You thumb frantically through the final pages of your guidebook in search of key phrases for the forlorn traveler. If only you’d had time to study for just a few weeks before you left… And now you blush in the knowledge that you’re contributing to the pervasive stereotype of the monolingual English speaker.
Sorry, but the line between being received with a joyous smile and an indifferent shrug is very often a simple hola or bonjour or привет or ciao or… you get the idea. The most minimal effort to learn the language of the country you’re visiting can have a huge effect on the locals you’re speaking to. And if you endeavor to learn a little more than the bare minimum, you’ll open up a whole new world of serendipity and adventure. Take it from someone who recently landed a fishing trip in Argentina for speaking Spanish to someone in a local bar: if you speak Spanish in a local bar, you might land a fishing trip in Argentina with a local.
Guidebooks are great for ensuring you don’t miss out on the must-see sights. The internet and the explosion of booking platforms, from booking.com to Airbnb, help you get off the beaten track in the knowledge that you’ll be staying in some snazzy, well-reviewed accommodation. But nothing will ever beat the local advice for timeliness, for insight, and for the opportunity to live, for a wonderful moment, like a true local. So how do you open this window of opportunity, rather than staring lazily through it? Learn the language of course! You can start by following these simple tips:
1. Give your phone a vacation and engage with the people around you
Need directions to the cool bar you found on TripAdvisor? Want to find a nice hiking route nearby? Wondering where the locals go on a Friday night? Lost among the alleyways of the old town? Starving after a morning of adventure and on the hunt for a good bite to eat?
Before consulting your smartphone, ask someone! You know how to say “excuse me,” so you know you can at least start the conversation in the local language (even if you have to switch to English partway through, it’s great practice!).
2. Get embedded
Your phone is your portal to services that help you engage with a place at a deeper level than the classic tourist. With apps available for anything — from learning a language to booking a vacation rental to deciding where to eat tonight — there are fewer hurdles to authentic travel experiences than ever before.
Finding locals to connect with via Airbnb, couchsurfing, facebook or a meet-up group can be an amazing source of insider info (and possibly new friends!). If you really want to see a place the way the locals do, opt for renting a room from a local instead of booking a hotel or hostel. There are also many language exchanges in larger cities where locals come to practice their English, and you have the opportunity to test out your first phrases in a sympathetic, encouraging environment — often with the help of a local beer or two.
3. Get to grips with phrases you know you’ll need
(Ugh, really? That sounds like homework.) Yes, really. DO YOUR HOMEWORK! Start three weeks before your trip (the language needs some time to sink in). Practice with an app, do an audio course — whatever works for you, as long as you arrive prepared to say:
- “Excuse me.”
- “I would like…”
- “Where is the…?”
- “How much…?”
- “Thank you”
- Numbers (1 – 100)
- Directions (left, right, straight)
You will be miles ahead of the tourist crowd. Making the effort is 90% of making a good impression (even if you have to read these phrases off a note card).
4. Eat the language
Everyone’s got to eat, so, whether you’re a “foodie” or not, make food a focal point of your immersion in a new place. Visit markets, food stalls and hole-in-the wall restaurants. Eat adventurously and often (the diet can kick back in when the vacation is over). And chat with the people serving you: ask about the food, the ingredients, the traditions… Local cuisine is always a point of pride (even if it’s not entirely to your taste), so food is the perfect topic to break the ice.
5. Get lost (at least a little bit)
Tourists aren’t free to roam — they get funneled into “tourist spots.” So avoid menus in English, international chain restaurants, big groups of other tourists… and just wander. You’re bound to have an unexpected experience. As an example, the twins in the video below could have enjoyed the sea air from the deck of a crowded booze cruise, but instead they ventured down to a less populated dock where they haggled with a local sailor and got their own sailboat tour of the coast! Now that is an experience worth writing home about!
And remember: traveling is an adventure, so don’t get too comfortable. Test your own boundaries and be brave!