Transparent Language Blog

5 Ways Learning a Language Makes You a Smarter Traveler Posted by on Dec 30, 2013 in Archived Posts

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.

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  1. Kimberly:

    Thank you for this reassuring article! Several people have told me that I’m wasting my time by studying German before I go there for vacation next year. They tell me that most people will be able to speak English, so I shouldn’t have any trouble navigating or understanding the locals. However, I’ve always thought it would be more respectful to attempt conversation with a local in their own language, and by learning it I think I would feel more comfortable during my visit since I would be able to understand directions and road signs.

    • Transparent Language:

      @Kimberly Learning a language is never a waste of time, especially if you’re enjoying the learning process! And trust us, it will make a difference when traveling, especially if you want to get off the beaten path. Enjoy your trip! 🙂

    • Ryan @Treksplorer:

      @Kimberly German is a great language to learn, Kimberly! I think you’ll find that locals will really appreciate the extra effort over there. I’ve found that the Germans are, as a whole, fairly forgiving towards learners compared to some other places in Europe. You may find some people switching to English to “help” out, but telling them you are trying to practice your German (in German, of course!) will usually get things back on track. Enjoy your journey!

  2. Julio:

    Very good article. As a traveler from very on on life, I couldn’t agree more with you on this and on the way you have so well put it. As a language teacher, traveling is a great motivation to study and learn languages. Your article has given me some good ideas on topics to talk and to teach on.

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