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To Learn the Local Language or Not?

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Last weekend was a weekend of firsts. Not only did I visit the gorgeous country of Portugal for the first time, but it was also my first time being in a country where I didn’t speak the local language. Until then, I’d only ever been to English-speaking countries (USA, Canada, and England) and Spain.

As a lover of languages, I decided to try to learn some basic Portuguese to prepare for the trip. During the weeks leading up to my departure, I loyally completed my daily DuoLingo lessons and listened to YouTube recordings of useful phrases, repeating them constantly so that I could use them if necessary. 

Yet, once on Portuguese soil I discovered that my efforts had been rather unnecessary. Not one time during the five day trip did I come across someone that didn’t at least know English or Spanish. Sometimes when I would try to use my newly learned phrases, my American accent would give me away and whoever I was speaking with would automatically switch to English for me.

I’ve been told that this is the case throughout much of Europe - that English is everywhere and we English speakers therefore have no need to learn foreign languages because we can get by easily enough without them.

But what do we lose by depending on our English to get by in the world? In my opinion, quite a lot!

For one, we’re losing out on an opportunity to exercise our brains! Language learning is a great way to keep the mind and memory skills sharp.

We also miss the chance to show respect towards the people of the country we’re visiting. They are “hosting” us as tourists, and to me it seems only polite that we make a small effort to use our hosts’ language. It’s a small gesture that goes a long way, not only for avoiding breakdowns in communication, but also for encouraging positive cultural exchange.

Lastly, we deprive ourselves of the beauty of experiencing a new culture through its own language. Language and culture are inherently intertwined, so by learning a little bit of the language, you are therefore brought closer to the culture. You can appreciate it on a level that goes a bit deeper than the surface experience of looking at cool art and architecture. For a just sliver of a second, you can come closer to understanding not only what it’s like to visit a new country, but what it’s like to live there the way the locals do. It’s a both a humbling and thrilling feeling like no other.

So yes, English is a global language, but in my opinion, that doesn’t mean it’s the only one that matters. If you like to travel, I invite you to enrich your experiences even further by always making just a little effort to learn the local language. You won't regret it!


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