I wish I was a rock star in learning languages. That all I had to do was put my ear phones on, listen to a couple of audio lessons while I sleep and that in one week’s time I could speak a language fluently. Sadly enough it doesn’t work like that. Even if you’re very talented in learning languages, it requires time, energy and dedication, like with everything else you want to learn or do in life. Saying that you don’t have a gift for languages is just another excuse for not having to do it.
Everybody can learn a foreign language but not everyone wants to invest time and effort into it. I would advise you, whether you’re a traveler or not, to learn at least one foreign language in your life. It has many benefits and it will broaden your mind and world.
Speaking a foreign language is very empowering for your personal growth. Getting the smallest things accomplished in a foreign language makes me feel like I rock this world! When I spoke for the first time Turkish and my interlocutor understood what I was saying, I probably grew an inch. This is my ego talking, but it felt so good that I could impress someone by speaking their mother tongue. It made me feel stronger, smarter and more independent. But the most rewarding part was seeing that big smile on the face of the woman I was talking to. It made her feel valued that a foreign girl had put the effort in learning her native tongue.
I’ll be honest. I’m not the most disciplined person you’ll meet. For a long time I even got goosebumps when I heard this word. I associated it with having to do things against my own will (thank you high school). I was better at finding excuses to not do something rather than finding how it could be beneficial for me. This changed when I met Niko. He’s one of the most dedicated and disciplined people I know, especially when it comes to learning a new language.
I mean, he speaks now seven languages (French, English, Spanish, Arabic, Italian, Portuguese and Turkish) and recently started learning number eight: Chinese! He’s able to speak these languages not only because it’s his passion (obsession might even be a better word) but because he also dedicates one hour daily to language learning. It doesn’t matter where we are or what we do, for one hour a day he will put his earphones on to listen to an audio lesson or gets his language learning books out to study.
During a whole year Niko studied Turkish daily and his discipline is now bearing fruits. While we are hitchhiking across Turkey, Niko is babbling away with our drivers. They love it and spontaneously invite us for a tea or a meal, give us their phone number if we ever need a place to stay for the night and share their stories with us. I wasn’t as dedicated as Niko and learning a new language asks more effort from me but he gave me the right push. I built up the discipline to study at least every now and then half an hour of Turkish. I can introduce myself, explain to people where I come from, what I do and talk about the weather.
Yes, I regret not studying more often because now I feel like Tarzan when trying to explain myself in coherent phrases. Whenever I hear Niko having interesting conversations with our drivers, I wish I could participate more. At least I learned the positive meaning of the word discipline by seeing him study languages and by adopting that daily routine. I now feel more productive and dedicated, it’s amazing what a simple tweak of behaviour can do in your life!
3) Learning a new language is good for the brain.
Speaking two or more languages is a great asset to the cognitive process. It’s like a muscle you’re training. You become smarter and more perceptive, you build multitasking skills, your memory improves and it can even prevent Alzheimer!
Benefits while traveling
4) Become part of a culture
It’s very arrogant to think that everybody in the world speaks English or should at least learn it. In a lot of countries people speak many different languages and English is not always one of them. It’s not because most tourists speak it that the local people have to learn it. Yes, it comes in very handy if they do and it’s a lot less effort for us, travelers, when we can speak with someone who knows our language. But don’t we want to have a real cultural experience? And isn’t a foreign language part of that foreign culture?
When someone speaks in their native language, they are their true, natural self with all the typical gestures and manners that are part of that language. Lately I started picking up a few typical Turkish mannerism while talking, such as making a ‘tss’ sound with my tong when saying no or going up an octave to express a certain word. It makes me feel closer to the culture and even become a part of it. And trust me, the people love it when they hear me making those sounds! I feel I’m becoming a different person whenever I speak a foreign language.
I left my home country to indulge myself in new cultures, broaden my horizons and expand my consciousness. Becoming a Turkish version, a French version, a Greek version, an Irish version or even an Australian version of myself is part of this enriching process.
5) It opens doors
People love it when they hear you’re trying to speak their native tongue. They react with amazement, give you a big smile and start asking a lot of questions. They want to know who you are, where you’re from, where you’ve learned their language,… They don’t label you as ‘just another ignorant tourist’ but are genuinely interested in you. They are happy that a foreigner puts the effort in learning their language and they respect you for that. Doors that otherwise would remain closed are being opened. We’ve been countless times invited for a drink, a meal or a sleeping place. People quickly open up to us to tell us more about their daily life. This has been very enriching and taught us more about the country than if we would just visit its historical and touristic sites.
