some time soon! 😉

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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