Travel alters perspective. It disrupts worldview, increases knowledge and empathy, and I believe it makes a person better. This is not a guide on how to learn a language or how to hack travel in general. Instead, these are some thoughts on the value of spending real energy learning and applying the common language of a place you are visiting.
Affect Your First Impression
Just as at home, when you interact with someone they subconsciously assess you and apply labels. This starts right from when you first wander up to them and is heavily influenced by how you speak to them. If you barge into someone’s world in your own language without a word of theirs, they may defensively close off and the potential of the interaction is immediately reduced. You may be labelled as ‘tourist’ and come across arrogant. It is doubtful you will be labelled ‘potential friend and collaborator’. By entering all interactions in their language, you promote that you are a collaborative individual and show that you could generate value in their life, not just take. This is not a zero sum game, but one where everyone can benefit.
Be Empathic vs. Exploitative
Travel immerses you in a different culture. The way you telegraph yourself is in a constant dichotomy between exploitation and empathy. Exploitative travellers do not care to understand the people they come across, they just want to take experiences away and are not interested in injecting value back into the society and culture. Empathetic travellers want to learn from others and to understand what they want and what their struggles are. Where you sit can be affected by how you choose to spend your time and money, how you take photos, whether you stay in resorts with other tourists or amongst locals, whether you support local business or not, and also whether you try to communicate deeply with locals. Speaking to locals is an amazing way to increase empathy beyond your own roots.
Don’t Be A Taker
Without a grasp or awareness of the local language, you are positioned as a taker from the community. If you attempt to speak their language, you can help locals better understand your own culture, you can understand what their needs and desires look like, and you are no longer positioned as a taker but as a helper or an equal. And remember, you are at an advantage because you are also an expert in your own language. With even the smallest amount of local language, you can help other travellers that don’t speak it as well as you to have a better interaction. I am constantly jumping into other conversations where a local and a traveller are misunderstanding each other, and with one or two words bring them back to the same page.
Diminish Your Target
Any seasoned traveller knows that travelling can be approached very safely, and the easiest way to draw danger is to paint yourself as an ignorant and unaware tourist. By standing and speaking with the confidence that you know some language, you instantly break down those barriers. When people see that you aren’t a mark, they won’t treat you like a mark. You’ll notice people may even approach you to sell you or hustle you on something, but you’ll end up having a real connection and leave with a great tidbit on a cool unknown beach or town you otherwise wouldn’t have known existed. And all with just smiles and a few choice words.
Don’t Fear The Response
People tell me that actually using a language with a fluent stranger is too scary so they never even try. Upon reflection I think it boils down to the ‘fear of the response’. By speaking someone’s language as a beginner, you are handing over control to how they respond. This is vulnerable and the fear understandable. Let’s explore what could happen:
- They laugh and judge you.
- They don’t speak the language and guide the conversation to another language (maybe yours).
- They don’t understand what you are saying.
- They respond in their language, but you cannot understand the response.
- It all goes fine!
None of the scary responses are that bad, and you can pretty easily ‘escape’ each situation by either switching back to your language or by ending the conversation politely. I propose a challenge. Don’t. Even if they laugh at you, or you don’t understand, or they switch to your language, persist just a little bit longer. You’ll pick up the language faster by learning new things organically. You reinforce that your attempt to speak their language was not a gimmick, but an honest attempt to connect deeper. Obviously at a certain point you may have to switch back and that is fine, but you can probably go further than you first imagine.
It’s More Than Verbal
A final thing to remember is that communication is not only verbal. This becomes especially important when your technical skills are not enough to get a thought across. To compensate you should energize the other parts of communication; make your gestures bigger, point to provide context, emphasize tone, exaggerate facial expressions, draw pictures, use sounds. Anything that lets you push a bit further without doing back to your native language.
Language awareness will transform your travel. You will generate more value in the places you visit, and you will have more enriched experiences. Have fun with it, as you learn more of the local language, you’ll pick up slang, and be able to make jokes and coax out some laughs. I hope this inspires you to go beyond the basics the next time you travel.
All photos taken in República Dominicana in 2015 by the amazing Christopher Troy Dowsett — http://www.chrisdowsett.com/