Why learn the local language?

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In case my near constant Facebook activity and the advanced level of my character in Skyrim aren’t indication enough, I’ll just say it:

I have entirely too much free time while Heather is out having adventures on her lonesome in Malaysia. This Friday’s flight to Thailand to commence operation: one month of doing very little cannot come fast enough.

But one boon that comes with having more hours in the day than things to do with them is that I get a lot of browsing down. There’s nary a passing question that Google hasn’t answered, a movie I haven’t Wikipediad, or a rerun of Archer I haven’t watched.

It was in some of that idle Googling that I stumbled across an email I had yet to respond. There’s a lot of those. But this one caught my eye because it also contained the shiny infographic pictured below. I’m a sucker for information presented in ways that don’t make me regret not having my glasses fixed, so I’ll share it with you now. My thoughts will follow.


inspire language learning

Learn English with Kaplan

Now, the guys over at Kaplan have done a pretty good job of highlighting the countless reasons why it’s handy to speak a little of the local tongue, but I thought I’d highlight my five favourite reasons. Let’s get crack-a-lacking!

#5 – Woo the local women

While it’s not something that I have any desire to take advantage of now that I’ve got my beautiful Nomadic American in the picture, but there’s something to be said for being able to communicate with local girls without needing to gesture wildly while stuttering over the pinyin for ‘You’re beautiful’ from your Lonely Planet phrasebook.

It’s Nǐ hěn piào liang, in case you were wondering. I’m glad Google is free.

It’s to my mother’s great shame and disappointment that I never made more of an effort to meet a Korean girl while I lived in South Korea. Her dreams of having adorable Eurasian grandchildren are dashed every time I find myself a new girl and she sees that her name does not end in Park, Kim, or Lee. Sorry, Mum!

While it’s true that my own romantic tastes inevitably run towards American girls, I can understand the appeal of being able to speak with the local girls to a lot of other travelers. From the serial pick up artists to the lonely lad just looking for love, opportunities are everywhere you go – and that’s a damn side more true if you can actually converse with them in their local tongue.

And a bonus when you’re at home: take a pretty girl to a Korean restaurant and order in Korean.

“Oh! How well traveled and austere you are! Take me now, you burly man!”


If I must…

#4 – Career opportunities

The world is becoming smaller and smaller by the day; so much so, that companies regularly include knowing an additional language in their recruitment requirements. It doesn’t matter of its business or call center or tourism – the ability to speak a language other than English is a huge selling point.

In my call center last year, my limited knowledge of Korean was constantly called upon when a confused customer would call and need some help resetting their modem. While my Korean was nowhere near the level it would need to be to get that across, between my feeble Korean and the caller’s feeble English – we were usually able to get the job done without having to call in a third party.

It might not land you your dream job right out the gate, but you can bet pounds to peanuts that it’ll give you the edge if you and another guy are rocking similar resumes.

#3 – Control your classroom

This one is a bit specific to the land of ESL teaching, but it’s worth noting. While it’s all well and good to be loud and scary and have punishments you can dish out, nothing quiets a class of rowdy kids like hearing ‘Be quiet’ in their native tongue.

It’s also handy as it lets you understand what that surly kid in the third row is muttering under his breath. Quiet his pent up rage by informing him he has detention at lunch time and that despite his argument to the contrary, you’ve never once made love to another man.

Having a little bit of the local tongue also makes it easier to explain particularly complicated subject matter to students. There are few things more painful than explaining the third conditional to students who are still coming to grips with the difference between the passive and active voice when you can’t translate some of the more archaic vocabulary.

I mean, aside from being burned, paper cuts, getting sack-whacked, bee stings, bull ant bites, getting chili pepper in your eye, and child-birth. But aside from those, it’s pretty painful.

#2 – Don’t get ripped off

It’s a sad fact that in a lot of countries, not knowing the local tongue can lead to a whole lot of financial headaches as less than trustworthy folk seek to make a buck from the well-to-do foreigner breezing into town. From China’s infamous ‘black cabs’ to street vendor mark-ups to restaurants with separate menus for foreigners – it’s hard to be a white man (or woman) sometimes.

And while being able to point out your indignation in the local language won’t necessarily bring prices down, it does give you a powerful bit of extra oomph for the bargaining table.

I don’t want to generalize either. Sometimes you get over-charged through simple ignorance on your part. You don’t know the exact address so you throw out a local landmark and pay the extra distance. Or you opt for the pricier restaurant because it has a picture menu. Two doors down, you get the same Beijing duck for half the price.

Speaking the lingua franca not only gives you these advantages, but it also broadens the world you live in. You’re not just confined to restaurants and bars with English language staff or menus, and trust me – you’ll save a small fortune living life that way.

#1 – Get off the beaten track

To me, the single most important benefit of learning the local language is that it lets you better engage with your newfound (however temporary) home. Whether you’re there a month or two years, you’ll see and experience more if you escape the English speaker’s bubble and do your best to live a little closer to how the locals do.

Some of the best times I had living in South Korea were when my friends and I got away from the foreigner bars and the American fast food chains and did things like the locals did. Eating back alley shabu shabu, spending the night on the hard-ass floor of a traditional Korean minbok, attending bizarre festivals, and jumping on buses to nowhere are just a small slice of the adventures I had thanks to speaking a little of the language or being with somebody who did.

Speaking or reading the language doesn’t just broaden things for you on a travel level, though. It lets you make local friends and, as a pretty awesome perk of that, see the country as it really is and not how it presents itself to the outside world. Having a traditional dinner with a Chinese family has been one of the high points of my year hear – and it wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t speak a little of the local tongue.

In the spirit of full disclosure, though, it had more to do with my Chinese student hooking it up.

But the point stands – more doors will open if you’re getting out from the foreigner dives and hostels and meeting the locals. And it’s a damn side easier doing that if you speak the tongue.

Your Say

What do you think? Have I hit the nail on the head or am I missing a glaring inclusion?

Did you get out and learn the local language when you were abroad? Do you reckon it improved your time abroad?

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