When I ask people why they want to go abroad, the most common answers are along the lines of exploring a different part of the world as a means of finding oneself. And many people travel from one place to the other, meeting fellow backpackers along the way, the exciting cities, the freedom and the nightlife- to find out who they are. But what about exploring the other? Is the point of travelling not actually to discover what is outside of one’s own existence?
I have always thought that travelling to find one’s own identity and reasons as being a little self-centred. I believe travelling is about understanding other ways of living and viewing the world. It is about going out of one’s comfort zone, to disregard and step outside of one’s own judgement. Rather than thinking about one’s own desires and ambitions, I think travelling is a practice of empathy. This means that we do not only visit new places but we observe, we take part and we learn. And this is how we can develop acceptance rather than just mere tolerance. It is the principal key to attaining a global mind-set and accepting responsibility for the global community as a whole.
One of the main distinctions between self-centred and empathic travel, in my eyes, is the attitude to language people exhibit. Language is a key component to a culture and indeed the main vehicle for intercultural communication and interaction. Without a common language, we cannot express ourselves as we wish. Moreover, a language and the attitude to it reveals a great deal about the culture and society in which it is spoken. So while many people consider language learning a tiresome chore, I believe it is the key to engaged travelling. It is the only way to truly immerse oneself in a new environment. And essentially, making the effort to learn the local language is making a choice between learning about yourself and taking the opportunity to learn from others.
Below are some of the more practical reasons why you should make the most of your experience abroad and familiarise yourself with the language. At the end of the day, it does not matter how few or many words you know, but rather that you make an effort and try – and you’ll soon notice how quickly you will improve.
1. Everyone will like you
It sounds stupid but let’s not forget, when you embark on your adventure abroad far away from home, you will naturally look for new social contacts. Trying to speak the local language is a very good bridge to get to know people: It also makes you more interesting than the ignorant tourist trying to get a sun tan for their new profile pictures. Moreover, if you go to a country in which the local language is not commonly taught abroad, any attempt at the language is met by enthusiasm. I remember putting my first rough sentences of Turkish together and people hanging to my lips like I was some kind of prophet. You will find people are a lot more tolerant towards bad accents abroad than they are in English-speaking countries.
2. You will find all the cool places
Let’s be honest, as much as everybody likes sightseeing, the flow of tourists suffocating and pressing you against the walls of the 147th souvenir shop isn’t really what anyone is looking for. We all want to find that hidden gem which is on no tourist map, that you can rave about in front of your friends. Well, if you speak to locals, you will find places that are off the tourist radar, where you won’t be ripped off and the sights are not hidden behind hundreds of groups of widely grinning selfie takers. Be it beautiful parks, genuine traditional markets, exciting nightclubs and rooftop bars or up and coming art galleries you’re looking for – you will be going to the places the locals know are best!
3. Communicating is fun!
Especially if you are in the early stages of only knowing a few words, you will not be able to express everything you want in words. Not knowing the language makes you creative. You get to speak with your arms and legs and you will be surprised how much patience people have for you when you try, and how much fun it is to play Charades throughout the day and other people responding the same way. Some of my strongest friendships have started in full-body choreographies of me trying to tell that funny story of the baby pulling faces at me on the bus..
4. Why make others suffer for your insecurity?
Ok, you don’t feel comfortable speaking a language you barely know, you feel you can express yourself better in English. But why does it have to be you who is at ease? It is just as difficult for locals to speak English, so why demand for them to bend over backwards just to preserve your own pride? And more importantly, nobody will ridicule you for your mistakes. On the contrary, people will be happy you’re trying and encourage you.
5. You will learn to be the foreigner
Many people coming from English speaking countries have never been used to being “the foreigner” and how hard it can be if nobody speaks your language. This might give you some more understanding for people who do not speak the language in your own home country.
6. You will gain a better insight into the culture
We all know how closely interlinked language and culture really are. More than 30 words for sausages in German – no coincidence! Apart from culinary preferences, all concepts of political structures, power hierarchies, gender identity and most importantly – humour, are encoded in language. You are never going to really understand a new culture if you haven’t once laughed at a local joke.
7. Other languages are funny
You will soon become familiar with all the odd little sayings, jokes and metaphors there are in every language. Take for example the Latin American saying creerse la última coca-cola en el desierto, which literally translates to believing one is the last coca cola in the desert, another way for saying that one is full of oneself.
Or we find the German “Go where the pepper grows” meaning “Get Lost”. “I think a horse kicked me” when you are surprised by something. Or have you ever asked somebody how they are and they have responded “Horse Horse Tiger Tiger”? Well, in China you just might, as it is the most common way of saying “Not bad”. From “the jumping point”, “I think I might get a monkey” all the way through to “Make sure you win territory” to say someone should leave, these idioms are often at the essence of a culture – and will give you good stories for when you get back home.
8. Gain in confidence
Ever felt awkward standing in front of a whole room of classmates having to present something that in all the panic of the moment has entirely disappeared from your brain? Whether you are shy or outgoing, the experience of being in a new environment, not knowing anybody and having to go out of your comfort zone by speaking a foreign language, communicating with all your limbs, will make you so much more at ease in your own language and any form of human interaction.
9. Become a local
This sounds obvious but if you make an effort to learn the local language you are making an active choice to become part of the community. You’re not a visitor looking on from outside but you actually become a part of the place you are living in.
10. Actually learn a language
… And let’s not forget, depending on how long you stay and how much you get to practise, you will get a good grip of an entirely new language. That’s not only a way to impress your friends and future employers and to make yourself interesting at a party. It also means that there is actually a whole new group of people you can talk to, become friends with and share your mind-blowing stories with.
So dive in! Immerse yourself. Take as many experiences from your travel abroad as you can. You will notice that far beyond learning the language you will open your eyes to a whole new culture and by broadening your horizons, opening yourself to the unknown and living and breathing the place you have travelled to, you will probably learn a lot more about yourself than on any self-finding trip you could imagine. You will find how you fit into a broader global picture and which role you want to play within it. So swallow your pride, be prepared to make mistakes and have fun!
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