You spend a lot of time and money on your travels, so it makes sense to get the most out of the experience. One way is to read books about your destinations, as I wrote about here. But an even better way is to learn at least a little of the language they speak in the places you’re going.
It seems like a lot of work, especially if you’re taking a short trip. But if you’re going to be in a country — or a region, such as Latin America — for more than a few days, spending the time to learn more than “dos cervezas, por favor” is truly worth the effort. That goes double if you’re thinking of becoming an expat or spending your winters abroad.
My travels to Latin America have been frequent enough that several years ago I decided it was time to bite the bullet and learn the lingo. And it paid off in spades, giving me a whole new appreciation of the countries I visited.
Why is learning the language such a help? I can think of three reasons.
First, being able to make yourself understood simplifies life in another country. You can have experiences you might not have had, and go places you might not have dared to tread without the ability to function in the native language.
Second, it allows you to really meet the people — not just the tourist guides who happen to speak English. I’ve had great conversations with cab drivers and people on the street who taught me more about their country than I could have learned from a book.
Third, it gives you an insight into the culture. Language plays a big part in culture, expressing it in ways that outsiders wouldn’t think of. I remember my delight when my I found out that the Ecuadorean phrase for popcorn is “palomitas blancas” — little white doves.
How do you go about learning a foreign language? It’s not that hard, and for those of us in the Baby Boomer age group, it’s a great way to keep our mental functions sharp.
The simplest way is to find a language school — they exist in most good-sized cities — and take a few lessons. There are also online and packaged courses such as Rosetta Stone, if you decide to go it on your own. I can’t vouch for them, but they sell a lot of courses, so someone must be getting results.
But the best way to really get into another language is to combine your study with your travels. There are countless places around the world where you can spend a few days learning a language in the place it’s spoken. You can even stay with a local family and live in their language while you’re learning.
I’ve met people on my travels who were doing just that, and having a great time. In some cases, they almost became part of the family they stayed with. (If you’ve had this experience, please leave comment and tell us how it was.)
Meanwhile, if you’re considering which language to learn, it’s only fair to mention that some are harder than others. Generally, the less similar a language is to your own, the harder it’s likely to learn, especially if it has a different alphabet or things like vocal tonality. Even so, any progress you can make will help, if only to find your way to the bus stop.
Here’s a chart that ranks the major languages in difficulty, from easiest to hardest.