Learning the Language Matters

I’m sick of reading posts by bloggers who assure you it’s okay, they had a magical and revelatory experience in a foreign country wherein they knew basically none of the language. 

Good for you. 

Do you know how we treat people in America who don’t learn the language?  Like dirt.  Even if someone knows the language but has a little trouble, or a bit of an accent, we give them a hard time.  We insinuate that they’re clueless or stupid, and make jokes about their lack of credentials.  We say, “It’s AMERICA, learn ENGLISH!”

Do people even understand the phrase doesn’t work that way? At least, “We’re in England, learn English,” works rhetorically, but the America one just makes you sound ignorant.   

Every time someone goes abroad and doesn’t even have to try the language, they’re demonstrating a tiny bit of why people hate America.  We get whatever we want, and no, we’re not working hard for it.  We just collectively have so much money and pull, and other countries have so little, that they have to accept our 2.5 gpa English-only students. 

Don’t pat yourself on the back for getting by with gestures.  Try moving away from the backpacker code or the study abroad rut and learn something real about the place you’re going to.  Something that doesn’t involve alcohol, hooking up or a beach.  Maybe it will involve a local meal for more than just the one token time, which inevitably will become a blog post or oft-repeated story.  Or try spending time with people who are not also fellow travelers, people who are not expats from your country or a place where they speak your first language. 

If you’re just going to sit around speaking English, hanging out with western people and going to bars and the beach, you may as well just stay home or go to a resort.  Make it a cheap and dirty one if you’re a backpacker.

I know there are many languages out there, and it is unreasonable to limit your travel just because you don’t know them all.  But can’t you at least put in a little effort, a little respect?  If you can’t even handle a few conversational phrases, why not try to learn some basic information about the country.  Learn some history or about a prevalent religion. 

I’m all about traveling, but if you’re just going to take advantage of American privilege and stay in a bubble, then why are you leaving the country?  Show some respect and make the most out of your time.

6 thoughts on “Learning the Language Matters”

  1. I agree that you should learn the basics of the language in the country you’re in, some good phrases that will come in handy often.

    It’s very appreciated by the locals to see that you’re trying, and like you say, it shows respect.

    I always try to learn the basic phrases in the countries that I’m in as fast as possible, a tip is to keep a little note with you in your pocket in case you forget – or download a language phrase app on your iphone!


  2. I agree entirely. When I was in Germany I knew people who Grew Up there (military brats) and still refused to speak it or even say the names of cities correctly. Weisbaden was a prime example. Spend two seconds there and you’ll learn that Ws are said like Vs. Yet some of these Americans would continue to call it Wees-baden instead of Vees-baden. That isn’t a matter of not knowing how to say excuse me or how to order a cheeseburger, that’s refusing to say the name of a city right. Drove me Nuts.

    I was at least willing to try. I learned to understand more than I could say, and I can’t say a lot. I only know a few phrases now. I was eager to learn, except the people I talked to were also eager to practice their English! I confess I often gave in since they were already better English speakers so it would be more interesting of a conversation than me trying to struggle through what to say.

    Traveling to another country alone. I want to Enjoy that country without anyone else’s expectations. I’ve wanted to do that since… well sometime in the 90s. And learning the language is an important part of that. I lose respect for these Great Travelers who are living My dream who don’t even bother to try to learn the language. If you try and are Abysmal, at least you tried and kept trying. Don’t try at all? Just stick to English speaking countries next time.


  3. Hi !

    Delia, I really like your blog. Although I’m not from the US (I’m spanish), I totally agree with you in the fact that you need to learn the language of the country you’re visiting to feel the culture!

    I speak spanish, german and english fluently, and make my way through with some basic french. Whenever I travel somewhere where I don’t know the language (I went to Hong Kong last year for a week for example), I at least learn the minimum to get around (restaurant, drink, menu, bill.. and useful phrases like “what is this?” haha)

    I guess it’s also a personal challenge. I enjoy talking with the locals, eating local and living local – and you really don’t get this unless you talk local.


  4. @sofia yeah, i know learning languages is hard, expecially if you travel a ton, but everyone i’ve met has always been so appreciative of even a small effort with basic phrases.

    @kandace sometimes it almost seems like travelers are going out of their way to NOT learn the language or adapt to new pronunciation, customs and food. what a bummer, they’re missing out!

    @katherina i couldn’t agree more! i’ve had so many fun, delicious, unique experiences that never would have happened if i didn’t know the language and use that to get to know locals. also, i’m wicked impressed with your linguisitc repertoire!


  5. This may vary depending on what country you go to, but sometimes, the locals expect you to speak English. My sister spent a year in the Czech Republic, living with three different families throughout the year. She would want to speak Czech, but a lot of people expected to be able to practice their English with her.

    So basically, you not only want to know some of the language, but something about the culture as well.


    1. I’ve experienced the same in Holland – it’s not that I speak a lot of dutch… I know a few words, but even if I try, the dutch immediately switch to english . I’m not sure if it’s to avoid the pain of listening to me trying to speak out those complex words or if they are just trying to make things easier to me!

      Then, of course, you have places like Paris. Don’t even dare to speak in english in Paris (better yet – don’t even think about speaking anything but perfect french!), whatever you order will definitely not be what you had thought! It’s definitely the perfect city to learn french – you don’t have any other option!


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