I should start by saying that I have always been fascinated by languages and love giving new languages a go. Unfortunately, the only one I speak with any fluency (other than English!) is Spanish, as that is what I studied at university. Apart from that, I speak some French and Portuguese and a small amount of Italian (literally a handful of words). But I always attempt to learn at least a few words and phrases (please, thank you, hello, goodbye, etc) in the language of the country I am visiting. Whilst my attempts are not always the best, I really feel that people appreciate you making the effort…
I think as an English person I feel that I NEED to make an effort to speak at least a little bit of the local lingo… English people have a reputation for expecting everyone else to speak English and are often seen as lazy in terms of language learning. Unfortunately, this has come about as a result of children around the world being taught English from a young age and English being the only common language for many people. The historical reason that English is so widespread, of course, dates back to the time of exploration and empire-building when English sailors reached many parts of the world, taking the English language with them.
Back in the UK, schools mainly used to offer French as the primary language option… but that is changing and more widely spoken languages, such as Spanish and Mandarin are now on offer. When I was at school the only options were French at primary school and French and German at secondary school – both of which are tricky to learn and neither of which are particularly widely spoken worldwide, so I am glad children now have more options.
And if you are interested in languages and are staying in a country for a while, there is always the option of doing a language course whilst you are there. I am a big fan of immersing yourself in a language – you tend to pick it up much quicker and it can improve your accent significantly if you are surrounded by it 24/7. If you take a language degree at university in the UK you have to spend a year abroad for those reasons… it’s considered a valuable part of the course.
In terms of travel, speaking a little bit of the local language can open doors to new experiences. It shows that you have taken an interest in the country you are visiting and you will often receive a warm welcome as a result. I have been invited into people’s homes for meals and to meet the family as a result of trying out my language skills.
Another reason to learn some useful phrases and to always have a phrasebook to hand when travelling is that you never know what might happen… what would you do if you were taken ill somewhere off the beaten track where no-one spoke English? How would you explain that you needed a doctor or tell people what was wrong? What if you needed to deal with the local police for some reason? A few phrases in the local language could make all the difference to how quickly you get dealt with…
Despite what many people think, there are still a lot of places in the world where people do not speak any English and so learning a few phrases can be invaluable. Even in more rural parts of Spain – a country widely visited by Brits – not everyone will speak English.
So when you book your next trip, consider buying a phrasebook or taking a short course in order to enrich your travel experience… I highly recommend it!