• Naná

Is Language Learning a Necessary Part of Travel?

Travel is something in which I will always want to see more black women taking part. It is relatively easy to promote sunny beaches, ancient ruins, and picturesque mountainsides to others looking for their next vacation spot or their next home; however, promoting other cultures and the languages of said cultures seems to be a bit more difficult.

What I mean by that is that not everyone views learning the language of a country as part of immersion or as a necessary part of travel.

The whole point of travel (voluntary travel not induced by unfortunate circumstances) is to have new experiences and to participate in a cultural exchange. I highly doubt that an individual can get a decent, let alone full, grasp of a culture without speaking the language of its people.

Not speaking the tongue of the population by which you are surrounded elicits diluted experiences, which therefore result in not being quite as memorable or might not bring much meaning to your life.

This is not to say that all travel must result in an existential or spiritual awakening of some sort, or that not speaking the language means your trip will not be worth it, because sometimes travel really is just about relaxing and taking your mind off of the problems that plague your everyday life, and the only things that appeal to you in that moment are lying on the beach and drinking a cocktail; however, being able to exchange with those around you make those experiences, even those composed of doing nothing, that much more rewarding.

For example, ordering at a café or a restaurant might produce a more authentic feeling and warrant the kindness of those who work there. When I went to Florence, I ordered a cappuccino in Italian and perhaps the owner was simply kind, but when the café was closing and I went to exit, he seemed genuinely disappointed when I told him it was my last day in the city after he had invited me to come back soon and he ended up giving me some candy. I cannot say for sure if my speaking Italian had anything to do with it, but that experience brightened my day and made me appreciate the city of Florence that much more.

Besides, there are countless benefits to speaking another language, and some real-life examples among them include being able to navigate your surroundings more easily, avoiding risky situation, making various friends and dating different people, knowing when a person makes a racist remark or treats you differently from others/in an unacceptable manner, etc. Of course, it is easy for me to say this as a self-described language enthusiast, but at least I can testify that speaking other languages has enriched my travels as well as my life in general.

And it is not as if I was forced to learn these languages to survive. Being an anglophone allows you a lot of leeway since people all around the world speak English. But that would only reinforce the stereotype that anglophones (Americans, more specifically, in my case) are lazy, inconsiderate, and do not care too much for other cultures and countries. As black women, we should all already be aware that it is not our responsibility to change other people’s beliefs and preconceived notions of us but being well-versed in other languages and cultures while traveling is something that I think can only work in our favor.

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