Five years ago, I took a job teaching English in Thailand. When I arrived, I was shuttled to my apartment by my supervisor, a man who had lived in a small town just outside Bangkok for over two years. I then had the cringeworthy experience of watching him try to discuss my rent payment with my new Thai landlady. “I’LL. PAY. YOU. TOMORROW,” he said to her in loud, slow English, adding a forward arching hand gesture to reinforce his staccato delivery.
It’s an extreme case – a person not bothering to learn a basic word like “tomorrow” in the language of their adopted home country – but it’s also a perfect example of the bad tourist I think most of us consciously don’t want to become when we travel: The stereotypical, entitled Westerner, galumphing around the world and expecting the food to be familiar, all spaces to be air-conditioned and everyone to speak English.
I’m not saying you’re a big failure if you don’t master Italian in preparation for your two-week trip to Rome, but I also believe that local people appreciate it when you show that you’re making an effort to speak their language. Even if your conversation skills are limited to: “hello,” “thank you” and “that was delicious,” it’s a small way of demonstrating that you’re trying to fit into their community instead of coming to their home and expecting them to adapt to you.
Translation apps are getting increasingly sophisticated (I imagine if that interaction between my former supervisor and landlady were to happen these days, he would just pull out his phone), which means you don’t necessarily need to study the language to be a considerate guest in another country.
But I think you miss out on a huge part of the cultural experience travel offers if you’re simply plugging words and phrases into an app without learning them. Language has deep ties to the history and traditions of a country and understanding it, even in a limited way, gives you a much more meaningful perspective on that place.
With over 100 million users, this is the most popular language-learning app. Earning points for correct answers makes it a fun (and addictive) way to learn anything from Spanish to Swahili.
Babbel sets itself apart by focusing on practical topics like directions, dining and shopping, making it a convenient choice for travellers looking to get a handle on the essentials of a new language.
Busuu allows users to hone their language skills by interacting with native speakers through video and peer-to-peer correction of exercises.