Languages are hard. We here in the English speaking world enjoy a certain amount of linguistic privilege in this respect. The language we speak is, in comparison to others, easy to learn and, as a result, spreading around the world like wildfire. Certainly in Europe, tourist destinations will rarely require you to speak the local language because most of the people, especially those of younger generations, will speak some amount of English, often better than many English people. Go off the beaten track, however, and the odd local word here and there will get you far. And besides, even if you can get by speaking English all the time, should you?
Even if you don’t have to, I would always recommend learning the basics in the local language. ‘Hello’, ‘Goodbye’, ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’, and of course ‘One [your chose alcoholic drink]’ are all worth knowing. For me, it’s always been a sign of respect. The local people with whom you interact on holiday are your hosts. Just as you bring a bottle of wine to a dinner party, so too should you make an effort with languages on holiday. A little attempt, however basic and accented, will often be very well received.
A few years ago, I was in Madrid with my family. Along with some friends of ours, we stood in one of the smallest restaurants I have ever seen. A long bar stretched almost from end to end of the room, the front of which was a glass wall looking out into the indoor market in which we found ourselves. Between the bar and the glass was a sliver of space, enough for one person to walk in if they managed to clamber over and around all of the chairs, many of which were occupied. Behind the bar, in equally camped space, four or so Spanish gentlemen rushed to and fro, somehow working at lightning speed while sharing a space barely big enough for two. And what’s more, the place was busy. Famous for its tortilla, and deservedly so, the place was never slow or empty; no sooner was a chair vacated than it was filled once more with another hungry customer. Yet as we lent over the counter to order in our broken Spanish, one of the men behind the bar stopped. In amongst the speed and chaos, he recognised an attempt at speaking his language and he stopped. Calmly, he waited as my mother ordered, nodding and occasionally offering linguistic help. Around him the restaurant bustled, but he had stopped because he had heard some holiday makers doing their very best.
Making an effort with language is not only a way to gain faith with waiters and shopkeepers, but I honestly believe it will enrich your experience of a holiday. Languages are tightly bound to culture and the national identity of a people. When you next go on holiday just learn the basics. You don’t have to be fluent, or have a perfect accent, but if you make an effort you never know what doors it will open up. Most of the time, you’ll be able to fall back on to English if you need to.
And who knows? You might have a hidden talent for Spanish or French, or maybe even Mandarin or Xhosa.
Yeah, languages are hard, but I think they’re worth it.