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Preparing for a trip? Toss aside your guidebook. Astute travelers know that successful travel depends less on how much you prepare, and more on how well you prepare. While many of us spend countless hours mulling over hotel reviews or crafting perfect day plans, smart travelers spend their time doing something else entirely: learning a language.
No pre-trip preparation can push your journey further than arming yourself with a basic knowledge of the local language. Not convinced? Here are five ways that learning a language helps you become a smarter traveler:
1. Develop a deeper appreciation of the culture
Reading about a culture is one thing; experiencing it is another. By setting out to learn a language, you instantly begin to develop a deeper sense of how people communicate with each other and how communication is shaped by (and shapes) cultural values.
Even if you only scratch the surface of a language’s grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, you’ll better understand why locals interact the way they do and better prepare yourself to connect with them without committing accidental—and often embarrassing—cultural faux-pas.
2. Spark genuine friendships
Every traveler talks about getting to know the locals, but smart travelers walk the walk. They know that getting past superficial conversations requires more effort than simply spouting off a smattering of English phrases. They realize that English is widely spoken, not universally spoken, and they prepare themselves for it.
By learning the local language, you put yourself in a better position to cultivate meaningful friendships. Locals will always appreciate the extra effort you’ve taken to dig deeper into their culture and will often reward with you with insider tips on how to best experience their city or country. Who knows? Your dash of extra effort could even lead to a lifelong friendship.
3. Save money
Tourist pricing is not a myth: what a local pays can often be a mere fraction of what a traveler does. And while there’s no foolproof way to safeguard yourself from being gouged, learning the local language could get you one step closer to becoming a smart traveler who always returns home with a few extra shekels in your pocket.
Bargaining is a huge deal in many cultures and quick-witted, silver-tongued shopkeepers can sometimes push a hard bargain. Want to improve your chances of stuffing that perfect souvenir in your backpack without losing your shirt? Bargaining in the local language can help break the ice, generate a few chuckles, and show you mean business.
4. Find more authentic accommodation
Travel agents and booking engines don’t have all the answers. And what they don’t want you to know is that outside of their worldwide network of hostels, hotels, and guesthouses is a host of authentic accommodation options that you’ll never find on the web.
With knowledge of the local, or a common foreign, language (and a little taste for the unknown), smart travelers know that simply asking around upon arrival can score you some interesting digs, often a fraction of the price of a similarly-sized hotel or guesthouse rooms.
Private homestays are among the most memorable ways to truly experience a place and they present an opportunity, especially if you’re able to speak the local language, to share an authentic home-cooked meal, learn about a city’s history, or discover the offbeat gems that guidebooks often miss.
5. Become an expert navigator
Getting around a foreign city can be challenging. Indecipherable scripts, unrecognizable words, jammed pedestrian sidewalks, and chaotic traffic all fight against the unprepared traveler. But becoming a smart traveler who navigates new places with confidence doesn’t involve much of a secret: learn to get by in the language.
Arming yourself even with foreign language basics like “Where would I find…?” or “How do I get to…?” (and being able to understand the responses) can spell the difference between being a confident traveler who always seems to know where he/she is going and a tourist whose face is perpetually buried in a map.
Similarly, familiarizing yourself with new scripts and learning basic reading skills can help you to navigate through those unfamiliar places that trip up all but the most astute of explorers.
So, next time you’re planning a trip, start with your phrase book, not your guidebook, and soon, you’ll be on your way to becoming a smarter—and more confident—traveler.
Ryan O’Rourke is a Canadian teacher, writer, linguaphile, and founder of Treksplorer, an independent travel and language learning website dedicated to helping busy people balance their careers and family lives with their travel and learning goals. Learn alongside Ryan as he regularly sets new foreign language learning challenges, simplifies his life, and discovers the lifestyle tweaks needed to make everything run like clockwork. When not wandering the globe entertaining locals by speaking their language with a Canadian accent, Ryan calls Northern Ontario home where he lives with his family of fledgling world travelers.