The risks of foregoing a foreign language
Welcome, aspiring polyglot! The conversation surrounding the utility of English around the world has been popping up more and more recently. Many people mistakenly believing they do not need to learn the local language in order to have the full travel experience. While it is certainly possible to survive abroad with only the ability to speak English, anyone who chooses this path will miss out on all of the most meaningful experiences because they will never truly know what the people around them are trying to say. The phrase "lost in translation" goes far beyond simple miscommunications. Much of the meaning we put into our words is lost when we translate them, and this is standard for most people in the world.
Second Language Strategies is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
How learning a language makes travel more meaningful
As has been stated before, if you do not speak the language of your ancestors, you have never truly heard a first hand account of their history. In every translation, meaning is lost. If you want to truly experience a culture or a history than you need to be able to speak the language. Not only that, but learning the language of your ancestors is an act of love and gratitude.
Not only that, but in diving into the culture you will inevitably uncover layers you did not even know exist. All this will give you even more material to work with when you are learning. For example, if you are an American and you have the misconception that "Cinco de Mayo" has anything to do with the liberation of Mexico, you may be shocked to find out that Mexico's independence day is actually September 16th. If that is surprising, then the origin of most holidays probably will be as well. All of these layers you peel through will reveal the foundation.
Ideally, this is where you will let your brain and imagination run wild. Every new level you uncover is one that should give you 10 more questions. In fact, you will notice that local culture is often a subculture of the greater national culture. By learning local customs and asking questions you will improve both your language and culture competency. Since you will likely still be in the process of practicing your second language, this is the perfect opportunity to ask people questions. Fortunately, asking people questions is also a way to develop deeper relationships.
Thank you for reading Second Language Strategies. This post is public so feel free to share it.
Deeper relationships - Asking questions during your adventure abroad
People love to talk about themselves. More importantly, they often are exhausted by answering the same questions over and over. When you are able to ask good questions that demonstrate at least a baseline understanding of the things you are asking about, you will be shocked at the reception. The reason it is difficult to list out all of the "best" questions is because the best questions you can ask are always context dependent.
Moving beyond surface level friendships requires a certain grasp of the language. You will, therefore, need to listen and struggle through the explanations, retaining as much as possible, so that the next time you meet you can continue asking more explorative questions. In doing this, you will notice people begin to ask more and more in depth questions to you. This, in theory, should help you get better at thinking in the language. Without having to ask or answer questions, it can be easy to avoid truly getting proficient at thinking in the language.
Why you need to learn to think in a foreign language
Someone recently asked if there is a certain point when they would be able to stop translating in their head before speaking. While there is a magic switch that will one day flip, more importantly is the idea of translating thoughts in the first place. When you are starting on your language learning experience, you will find that most of the time you are focused entirely on trying to translate the words other people are saying. This is a great first step, but it is the first step. Once you are able to do that with any degree of competence, it is time to start translating your own thoughts in order to respond.
This will be the most stressful in situations where you are speaking with groups of people, as being able to comment before the conversation moves on to the next topic can be next to impossible. Until that time, however, you should be entirely focused on translating as many of the thoughts you in your day. Not only is this good practice for your target language, being conscious of your thoughts is good for countless other reasons. Fortunately, the more you do it the easier it will get and the less you will have to actively translate in your head.
The best part about doing the work in your head is there is no time limit and the only person who is there to judge you is you. It is something you are going to do no matter what when you are speaking to someone else, so waiting until the game to get your practice in will be counterproductive. Developing your language skills is going to take time, better to do it when no one is paying attention and show up ready for game time than to wait until someone is speaking to you for the first time. That's where language classes can be good, they will force you to do it if you cannot bring yourself to do it unprompted. However, the longer you delay the longer you will have to wait for the magic switch to flip.
The magic switch when learning a new language
Of all the questions that are asked, the curiosity surrounding whether or not there is a magic switch that one day allows people to stop thinking and start speaking in their new language is most interesting. Not because it does not exist, but rather because it is just one victory in a long line of wins.
In other words, it seems most people want to jump to step 10 without going through steps 1-9 and this can cause some morale issues in the short, medium, and long term. The primary reason it can be detrimental to morale is because, once you know it exists, you will begin asking yourself how much longer it is going to take to get there.
The timeline is different for everyone, but the standard math is as applies to most things. If you practice more you will get there sooner. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee as everyone learns at a different pace and learning styles vary drastically. Beyond that, the truth is you will be so deep into your language study by the time that switch flips you will likely not even realize it until someone asks you. One day you simply are not thinking of words in your native language anymore, you are thinking of them in your target language. That should be the goal, but the only way to get there is by starting the process as soon as possible.
If you struggle to think of words, look them up and write them down. There is nothing more irritating than looking up the same word for the tenth time and still not being able to recall it when you need it. That is why having a physical dictionary and physically writing things down is so important. You will begin, over time, to progress beyond the basic phrases that most never escape and this will provide you with all you need to continue. If you do not take this opportunity to expand your abilities, however, you will be stuck speaking English.
Rely on English at your own peril
As discussed above, if you decide that English is all you need, then you will miss out on first hand accounts of almost everything. You will be forced to trust that every translation you have ever read is complete and accurate. Anyone who has ever watched a show with subtitles will know quickly that trusting a translation is rarely a good idea.
Yes, you will be able to survive your trip without developing any language skills. Yes, English will get you the most basic comforts in almost any place you travel. However, the amount you will miss out on cannot make up for the time saved by choosing not to learn a new language. Furthermore, few monolinguals understand just how unpopular they tend to be, whether it is due to their own actions or due to the actions of those who cam before them is irrelevant.
People around the world have begun to expect people, especially Americans, to only speak English. If you want an unforgettable travel experience, destroy the preconceived notions they have. Besides, as helpful as English is, it is not as reliable as you may think. Certainly if you want to get away from the tourist traps, your English will not save you. However, the shortcomings of English is a topic that deserves its own post, so we will look at that next.
Speaking the same language as someone is merely one way to unlock a deeper understanding of one another. If you do not speak the same language, you will never truly know each other. English is a great language and in a pinch it can save you, but if you lock yourself down by only ever speaking one language you will miss out potentially the most life changing experiences as you travel. Ordering food and acquiring a global career are far from the only reason to take second language acquisition seriously.
Beyond that, trusting the translations you are given is no way to learn information. Of course it will be impossible to read and understand everything in its original language, but choosing one or two languages to tackle simply to hear a first hand account of history, culture, traditions, and myths is something everyone can do. If you have ever wanted to create a deeper connection with your family, perhaps learning the language of your ancestors is your best bet.
Whatever you choose, do you best to start thinking in the language as soon as possible. Start with the smallest sentences you can manage and build up from there. Learn more complex vocabulary and actually take time out of your day to think about the ways you are wording things so that you can express yourself in the most accurate ways possible. Looking up and writing the words down will help you recall them when the time comes and you are without pen or paper.
Learning a language is no easy feat, it will be difficult irrespective of how you approach it. But you can do difficult things and be great, so continue to do difficult things and be great. I will be here by your side endeavoring to do the same.
Be sure to check out Second Language Strategies to catch up on anything you missed, find me on Twitter or Instagram for some short form content. If you are struggling to get speaking in your target language, join our Discord! I look forward to seeing everyone’s progress in the months and years to come.