Traveling to foreign countries can of course be daunting. The biggest fear I talk about with nervous travelers is the language barrier that they’ll encounter with the locals. And while I believe that you can and should travel wherever you want without fear, I do recommend that learning a little bit of the language is a smart idea. In my travels throughout the globe, I’ve been to places where I know the language a decent amount and I’ve been to many places where I only know how to say, “Hello” and “Thank You.” It is definitely true that knowledge of the local language can be a huge asset.
The first time I ever experienced an issue with a language barrier was when I was in Germany for the Eurobike Trade Show in 2015. I was training for a triathlon at the time, and planned to stick to my training plan throughout the trip. One morning, I got up for my run and set off on a route that I’d planned on a map the night before. I took my phone with me, and felt confident that the out-and-back path would be easy to remember. It wasn’t. As I was heading back toward the hotel, two miles from finishing my run, I realized that I wasn’t recognizing my surroundings. The buildings looked very different from what I remembered seeing on my way out, and I had a moment of panic that I was lost. I went to turn on my phone’s GPS to find my way back, only to realize that the international plan I’d purchased for the trip only included phone and text messages. It didn’t include data! (Another mistake I’ll never make again…) Stopping into a couple of local breakfast shops, I asked several locals if they could point me back toward my hotel. Nobody knew what I was asking them. We were in such a small town, nobody I found could speak English with me and I didn’t know much German at all. Eventually, I somehow recognized a large passageway while I wandered the streets, and I found my way back just in time to quickly shower, change and make it to the car to get to the show. Without that bit of luck though, I wasn’t really even sure what my next move would have been.
On the flip side of the coin, the best example I have of knowing the language is when my husband took me to Paris for the first time. Four years of French in high school and some thorough brushing up before our trip really helped me to recall the language. As we made our way through the city, my French came in handy everywhere we went. Getting amazing service at restaurants, chatting with vendors at shops and farmer’s markets and helping us find the right train stops, streets and directions was at the top of the list.
My husband loves to tell the story about the farmer’s market we visited in Nice, where I asked about the price of some delicious looking raspberries in Italian by accident. After countless trips to Italy for work over the last few years, this was apparently my go-to language before I had coffee and before my brain was fully working. The vendor answered me in Italian, which prompted me to apologize for using the wrong language, of course in French. He laughed and responded in French, asking us if we also wanted to purchase some of the strawberries he was selling. Like a real amateur, I then replied in Spanish and he told us our total cost in Spanish as if it didn’t phase him at all! Haha! By this time, I was just embarrassed and asked him to forgive me, as I was a silly American who was trying her best but clearly not succeeding on this morning. So he naturally also switched over to speak English to us for the remainder of our interaction. Amazing!
In France, our willingness and ability to speak some French was essential. I had actually been nervous to travel to Paris, as I’d heard so many mixed reviews about people being treated rudely when they visited. We actually found it to be the complete opposite. Parisians are some of the friendliest, kindest, quiet and polite people I’ve ever encountered in my travels. A simple “Merci” and “Bonjour” when passing someone on the street instead of “Thank You” and “Hello” goes a long way in their city. Making the effort means something about the level of respect you have for their community, and that will always be the best way to travel.