Language and Travel

Do you speak another language? Do you try to speak the language in the places you travel? What is the role of English as a world language? These questions about language and travel are ones that I often consider because I teach English courses in the U.S.A.

I teach English to immigrants and international students in higher education; in other words, I don’t teach “the college equivalent of kindergarten,” as the woman next to me on the airplane recently called it. Instead, I teach to people who hope to get a college degree in the United States, so we learn summarizing, public speaking, essay writing, and research skills. It’s entirely academic and complex, not at all like kindergarten for adults (that comparison actually offends me). Because of my work, I am simultaneously aware of the value of other languages and the importance of English globally. But what I’d like to look at now is the question of what we should expect of people and language, on the road and at home.

Palazzo Strozzi

Not speaking the language can make you feel like an outsider…at a very cool social gathering at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy

I actually think that we need to be easier on ourselves…that if we travel and do not speak the language, we should not feel like losers, and that if you are trying to learn a language, give yourself a pat on the back to acknowledge the difficulty and time commitment of what you are doing.

Let’s remember that learning a language is much more complex than most people realize. Those people you meet around the world at hotels, bars, museums, and airports who speak English have put in numerous hours learning vocabulary, verbs, pronunciation rules and much more so that they can speak with you. While most of the people do not speak English perfectly, just the fact that they are able to understand most of what you say and speak back to you reflects an enormous effort that you cannot see. In a related vein, many people do not have the resources (money, time, etc.) needed to really learn a language, and that is okay.

Italian bloggers

Italian bloggers who can work their magic in Italian and English. Hats off to them.

Should we try to speak the local language when we travel? I think you should to the extent that is feasible and comfortable for you. On this trip to Italy, I made almost no effort to speak Italian. I used just a handful of words: “buon giorno, buona sera, arrividerci, grazie, cappuccino, poco, ciao.” Does this make me a lazy traveler? I don’t think so because I was there learning more about Italian culture and life than most travelers do. I would love to learn Italian and to use more basic phrases while traveling there, but I arrived exhausted mentally and physically…my brain just wasn’t its sharpest self the whole time, and pressuring myself to use more Italian wasn’t practical.

Santa Croce

Exploring cultural heritage as part of the Florens2012 international biennial

The truth is that I have to stay true to what is possible for me…I have very little time, a head full of information and a second language (Portuguese) that interferes with just about any other language bit I try to force in there. Of course, if I were in Italy longer, I would learn…Plus, I was humble and apologized for not speaking Italian.

My general feeling about language is that we, especially Americans, need to be more patient with those who are learning English and recognize that no matter where they are on the spectrum of learning, they have sacrificed free time, money, and energy to learn. I applaud them for doing so because English is increasingly becoming the global language.


Bloggers (and new friends) from 4 countries. Common language? English.

At the same time, we should be more accepting of those who are traveling and not suddenly trying to converse in the local language. Sometimes traveling is tiring, and adding pressure to speak the local language doesn’t help…plus, the locals sometimes speak better English and may be eager to practice. When the languages do not connect, a smile and gesture of humility can go a long way.

What do you think about language learning and travel? What is your experience learning another language or using one while traveling?


  • monique says:

    jenna, as you know this is a subject I feel passionately about! I, too, taught english both abroad and here at home for esl students. My dad too was an esl teacher for many years, and my sister. Understanding how difficult it is to learn a second language and having the capacity for empathy in this regard is critical, especially in a place like California. When you travel to non english speaking locales, it can help us understand better. It is completely unrealistic to think you can go to a place for a short time every few years and speak effortlessly (or even speak at all). Without living there for an extended period of time or speaking the language back in your native country continuously – t’s even for those who are most gifted with languages. I wouldn’t call it laziness in the least especially when you visit intl cities like florence where there are so many italians that speak english extremely well (hats off to them!) and north american expats , and there is less of a requirement to speak. I love the photos and strozzi is absolutely gorgeous. when I was there in May, it was the location for an exhibit on americans in florence and impressionism.

    • Jenna says:

      How cool that you have other ESL teachers in your family. I would have loved to see that exhibit at Palazzo Strozzi. I wasn’t a big fan of the exhibit I saw there, but I loved the place. Great vibe on Thursday nights, too.

  • We spent six weeks in rural Czech Republic and Slovakia this summer. We learned the basics of the languages before we arrived (hello and goodbye, good morning, please and thank you, nice to meet you) and we think it’s just common courtesy to know how to say those things before you arrive in another country.

    However, you are correct about English becoming the global language. The young people we met in those countries realize that , and many of them know that if they want to do well in the world that they are going to need to speak English.

    And while it is difficult to learn a second language, it is much easier to do so when you are young. By the time you reach age 50 like us, your brain is already full!

    • Jenna says:

      I love that you spent time in rural Czech Republic (one of my favorite areas anywhere!) and Slovakia. Czech is a difficult language but I’m sure the people appreciated your efforts to speak.

  • One problem for those of us who travel to a broad range of countries is that it’s hard to justify the time that would be necessary to learn the languages spoken everywhere that we go — especially considering that we would have no occasion to use many of those languages after a particular trip. If you’re repeatedly returning to the same destination, or if you’re living somewhere for several months or more, then perhaps things are different. I may have an opportunity to relocate to Seoul for work in the next couple of years; and if I do that, I suspect that I may need to develop a reasonable fluency in Korean, at least on a conversational level.

