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Why Learning Language Basics is Important for Travel

English is everywhere. For English speakers, it’s obviously useful to be able to travel to most countries in the world, and know that (especially in the cities and tourist areas) many people have mastered English as a second language, mostly for the sole purpose that it’s already so widely spoken.

But with English being so dominant, other languages are being pushed aside. Not only are we losing out on the opportunity to experience other cultures properly (language is always deeply rooted in the core of a culture), some languages are at risk of disappearing completely. Even here in the UK, some of our native languages, like Cornish and Welsh have been slowly declining for generations. Although thankfully, a great number of people are trying hard to preserve them.

A sign in Bislama in Vanuatu

Whilst travelling I have been able to easily communicate with almost every single person I met, in English. I’ve even heard it used as a go between language for other nationalities, for example a French speaker conversing with a German speaker in English. I always feel guilty about the prevalence of it, so I often talk about it with other travellers… “I feel so bad that everyone seems to learn English and we don’t learn any other languages.” “Don’t worry, it’s fine! You don’t really need to…”.

But it doesn’t feel fine. The idea of having a common/universal language has some positives. For example it can make trade, and international communications so much easier. (Have you heard of the language Esperanto?). But with English being so widely spoken, it starts to interfere with other languages. There is in fact an excellent TED talk by Daniel Bögre Udell, which covers the concern of losing languages. He estimates that over 3000 could be lost over the next 80 years. That’s staggering, and heart breaking.

“Reclaiming your language, and embracing your culture, is a powerful way to be yourself.”

– Daniel Bögre Udell

The History

Colonialism, globalisation and cultural assimilation bears much of the blame. It’s something we cannot shy away from. And something that should be taught much more deeply and honestly in UK schools. We marauded around the world, forcing our language, religion and lifestyle onto other cultures.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Vanuatu. Both France and Britain colonised the archipelago, and over the course of a particularly dark era of history in the late 19th century known as ‘blackbirding’, (in which people from Vanuatu and other Pacific islands were forcibly taken or tricked into working on plantations in Australia and Fiji), the language of Bislama was formed. So many locally indigenous languages existed (113 in Vanuatu alone), that Bislama was created as a pidgin English (a mix of English words with local language structuring) to allow people to communicate more easily.

Over time, as people were able to return home, Bislama came to Vanuatu, and became one of the official languages. However English is still becoming more widely spoken here too, repressing indigenous languages even more.

OK. You might be feeling pretty deflated over the fact that English is so rampant. But thankfully, awareness is growing, and many cultures with less widely spoken languages are fighting to protect and revive their local languages.

What can we do?

Now I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely not a polyglot (someone who speaks many languages). Becoming fluent in every language of every country you wish to visit is perhaps a bit of a stretch. But, we should at least learn the basics. By the basics, I mean enough to be respectful, sociable and friendly.

It’s too easy to just turn up in a new country and carry on saying ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ to people whose native language is not English. It’s on us to try.

Hello, How are you?, One Two Three, Thank you, Please, Good Bye.

They’re enough to get through the day, with perhaps some gesturing and google translation thrown in. But it’s so beneficial to learn other key phrases too. For example, how to ask, ‘How much is this?’ in shops/markets, ‘one ticket to …’ and ‘to the train station please’. Being able to communicate effectively whilst travelling helps to keep you safe, respectful and connected.

Wayasewa, a small Fijian Island.

Why is it important?

Whether it’s another widely spoken language like Spanish, or a language less widely known, like Bislama. It shows that you care enough to try, and to respect the country and culture that you are immersed in. Especially in tourist destinations where English often overpowers. Hopping into a taxi, and being able to say to an Italian driver ‘Ciao, la Torre di Pisa per favore’, (no matter how carefully you have to pronounce it) will generally be so much more appreciated than English.

Plus, considering our colonial past in some countries, I think learning basic words is the very least we could do, for any language, minority, or widely spoken.

It can also help in keeping you safe. Knowing certain phrases that can help you in emergencies, like knowing how to say ‘help’ or asking for the police/medical aid, or being able to read the word ‘danger’ on a safety sign. Whilst you may not be able to retain every single phrase, having them physically to hand in a book or notepad will help you when internet/charging is unreliable.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

My pronunciation can sometimes be atrocious, I really struggle with rolling the French ‘r’ for example, but it’s all about trying. A local will be happy to hear you at least giving it a go, and maybe even a little amused. The only way to get better and more confident is practice!

Use the local language where appropriate

Not all languages are widely spoken enough to be used in every setting. For example, Welsh, Jèrriais and Cornish are resurging in the UK, but unfortunately, not every local can speak them (or perhaps even wants to), as every thing is still so dominated by English. But if the opportunity arises, we should ask questions and show interest in these minority languages. If you see a cafe in Cornwall with Cornish signage, try saying ‘Meur ras’ (thank you) as they hand you your Cornish pasty!

A warning sign in Denmark. “Stop when the lights flash”

Tools and resources

Of course, knowing where to begin and finding the best source of information and translation is key. Whether you’re attempting to cram in some learning at the airport, or have months to prepare, set aside time to at least learn those basics.

Google translate

This should be installed on the phone of all travellers. It’s become much more intuitive and precise over the years, so it can usually be relied upon for quick and accurate translations for over 100 languages. And of course it can even do the talking for you!

Language Apps and Websites

Duolingo is a great free app for learning the basic structure of a language, and it’s great that they are throwing light on more endangered languages like Navajo and Hawaiian. There are plenty of apps available, plus language learning sites like Rosetta Stone and Babbel!

Language Classes

If you have quite a bit of time before your trip you could always take up a class! Speaking is always considered one of the quickest ways to pick up a language.

Good old fashioned phrasebooks

These are a great tool to carry around when wifi or signal is unreliable. If you feel like you can’t cram a small book into your already bulging backpack, type up key phrases on your phone, or write them in the back of a travel journal.

Ask locals!

Most locals or guides would be more than happy to help in explaining or showing you common phrases and greetings. In Vanuatu a local guide taught me to say ‘my name is’ Nem blong mi Hannah, and ‘I’m from England’ Mi blong England, in Bislama.

As Daniel Bögre Udell explained in his TED talk, not all languages are supported on mainstream sources like Google translate etc, so look to websites or social media groups that specialise in providing knowledge, translations and valuable information on minority languages.

I speak a little French, and would love to learn some Spanish next, and have been learning the basics of Welsh and Navajo on Duolingo, and Jèrriais from online sources! Which languages are you fluent in? Do you have any great stories from practicing your non-native language out on the road?

  • Hello! I’m Hannah Sweet.

    I write content for nature oriented brands and create blog posts for nature seekers, conscious creatives and solopreneurs.

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