Why Learn a Language for Travel: One Travel Story

Why Learn a Language for Travel?

Revised 4/23/20

In my humble efforts to provide tourist etiquette tips, the one I repeatedly come back to is to learning the local language of the country you are visiting, or at least attempt to communicate in that language.  If communication is key (or maybe that’s just me), then how more key could it be in a foreign country?  Here is but one of my stories on why you should learn a language for travel to improve your travel experience. 

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A Little Italiano Goes a Long Way

Bari, Italy

I was with a traveling companion coming back to Italy from Greece via ferry.  We docked in the southern town of Bari, which held a tiny train station.  Holding Eurail passes, the train was the only way for us to get to Rome.  There was one, elderly man working the station’s ticket booth to face the line of similar ferry tourists ahead of us also wanted to obtain their train’s schedule.  This was 1995. There was no internet.  You more than likely didn’t have access to the schedule until you got to the station. Even then, you had to read the schedules in Italian.

The line moved very slowly. The closer we got to the booth, I noticed tourists walked away confused or upset.  Closer now, I could hear the tourists talking. In English. I could also ascertain why they were getting upset. They couldn’t understand the ticket man.  Inevitably, they spent a lot of time in a line to walk away with no help.

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This scene repeated itself until I could really hear it play out with the tourist in front of us when it was his turn.  With a good view to the show, I watched this tourist walk up to the booth, ask the ticket booth man for train schedule details for his destination, entirely in English.  The ticket booth man spoke back to him.  I don’t know what he said, because he spoke Italian.  Duh. 

The tourist repeated his questions  trying different tactics.  The Italian station attendant appeared to look irritated as he repeated himself. Eventually frustrated, the tourist gave up, like all of those before him, and went off to find his group to, probably, find a Plan B.

It’s finally our turn.  What does my traveling companion do?  She started speaking English to the station attendant.  I thought, “Was I the only one who’d been paying attention to the trend of previous results?” I also thought how I didn’t want to have spent almost an hour in line to walk away empty handed.  I do not care to spend time in lines.  Unfortunately, our travel lives are full of lines so we just have to deal. But I digress…

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An Ounce of Foreign Language Effort Rewarded

To avoid wasting our opportunity, in mid-sentence, I gently nudged my traveling companion aside.  Full disclosure:  I know no Italian except for basics like, “buongiorno”, “grazie”, “quanto”, “dové il bagno”, etc.  I took 4 years of Spanish in high school, but sometimes you just have to go for it. 

I looked at the man, smiled big and, in my Spanish-ish-Italian, said something like, “Scusa.  Es necessario a Roma.  Que tren numero a Roma y a que tiempo?”  Yes, I sounded like a complete idiot.  And, yes, he clearly knew I didn’t speak Italian.  Nonetheless, he looked at me, put his pen down, and spun the train schedule booklet in front of him to face me. 

Speaking slowly in Italian, he pointed to the schedule’s train platform column, then pointed outside to the actual platform. He moved his finger over the schedule to the train number and the departure time.  He looked at me for comprehension.  I repeated it back to him.  He said, “Si”. 

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My pitiful, “Es necessario a cambio trens?” came back with his, “No”.  My last, “A que hora arrivé a Roma?” resulted in him writing down the arrival time for me.  I smiled with a, “Grazie!”.  He genuinely smiled back with, “Prego”.  Success!

I will never forget this interaction – not just because it helped me, but because I cannot help think the station attendant also felt satisfied he helped someone while being respected in his country. His home. Its lasting impression comes with me on all of my travels.  Has any of this made an impression on you?

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Why Learn a Language with Today's Technology?

Even with translation apps, like Google Translate, at our fingertips, it’s possible you could be in a situation where you cannot access it due to no WiFi, for example.  Making the effort to learn a language for travel – even just basic phrases – can be a valuable back up, especially in an emergency situation. It also breaks barriers, as I’ve hopefully impressed upon above.

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Gwen is the Founder of CORR Travel and a global traveler and photographer with over 25 years of solo travel experience. She is also the Founder of the www.CORRConcepts.com sustainability blog. Travel is her passion and environmental sustainability and biodiversity protection is her "religion".

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