There’s an old cliche about American travelers expecting everyone to speak English to them when traveling abroad. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but let’s face it, if you travel very widely, you don’t have to be American to quickly fall behind the language curve.
I’m going to guess that a relatively small percentage of travelers are equally conversant in English, Arabic, Swahili and Cantonese. I’ll make a confession up front. I’m not. On the other hand, I think it’s simply good manners to arm yourself with some basic language knowledge when visiting a country where your own language is not dominant.
When I’m visiting another country, I like to get the basics down. What are those basics, though? Well, for me, I think it’s essential to be able to greet someone in their own language. So, a simple “hello” and “goodbye” in the local language are mandatory. I also try to nail down other polite formalities, such as “please”, “thank you” and “excuse” me. After a couple of times of being the bungling foreigner, I also added “sorry” to my list.
Obviously, the more you learn of your host country’s language, the easier it will be to navigate their culture, but just getting some basics down is almost always appreciated by the locals. Just like in my own hometown, strangers are more likely to be helpful when you extend a little courtesy.
Luckily, in the digital age, it’s never been easier to access language learning resources. Whether you are trying to achieve fluency, or just memorize those polite basics, the information you need is just a few mouse clicks away. Really, it may be as close as an app on your phone.
I find Duolingo to be one of the handier ways to introduce a new language and to brush up on the basics of grammar and vocabulary. It’s free, effective and, although you can use their regular website, they are probably better known for their handy phone app. Several weeks before going out of the country, I like to start running through the lessons for my target language. Although it may not make me magically fluent in time for my trip, it certainly boosts my comfort and confidence levels.
If you really want to get serious about a new language, truly becoming conversationally fluent, there is eventually one other thing you’re going to have to do. That one other thing is the most important thing. You need to speak with someone in that language and, preferably, that someone will be a native speaker. Those first few times can be a little intimidating, but languages are meant to be spoken. You’ve got to do it.
A great resource for learning a new language is the website italki.com. Through italki, you can find professional teachers, community tutors, or informal “language partners”, all of whom can help you learn, or improve, a new language.
Basically, on italki, you find someone that speaks and/or teaches the language you want to learn and then you set an appointment to “meet” on Skype. So, you get to have one on one lessons and conversations with native speakers, face to face, via video chatting. Some languages are more prevalent than others, but you’d have to be learning something pretty obscure to not find someone to help you.
Like most things in life, you get what you pay for. The professional teachers on italki.com hold relevant certifications and have experience in language teaching. Yet, the costs are often a great value. A decent hourly wage for some countries may seem like a bargain for many Americans. It’s worth noting, too, that the Community Tutors charge less, because they do not have professional credentials, but I would recommend perusing their profiles, as well. I’ve had mixed results with Community Tutors, but some of the best teachers I’ve found were, in fact, Community Tutors.
Language is the primary conveyor of culture and the more you can delve into the local culture while traveling, the richer your travel experience is likely to be. Daunting though it may seem, learning a new language (even just a little) is more achievable than you might think. So, go ahead. Give it a try. When you’re in Rome, speak Italian.