    I generally travel with phrasebooks, and that’s usually enough to get by.

    • Jenna says:

      Yikes about relocating to Seoul. That would be quite a change. I hope you know Tom (@waegook_tom) and Audrey (@thatbackpacker), travel bloggers who live in S. Korea.

  • Excellent post, Jenna! I am a former ESL teacher and know first-hand the challenges that adult students face.

    Depending on one’s goals, you might want to become fluent or perfect business language skills. But the most important aspect of learning a language is being able to communicate. You don’t need to be fluent or grammatically-perfect to achieve that, and it’s especially true when traveling.

    When visiting a foreign country the language of which I don’t speak, I arm myself with several basic phrases, to show respect and to make my life easier too. I believe this counts as making an effort. Attitude is important too – some people get frustrated when English isn’t spoken everywhere they go – that’s just not fair.

    A few years ago I went to Mexico back when I knew little Spanish, and refused to use English to get by. It was a personal challenge (I have since taken classes and learned a lot more as Spanish is one of my favorite languages), but also opened doors. People seemed to recognize what I was trying to do and were understanding and patient. That was very encouraging.

    Overall, learning a foreign language is a beautiful thing, but everyone has their own pace. As traveler, we need to recognize that and also know our strengths and limitations.

    • Jenna says:

      All good points. I used to be more excited about trying to learn language, at least important phrases, when traveling but now am getting less excited…I think I’m just mentally more tired since having my kids, but as you mentioned, it is certainly a good idea to do what we can when traveling and definitely be respectful.

  • Ayngelina says:

    I was complaining to someone last night about how I think I am becoming slower and need to do more brain exercises (I know a weird thing to notice) and he told me learning a new language was the best way to do that.

    Back to Spanish….

  • Leigh says:

    I am useless at languages though after high school French I can certainly get by and I understand a lot of written Spanish after taking about three beginner classes. I still feel that all I can say is hi & give me a beer please. I always try to learn at least 10 phrases of a country I’m visiting. I love taking language courses but I do wish it would come easier. My husband is fluent in two languages, has a good grasp of Spanish and thinks Mandarin is fun to learn. He has no fear of making a fool of himself and that I think is the difference.
    And I’m always in awe of the Europeans with their mastery of multitudinous languages.

    • Jenna says:

      10 phrases seems like a good number to learn before traveling somewhere. I agree with you that not being afraid of making mistakes is SO important. My problem is that in some places, like Italy, most people speak such good English or, in other cases, at least better than my Italian phrases, that it makes me feel silly to try to speak Italian, but certainly the effort is important as it shows respect for others.

  • Dad says:

    So just how upset did that woman on the plane make you with her ill thought comment? She surely has a closed mind when it comes to immigrants wanting to improve their standing and opportunity in American society. I am reminded of the time when I lived in London and there was this elderly American man that commented (more like complained) to a young British girl working in a store when he could not understand her due to her accent that more people should learn to speak English. I couldn’t stand the Ugly American coming out of this guy and had to inject myself into the situation and “translate” for him before informing him that she DID speak English. He didn’t seem to care.
    Second point is that with all my travels to foreign countries I always endeavor to learn and speak as much as I can in what I casually refer to as “Restaurant language”. These simply effort is more often received with grace rather than shunned by the locals. The other issue as you are well aware is to not be afraid to make mistakes. The effort is appreciated more than the mistakes laughed at.

    • Jenna says:

      Very true about not being afraid of making mistakes–so important for making any progress when learning a language. And about the woman’s comment on the airplane, I didn’t get upset because it came from ignorance, not ill will, but it reinforced something that I always feel disappointed about–that people don’t understand what teaching ESL is or how much effort and time these immigrants put into learning.

  • Andrea says:

    I think it’s a big ask to expect travellers to learn the language for short trips of a month or less. It’s great to pick up little phrases but unrealistic to expect that you’ll be fluent (or to invest the time) for such a short length. Half the time I can’t understand the answer to a question even if my vocabulary is good enough to ask in the other person’s language. I did try to learn as much Spanish as I could for our trip to South America last year because we were there for four months. That, for me, was worthwhile and we got a lot more out of our time there than I think we would have without our Spanish. Great article!

    • Jenna says:

      I completely agree. I don’t think (or I hope not) that no one expects people to really learn a language before traveling, unless maybe it’s a place you go to over and over again. However, as you said, it’s a good idea to learn some phrases. I felt strange that I didn’t try very hard when I was in Italy. I was just mentally so exhausted, and it seemed like everyone spoke such good English!

  • Jenna,

    I’m so happy to read this post! I studied right there in Florence for 6 months and my apartment was right next to this church!

    Your question is equally as thrilling. As a young college student – I felt inclined to know the language while I was there but the locals never wanted to speak to us in their language, they wanted to hear our English! (I even tried speaking Spanish once to throw them off) I also traveled a lot and realized that I was able to get by with my English and was grateful when the locals were helpful even though I was speaking English. Currently in South Korea, I find that body language and intonation always gets me answers, and as long as you smile while you ask the locals questions they almost always help you on your way. 😀



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