If you are making plans to spend time in a foreign country where they speak a language different from your own you should really consider learning that language. I’m going to give you 5 reasons why I think it is important as well as some tips and resources on how to learn a second language.
When I first traveled to Indonesia I couldn’t speak the language beyond the typical greetings of “Hello” and “How are you?” My fiancée’s parents did not speak any English so communicating with them went through my fiancée. It made for some awkward moments. I remember one time going to the store with my father-in-law, just the two of us. The trip started off with us both testing our limited language skills and then progressed to complete silence with a few uncomfortable smiles thrown in and an occasional finger point at something interesting. We were like a couple of traveling mimes. Imagine how much more exciting and enjoyable this time would have been for both of us had I spoken the native language. This brings us to reason #1 on why to learn a foreign language.
1) Connect with the locals and the local culture
When you are able to speak the local language you will more easily and readily connect with the locals. They will appreciate that you made an effort to learn their language and they will be very proud to speak with you. You’ll also have a better understanding of the context of that culture and be able to understand it on its own terms and not just your own preconceived notions. Speaking the language is a way to bridge the gap and successfully engage the people around you. It’s a great way to garner and show respect for your hosts.
There are times when you don’t want to rely on someone else for translating. You want to exert some independence. One time I wanted to buy some cough medicine. My in-laws wanted to drive me to the pharmacy and buy it for me but I wanted to do this by myself so I learned the phrases I needed in order to get what I wanted and proceeded to walk to the local pharmacy. When I entered the store I went to the counter and was greeted by the storekeeper. Speaking in Indonesian I told her that I wanted to buy cough medicine. She promptly replied in Indonesian with something I did not understand at all. I foolishly hadn’t planned for this. I tried out my Indonesian phrase again and this time received a few giggles. By this time a man had entered and offered to help as he spoke a little English. Through a combination of English and my limited Indonesian I was able to purchase exactly what I came for.
I felt really excited about this and I know that the storekeeper and helpful man were much friendlier with me because I had made the effort to try and speak the language. These interactions will enhance your travel experience and that is a very good thing.
2) Eliminate the language barrier you will face
Imagine how much easier it will be to get around, order food, buy clothing, and get a hotel room when you can speak the native language. One of the things that just drove me absolutely nuts was listening to all the conversations going on around me and not understanding a single word. It’s easy to develop a complex. What are they talking about? They just said something and then looked at me. Are they talking about me? Yes, they probably are talking about you and trying to figure out why you didn’t learn their language. But if you can speak and understand the language then you can listen in on all the juicy gossip.
3) Increase your chance of getting a job or creating work opportunities
Taking a sabbatical and long term travel is not cheap. Sure you can go ultra-low budget and get by but not everyone wants to go that route. So sometimes one needs to get a job or maybe do some consulting work locally. Imagine how much easier this will be if you can speak the native language fluently. Want to teach English overseas? I guarantee you that being able to speak the local language as well will place you well ahead of other candidates. Want to make some business contacts for when you return home? Think about how speaking their language will be a memorable experience that they won’t forget after you depart.
4) Gain a better understanding of yourself
On the flip side of learning a language to understand another culture is learning more about yourself and your own culture. This is because when you learn another language it gives you the opportunity to view your own culture from another perspective. This again affords you the ability to expand your experience and provides you with a more enriching self-awareness and appreciation. Learning a language also teaches us about other cultures and that in turn teaches us more about ourselves. How do we really view the world?
5) Sense of accomplishment
Hey, this is a big one. Imagine being able to tell people that you speak two or more languages. It’s a big accomplishment. How many people do you know speak two languages? OK, I know quite a few but that’s because I married into a different culture, but still learning to speak Indonesian is going to be a huge accomplishment for me and something that I will be really proud of. And you will too.
It Takes Effort
I’ve been married now for 9 years to a wonderful woman who speaks English as a second language. Her first language is Indonesian. One would think that after 9 years of being together I would speak fluent Indonesian but the sad truth of the matter is I don’t. Sure I can speak a few words and sentences but I am far from being fluent.
Of course I have no one to blame but myself. I didn’t make a true concerted effort to learn the language. The times when I was in Indonesia (which were perfect opportunities to immerse myself in the language) I resorted to using English as a crutch.
But now as we plan and prepare to spend a year or more in Indonesia I’m starting to become painfully aware how important it will be to speak the language. The 5 reasons above should have opened your eyes to some of the benefits of learning a second language. Now we’re 10 months away from departure and I am scrambling to cram when I should have spent every day for the past 9 years slowly learning.
Everyone Learns Differently
Everyone has their own way of learning and finding what that is will be the key to success. My friend Ryan over at Ryan Goes Abroad wrote a great post about 5 Ways You Are Slowing Your Progress To Fluency. It’s a good read so check it out.
Go online and search for programs in the language you want to learn. I discovered Learning Indonesianwhich produces high quality podcasts from a native Indonesian speaker. They offer 48 free podcasts that you can download as well as more advanced paid programs. There may be similar programs in the language that you want to learn. The cool thing about podcasts is that you can put them on your phone or iPod and listen to them anywhere when you have a few minutes.
Another great site I found is Benny Lewis’s Fluent in 3 Months. Benny’s site offers up a wealth of tips and unconventional learning techniques for learning any language. If you are really serious about learning a language, bookmark Benny’s site.
I’ve tried programs like Pimsleur, created elaborate flashcards and purchased several books and CD’s but they didn’t really work for me or motivate me to learn. Everyone learns differently though so they may work for you so don’t count them out.
It’s Totally Up To You
Finally, learning a second language is totally up to you. As I have demonstrated through my 9 years of not being able to speak my wife’s language, if you don’t put the effort and time into learning you won’t pick it up. And that goes for anything you want to accomplish in life. Don’t be like I was. Dedicate the time, make the effort and find a system that works well for you. Your travels or sabbatical will be just that much more of an enjoyable and enriching experience. Success is totally in your hands.
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