There are about 7,000 languages spoken in the world, which are too many for even a super genius to learn in a lifetime. However, knowing at least a few words of the language of your next destination is easily within reach. In some cases, foreign language skills will even get you out of a mess. Here are just five:
1. When appearances can be deceiving
When traveling in a place where you don’t speak the language, it’s tempting to rely on universal gestures or animated facial expressions when you have to ask a question or get a point across. The only problem with this utopian ideal of communication is that nearly all non-verbal communication is relative. In a country like Japan, for example, a simple nod could convey way more than you intended. Conversely, who could believe that the furious look of an attractive person down the bar is saying, “I’m falling passionately in love with you!” It would be a shame to mistake passion for anger, and even worse to respond to their proclamation, “Te quiero,” with the universal shrug that says, “Sorry, I don’t speak the language.”
2. When you are searching for an authentic experience
So you’re the kind of traveler who’s constantly on the lookout for the “authentic” travel experience? You veer off the beaten path — lined as it is with menus in English and souvenir shops — in search of the real places hiding behind the tourist traps. This is an honorable approach that often yields unforgettable experiences: a hidden beach, a home-cooked meal, a secret garden… but without the local language you could also wander aimlessly off track — getting lost without being able to ask for help. So remember that authenticity is a two-way street. If you want an authentic travel experience, you, too, have to be authentic. Thankfully, nothing is more authentic than speaking to someone in their own language.
“Where’d you come from?”
3. When you might be in danger!
On my first trip to Rio de Janeiro, I went swimming at Arpoador Beach. A nearby surfer called to me from two waves over, and out of timidity (or vanity) I pretended to understand him. A minute later I realized the current was dragging me dangerously close to the rocks. It was only then that I understood what the surfer had been trying to tell me: “Watch out for the riptides!” Fortunately for me, disaster was averted in the knick of time, but my nerves were too jangled to swim again for the rest of the trip.
Danger can also lurk in more innocuous places than around jagged rocks. Take, for instance, your dinner plate. Imagine you’re ordering in a restaurant abroad, and desperately need to inform the waiter about your food allergies. As a precaution — especially because you are unable to decipher the menu — you ask the waiter, in English, if the menu item you are pointing at contains shellfish. He answers with an emphatic “no,” but who would suspect that he misunderstood the question? What a pity to end your stay in the hospital, all because you didn’t know that frutti di mare is not an exotic Italian fruit.
Yummy condiment or deadly weapon?
4. When you need to read road signs
Driving abroad always has a little taste of adventure. Whether it’s because you’re driving on the opposite side of the road or because the locals are more lax about changing lanes and using their blinkers — you have to keep your wits about you. But it’s not just about traffic laws and other drivers. Can you imagine what would happen if you couldn’t read the road signs? Hopefully not something like this…
“No, the other izquierda!”
5. When you want to avoiding making (too many) faux pas
One of my colleagues recently shared an embarrassing story about her last trip to France: wanting to show off her French skills, she complimented a friend’s dress by saying it was really “disgusting.” Whoops… When you go abroad, it’s impossible to fully avoid mistakes like this without a sufficient command of the language. But if you are at least trying to learn the language, you are in a much better position to learn from your mistakes. Being called out for making a faux pas can be slightly embarrassing, but it virtually guarantees you’ll never make the same mistake twice. Armed with a sense of humor and some confidence, being the butt of a few jokes isn’t the end of the world; in fact, it’s a great opportunity to improve your language skills!
“She said what?!”