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Written by Jenny McWhirter on 23 / 03 / 2017

Gap Year Advice

Even just a few words in the native tongue will get you a long way…

Learning a language can honestly be fun when you’re not sat behind a desk telling your teacher you ‘walked the dog and watched TV’ over the weekend.

With just one other language under your belt, whether it’s the basics or fluency, you’ll totally maximise, enhance and enrich your time abroad. I promise.

Arriving in a foreign country with a grasp of some conversational basics is so worth it. But just in case you’re not convinced, I’ve put together a few reasons why and some stories to back my evidence.

1. Get off-the-beaten-track

Discover the marvels of a country that aren’t listed in tripadvisor’s ‘top 10’ or your trusty guidebook.

Having two or more languages at your disposal makes you interesting as well as understandable! It means forming local friendships is even easier. People will approach you, wanting to chat and hear all about you!

First off, they’re intrigued to find out what motivated you to bother learning their language. Then ten minutes and a few beers later, you’ve got yourself the inside scoop on the places unnoticed by the travelling masses.

Harry's story:

While Namibia’s official language is English, less than 1% of the nation speak it as their native dialectal. Noting this before departure, a friend of mine, Harry, made an effort to learn the very basics of the Oshiwambo language.

With it being spoken as the first language by the majority of Northern Namibia, Harry's experience became far more authentic and culturally rich very quickly. A simple ‘ongiini’ (hello) and ‘ongoye lye?’ (what’s your name?) got him on the inside!

Northern Namibia Gap Year

A few free rides and tour guides later, and with the low-down on all the favourite local spots, he discovered the stripped back, real Namibia.

2. Gain cultural insights

I bet you’ve been overseas at some point and felt that you just missed out on an authentic cultural experience because you couldn’t join in.

I certainly have. Being able to converse with local people means you can gain an understanding and awareness of their culture. It’s a totally different experience to your outsider’s perspective gathered from Wikipedia and the guide book.

It might be a meal with a local family or a chat with the hostel owner. Whatever it is, gaining the insider’s angle on their country’s cultural traditions and historical events are priceless.

Moreover, it’s eye-opening to examine your own culture from the outside. You’ll find all becomes clear…

Jenny's story:

The Leap’s lovely Jenny spent 2 months living with a Tsáchila family in Ecuador’s lowland jungle. Her competent Spanish and valiant efforts in the Tsafiki language, ‘ho oh’ (thank you) being her personal favourite, taught her more about the tribe than she could have ever imagined.

While many view the 2,000 strong tribe as lazy, Jenny was able to discover the true complexities of their culture. With no means of communication and little contact with outsiders, members of the Tsáchila communities simply could not grasp modern, westernised life. The concepts of money, modern transportation, development techniques and more are all a total mystery to them.

3. Be respectful

Perhaps this should have been number 1, because ultimately, basic words and phrases in the native language is polite!

Picking up basic conversational phrases and a few manners in the local tongue shows respect and courtesy. It makes everyone’s life easier and leaves local people feeling as though their culture and language is appreciated.

Often travellers march around ordering local tourism workers to tend to our every need in quick, colloquial English. Frankly, it’s rude. It’s disrespectful. And it paints a picture that westerners view themselves as superior which is not what we want!

Katie's story:

Before my schoolmate Katie set off for the Andes in Peru she discovered the ‘useful words and phrases’ section of her guide book. Just the simple Ps and Qs in Spanish, and the odd phrase like ‘Anchatam kusikusani riqsisuspayki’ (pleased to meet you) in the indigenous Quechua language, made all the difference.

On day one, a quiet restaurant meal became a meet and greet with all the staff. I think along with being slightly amused at her mispronunciation, they deeply appreciated her efforts to talk their talk. They happily gave her tips on seeing the local sights and even gave her free desert!

4. Form cross-cultural friendship

Ever felt that pang of regret during an encounter with someone abroad who you simply can’t communicate with? Especially when your mate is there who can. They’re laughing away having a great time and you’re left on the side-lines wishing you’d flicked through the phrasebook.

Form friendships unlike any of your others. Vastly expand your cultural understanding. And maybe even bag some free nights out and accommodation next time you visit!

My story:

When in Madagascar, my Malagasy lessons (and poor GCSE French) meant I was able to form some unexpected friendships with my English students. With the advanced class being of a similar age and with far better English than my Malagasy, what started as a whole lot of ‘tsara be’ (very good/all’s good) soon became fun, 3-language conversations.

We’d always greet each other in the village and hang out on the weekends. What's more, I learnt of all the amazing places tourists didn’t know about. Hidden waterfalls. Cheap (but better) local restaurants. Undiscovered deserted beaches.

gap year off the beaten track

My experience was enhanced greatly and we still keep in contact now! I always think it’s one of the perks of volunteering and not just being a tourist: I would never have got to know these incredible people without a little effort with the lingo.

5. Don't be a tourist

There’s always a danger of being the obvious tourist when abroad. Instead of the warm and friendly majority, you find yourself being constantly hassled by the few seeking to benefit from oblivious tourists.

Are you also as tired as me of overpaying on holiday? It’s common knowledge that in many popular places there are two prices: tourist and local. But with confident responses in the local tongue, people will believe you’ve been around a while and think twice before doubling the price.

The best part is that you’ll also be participating in an authentic cultural experience and not sticking out like a sore thumb.

Dan’s story:

When my friend Dan visited Cambodia, he spent much of his 20-hour journey, and then his first few weeks in the country, grasping some conversational Cambodian (Khmer).

By the end of his 6-week adventure, he found that taking the camera off his neck, swapping his walking boots for flip-flops and using his Cambodian phrases where possible meant a lot less hassle.

In touristy areas and local markets, Dan was able to enjoy the sights more and even feel far safer when not being singled out as a tourist.

In addition, his haggling skills improved immensely. With the help of phrases such as ‘ta veer t’lai pbon-maan?’ (how much is it?), he was able to seek out the local bargains and avoid the tourist prices.

Get Learning!

I hope that by now it’s clear to you how beneficial having a little local lingo up your sleeve can be.

Don’t be afraid of making a fool of yourself: we all do it and the rewards of foreign communication are far greater than the initial bouts of embarrassment!

Now go, travel, chat and expand your horizons…

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