travel and language learning

How much of the local language should you learn when you travel?

How much of the language of a destination do you think is important to have to not be a dick?

Can’t Afford a Russian Dictionary

That’s a good question, CARD. My instinct is to just apply the Golden Rule here, and say, “Learn as much of the language as you’d like a visitor to your country to learn!” but I don’t think that would result in any sort of universal standard: I personally do not care for a minute if someone comes to our country not knowing a word of the language. It makes life trickier for them, but I’m not offended when I hear someone speaking German or French or Mandarin, and if they ask me for directions in the middle of the street, I have the opportunity to play a game of public charades.

But I know plenty of people who would prefer visitors speak to them in the local tongue.

And while I find that attitude irritating, I can’t say it’s totally unfair. When you enter someone else’s home, you implicitly agree to follow their household rules. This may mean participating in a prayer you personally don’t believe in, or this may mean taking off your shoes when you walk in the door. Language is a similar local norm: if you’re visiting, it’s only fair that you communicate on their terms using their language. Trying to speak the local language is, I think, a sign of deference and respect to the culture you’re visiting, and it’s never bad to make that effort. Again, my personal standard is low here: I think the effort alone is enough of a sign of respect to make you “not a dick.” But we can still go a bit further than that.

The obvious things that you should always learn are “Hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” and “thank you.” I think that can work as the lower limit. But I’ve had a number of experiences where that has been insufficient. Now, in the service of lowering your dick quotient, CARD, I shall publicly embarrass myself.

An incredibly embarrassing example

I was traveling with my friends in Paris. We’d taken the chunnel from London the night before, and I’d spent the entire train ride making trips to the commode, as I’d eaten a tainted burrito in London (Important life lesson: Don’t eat "ethnic" foods in a city that contains no one of that ethnicity). When we got to Paris, we settled into our hostel and I set out to find a pharmacist in Montmartre.

I quickly found one, stormed in, and said to the girl behind the counter, “Um, hi! I have… uh…” And then I proceeded to mime my affliction by putting my hands down near my posterior, making wiggly “splatter” motions with my fingers, while making flatulent sounds.

The pharmacist sighed, and said in perfect English, “So you have diarrhea?”

For this reason, I am adding, “Do you speak English?” to the de-dickifying phrases one must learn while traveling.

A less embarrassing example

I’m on the streets of Vienna during the same trip. I’m standing confusedly at the corner of Einbahnstrasse and Einbahnstrasse, trying desperately to find Einbahnstrasse on the map. I’d been walking 30 minutes, had turned dozens of times, and had never left Einbahnstrasse.

“Excuse me,” I said to a friendly-looking old man passing by, “Do you speak English?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Where is Herrengasse?” I asked. “I’ve been trying to find it for quite some time, and I can’t.”

“You are on Herrengasse,” he said.

I looked at the street sign above me. “Isn’t this Einbahnstrasse?”

“Einbahnstrasse means one way street,” he said.

It is also worth your time to learn a little bit of the language used to give and receive directions, especially if you think you’ll be putting yourself in a situation where you might get lost and need to ask for help. If you’re going to expect someone to help you, it’s at least courteous to make it easy for them to do so. At the very least, you should be able to coherently tell a cab driver where you’re staying, in case of an emergency.

Other guidelines

Other guidelines are dependent on your personal needs when you go on the trip. Are you vegetarian, or have diet restrictions of some sort? Learn how to say so in the local language. If you follow the “point at something in the hopes it’s good” method on foreign menus, you are very likely to be surprised, at some point, with food you are not okay with eating (In two separate incidences in Iceland and China, I found out after the fact that I’d eaten whale and dog, respectively. I was not okay with either). If you have allergies or health issues that could potentially put your life into someone else’s hands during your travels, learn how to explain it so that you don’t put them in a terrible position.

Finally, take some time to learn about etiquette before you show up somewhere new. Most people will be quick to forgive a faux pas but why let it happen in the first place? Learn the proper greetings in the country you’re visiting. Learn when to shake hands and when to bow and when to give a kiss on one cheek or give a kiss on two cheeks (there’s a short, basic guide that here. Learn which hand gestures are offensive (I’ve included a handy infographic on that below).

Failing to fully educate yourself before you go does not make you a dick, and some miscommunication is inevitable (and is usually harmless). But you can find out ahead of time what types of miscommunication are likely to be harmful or awkward, and you can prepare yourself accordingly.

Infographic by

Infographic by

Featured photo: David Goehring