Why Learning Some of the Local Language Before Your Next Trip Will Make You a More Confident Traveler
Flight booked? Check. Itinerary planned? Check. Local language learned…? Find out why this travel writer thinks adding a Rosetta Stone subscription to your trip planning checklist so you can master at least a handful of key phrases will make your next international trip an infinitely better experience.
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Nearly a billion people around the world speak English, which is second in ubiquity only to Mandarin. Because it's often doable to get around knowing only English, it can be hard to understand just how much of a difference it makes to speak a few words of the local language until it's too late. Often, it takes a mistake like getting lost, taking the wrong train or doing something that costs you precious time or money to realize how far just a few phrases can take you. And sure, you could try to scramble to piece together a conversation using Google Translate or a pocket guidebook in the moment, but that's a recipe for a frustrating situation for you and the person with whom you're trying to communicate. Learning to speak a few simple phrases comfortably and build a foundation before your next trip abroad can help you avoid stress and become a more confident traveler. Plus, it's the respectful thing to do to at least attempt to speak the country's primary language.
To improve my conversational Spanish skills in between trips and to learn basic Japanese before a trip to Tokyo, I recently started using Rosetta Stone to practice and get ahead from home. The subscriptions are available on any device and feature interactive activities, phrasebooks and downloadable 10-minute lessons. The program's advanced speech recognition technology grades you on your pronunciation and shows you exactly where you're making mistakes so that you can practice those words you always find to be tricky. In the advanced lessons of the programs, you have to recite long sentences from memory without having the words in front of you, which has challenged me to really pay attention and hone my listening skills, too, which isn't a skill you can really learn from a basic pocket guidebook. From navigating problems like getting lost to discovering off-the-radar recommendations from locals, every minute I've spent practicing has more than paid off.
Wherever you're going for your next trip, take your fate into your own hands and start learning the local language before you go. At the very least, practice these simple phrases and questions, which have all come in handy for me as a frequent traveler and will give you a solid foundation to build off of so you can learn more on the go.
Can I have…? / I'd like to buy…
With this one simple phrase, you go from floundering in English with wild hand gestures to being able to order in the local language. While you're at it, learn a few follow-up questions like "Can I get this to-go?" and "Do you have [condiments you can't live without]?" I promise the confidence boost of completing a transaction without a word of English will be worth all the hours you spent practicing.
Do you take credit cards?
Whether you're buying train tickets or souvenir bobbleheads, making purchases will inevitably be a daily occurrence on your trip. And depending on where you are in the world, credit cards might be either king of payment methods or practically useless. In Japan and Germany, for example, two countries known for being tech-savvy and highly efficient, credit cards are accepted with shocking infrequency. In these situations, knowing how to ask for help finding an ATM will likely come in handy more than once.
Do you speak English? / Can you help me?
Before a recent trip to Japan with a friend, I started at square one with Rosetta Stone and continued to practice in my hotel room in the mornings and evenings. Early on in my trip, my friend and I made a mistake buying train tickets from a machine—we accidentally bought only an express ticket upgrade and not an actual seat on the train—and spent nearly an hour trying to find a ticket booth and someone who spoke English to help us figure out how to fix the problem. I didn't know enough Japanese to be able to receive help without using English, and it was such a good reminder of how language skills can make or break your day when something unexpected happens.
Is this the bus/train to…?
Even in the United States where I'm operating in my native language, I'm the kind of person who regularly gets on the wrong bus or train. It's a relatively easy fix at home. But abroad, getting lost can mean hours of frustration, ruined plans and maybe even an expensive cab ride when you don't have time to spare. Prevent that from happening by learning how to ask a bus driver or fellow passenger to confirm you're going the right way before the train leaves the station.
What's your favorite…? / What do you recommend?
If everything on the menu is unfamiliar, take a chance and accept the advice of someone who knows what's best. This is also a great way to discover off-the-beaten-path restaurants and bars that might not be listed as hot spots in your guidebook. On a trip to Mexico City, I spent hours asking my Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts for their recommendations on where to get the best tacos, what museums and libraries I should check out and what events were happening over the weekend. This is the best kind of beta, not to mention it also helps you vastly improve your language skills in short order.
I'd like to go to… / How do I get to…? / Where is the [museum, bathroom, library, ATM…]?
Once, in Havana, a bus station employee told me the ticket I had purchased online weeks earlier was for a bus that "didn't exist." An error in the scheduling system had rendered my ticket invalid, and the next bus wasn't for several hours, which was time I couldn't spare. With basic Spanish, my travel buddy and I were able to figure out a solution—catching seats in a shared taxi—and help a German couple in the same situation. They had virtually no Spanish skills and spun their wheels at the ticket desk, extremely confused and frustrated. We were able to work out a solution on our own, save our plans, and avoid the stress that comes with not understanding what's going on. Seeing how that situation could have gone if we hadn't had the language skills we did underscored the importance of practicing and staying sharp.
Thank you so much—have a nice day!
An Airbnb host in Mexico City taught me this informal Spanish phrase a couple of years ago: "¡Que tengas un buen dia!" which means, "Have a good day!" I immediately started using it and loved watching people's surprise and delight at what was not a common thing to hear from foreigners. Seemingly simple phrases like this show that you're putting in the effort to try to communicate in the local language, which is a sign of respect. Especially in places with a lot of tourists who don't bother to try, locals appreciate the effort and may treat you with extra kindness in return.
Can I take a picture?
No matter how perfect the shot looks, it's always best to ask people before taking their picture. First of all, it's the considerate thing to do. Many people would prefer to avoid their face being in someone else's Instagram photo or don't want pictures taken of their artwork to protect its integrity. In many tourist hot spots, buskers also make money off of dressing up or posing. Taking a photo without asking could result in an angry actor chasing you down the street until you pay up.
How do you say...?
One of the best ways to continue building your language skills is to be curious as you travel. By pointing at objects, places or items on a menu and asking, "How do you say this?" or "What is this called?" you'll quickly build up your vocabulary. This is particularly helpful when you find a snack or dish you love and want to order it again before your trip is over.