Recently we even got invited by the Turkish traffic police to have a tea with them! They approached us while we were hitchhiking. When they heard we could speak Turkish, they were very surprised and wanted to know more about us. After talking for about five minutes, they invited us to have a tea in the police station so we could tell them more about our hitchhiking journey. Very soon we were surrounded by their colleagues who also wanted to hear our stories of how we hitchhiked from Ireland to Turkey and what our next plans were. There we were, drinking tea and entertaining a whole police corps with our stories while they were all listening very attentively.
6) No more uncomfortable situations
Have you ever been in a situation during your travels that felt very uncomfortable because you just had no clue what was going on or what the people wanted from you because you didn’t understand what they were saying and their intentions were unclear? We’ve been in a few situations like this. When we were in Albania hitchhiking on the side of a little dirt road, we caught the attention of a few farmers. They walked towards us and started asking questions. We didn’t speak a word of Albanian and they didn’t speak any English. They were pointing at us and at our bags and we had no idea what they were trying to say.
At a certain moment they were making gestures at us to follow them but we didn’t feel comfortable with that so we stayed where we were. So did they. At some point we had a whole audience of farmers and a cow staring at us while we were trying to hitchhike. It was an awkward moment. After a while a man who could speak Italian showed up. That’s when we finally discovered the intentions of the farmers. They wanted to invite us for a cup of tea.
Just a few days ago we had another weird situation. We were driving over a mountain pass when our driver stopped the car and pulled out his gun. What would you do? Your first impulse would be to get out of that car and run, right? We already knew our driver a little bit because we had talked with him in Turkish and we knew he didn’t have bad intentions. Still, that first moment we weren’t sure how to react. Our driver saw our surprised faces, started laughing and explained – in Turkish – that it was his hunting gun and that he only wanted to show us how to shoot with it. So Niko and I got out of the car and watched our driver’s demonstration. Then he handed over his gun to us so we could practice our shooting.
I couldn’t help but laugh with the whole situation. If we hadn’t been able to speak a common language with this man, this could have turned out to be very awkward! Although, shooting blanks on the side of a highway is already a little awkward…
Speaking Turkish also saved us from losing one of our cameras. During one of our rides Niko left his GoPro in the passenger seat. He realized the camera was missing after the car had left. Niko remembered that the driver told him he would return in about half an hour. That gave us a little spark of hope that the GoPro wouldn’t be lost forever.
Instead of continuing our journey, we sat down and waited. And indeed, about 40 minutes later we saw the car coming back! We could see the driver waving the camera. What a relief! Every time we get out of a car now, I’m asking Niko three times if he has all his things with him. It probably annoys him but I don’t want to take any chances. Although I have to admit, if Niko hadn’t been able to understand our driver, we would have continued hitchhiking and never got the camera back. So yes, it’s definitely beneficial to speak a foreign language!
It is possible to connect with somebody without speaking a common tongue. Sometimes there are no words needed to understand each other. But such a connection isn’t likely to happen on a daily basis. It’s so much easier when you can speak with other people, ask them about their life, their dreams, their sorrows. When Niko and I were invited by an Albanian family (see link) we were lucky that the husband spoke Italian and that we could talk with him. We learned a lot about his background, how he met his wife and his present circumstances. But when he left for work at night and we stayed in his house in the company of his wife and cousin, Niko and I had a hard time communicating with them.
We had many questions and so did they but were unable to ask them. Instead there were a lot of awkward silences, silly drawings and we felt frustrated not being able to have a simple conversation. It’s a pity because I really wanted to know the woman better. I felt I missed a chance of learning more about the status and life of a woman in Albania.
There are roughly 6500 spoken languages in the world so it would be impossible to learn all of them (sorry Niko, let’s keep your goal at 20, shall we?). It would also be impossible to learn the language of every country we’ll visit during our world trip. But one thing we always try to do is to learn the basics of the languages. This already makes a big difference while hitchhiking and meeting many local people. We try to get our hands on a phrasebook or write down a list of important phrases that we learn through the internet or from local people.
What are those basics? We like to be able to greet someone, introduce ourselves (name, age, country and what we are doing), ask the people about their family (are they married, do they have kids, what about brothers or sisters), know how to ask for directions, order food and know the numbers. If we know that we’ll spend a few months in a country, like Turkey and maybe China, we put the effort into learning the language. Even if we sound like Tarzan, speaking a little of the native language brings many benefits. It broadens our world, it opens many doors, it keeps our brain sharp and it definitely enriches our personal development!
How do you feel about learning a foreign language? And have you ever been in a situation where you really wished you spoke the local language? We would love to know your thoughts and experiences!
In this Vlog we show you how useful it is to speak Turkish. Remember the story of the missing camera and the gun? You can watch it here: