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How to Speak Like a Local While You're Traveling

It always helps if you can speak at least a few words of the language in any country you travel to.  The locals will see that you are attempting to talk in their language, which will consequently give them more reason to be friendly to you or to help you if you need it.

When I was in the Basque Country in Spain, I learned how to speak basic Euskera. Most tourists cannot even speak Spanish, let alone Euskera.  Therefore, when I would order in Basque or speak to the locals in their language, the people were astonished.  The typically cold and distant Basque’s were so happy that I knew some words in their language that they instantly became warm and welcoming.  It was easier to make friends and I probably received better service because of it.

Research The Most Important Phrases Before Traveling

Once your plane lands and you are out of the airport, you probably won’t be thinking so much about learning new vocabulary.  You’ll want to explore!  That’s why it is key to study up before you leave on your trip.  You’ll feel more confident as you begin to speak to the people around you.

Learn Words You Actually Use

It’s always fun to look at these mini language books that people carry around when they travel.  I own a few myself and don’t think I have ever used one word that I learned in these books.  Part of the reason is that they give you thousands of words and phrases to know, and who really takes time to memorize all of them?  What you need to know are a few essential words and phrases, the ones that you will actually use (which can differ from country to country).

If you do actually want to build up some basic vocabulary, try Duolingo or the Anki flashcards. I love both of these programs.

Sometimes All You Need to Do Is Smile

This is kind of an obvious one.  However, I am writing this as an important reminder, because this is the most important point on the list.  As long as you are smiling and friendly, it does not matter what language you speak, the people will treat you well in whichever country in the world you are in.

One Word Can Make All The Difference

Most locals are not going to expect you to know how to speak their language, especially if it’s not widely spoken.  That is why it can be easy to stand out by just saying a couple of words in their native tongue.

Once when I was at a restaurant in the Czech Republic, I said “Děkuji” to the waitress, which means thank you in Czech.  She looked shocked that actually spoke to her in Czech and a smile broke out on her face, and she definitely seemed to be more attentive to our table after that.

Hundreds of tourists pass through that city every day, but I would bet that most of them don’t even attempt a “hello” or “thank you” in Czech.  Speaking the local language when you travel is not just for communication, it’s also a great way to express your interest in a culture and it’s people, and that is what people will appreciate the most.

The Biggest Mistake You Can Make Is To Not Try

There are so many people who know words such as “bonjour”, but when they are in France or other countries they just end up saying “hello” in English.  I think we do this at times because we are shy about our pronunciation or embarrassed about what the locals may think of us – But, believe me – they will respect you a lot more if you attempt to speak their language.  My grandpa is a perfect example of this.  When we went to Mexico in the past he often forgot to call women Señora (“Mrs.”) and instead he called the ladies Señor (“Mr.”) while he was speaking in Spanish. Most would assume that these women would be slightly offended to be called “Mr.” and not “Mrs.”  However, they actually loved that my grandpa was trying.  They would knowingly smile back at him and return his friendliness with a big smile and a “Gracias.”

As a foreigner, you will always make mistakes while speaking different languages.  But, the biggest mistake you can make is to not try at all.

Google Translate Is Your New Best Friend

I remember as I was in Finland and the grandparents from my host family arrived.  They couldn’t speak any English, and my Finnish was quite limited.  So, I pulled out Google Translate and would type what I wanted to say in English, and then show them the phrase that came up in Finnish.  We ended up getting to know each other that way, and they loved the effort I was making to communicate with them.

Google Translate also saved my life in South Korea.  When I arrived, I could barely speak or read any Korean, which can get tricky when you go to a restaurant and order food.  If you don’t know what all of those crazy letters mean and order something random, you may end up with a plate of strange things that you probably wish wasn’t there.  Thankfully, google translate helped me to order a plate of rice and chicken, instead of a plate of mysterious meat.

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