Learning a Language Abroad is the Best Way to Experience a Foreign Culture
Learning a new language can be a daunting challenge for some people, but living in a foreign country for any length of time will considerably improve your chances of becoming proficient. Besides, it will give you a much greater appreciation of the fascinating and occasionally bewildering culture you've landed in, and can be a really fun and interesting activity to while away the long, lazy days. Daily exposure to a foreign language will help you grasp the subtle nuances which are simply impossible to learn from the comfort of your armchair.
Pack Your Bags!
Imagine the situation: you've plucked up the courage to pack your bags and bid farewell to the grey skies of home, and arrived in a tropical climate halfway round the world where the locals speak broken English and every fresh-faced foreigner is treated like a tourist. Everywhere you go, the incomprehensible language hinders your ability to communicate and you resort to pointing or gesturing at the things you want to buy. It can be a frustrating experience indeed. At this point, you might be tempted to dust off the phrase books or take a crash course in the local dialect - either that, or marrying a local might be the only alternative!
The English Abroad
The English are often accused of being lazy when it comes to learning languages, and while this might be true to some extent (after all, we're an island nation and everybody in the world speaks English, don’t they?), anyone with an inquisitive mind who enjoys travelling probably has a desire to get a few essential phrases under their belt. There's nothing more satisfying than being able to tell the taxi drivers where to go (figuratively speaking of course), and the sense of achievement when you can hold a conversation consisting of more than just “Hello”.
Take Thailand as a case in point. Thousands of Brits visit the Land of Smiles every year, but how many can utter even a few basic words of Thai? "Sawat-dee krap" (meaning hello) is the limit of most visitors’ vocabulary. In all honesty, it’s quite easy to manage in the most popular tourist destinations just speaking English, though wouldn't you love to know what the smiling locals are really saying about you? Besides, when you venture off the beaten track it can be indispensable to know numbers, directions, and of course how to order a drink (although “Beer” is pretty universal). Thailand’s respectful culture is echoed very strongly in the language which has different greetings for monks, children, and anybody younger or older than yourself.
Visiting a country for several weeks or months will improve your language skills considerably, and provide an insight into the culture that you won’t gain any other way. There are umpteen situations in which a few judiciously used local phrases will help you no end: perhaps you need directions to the nearest bar to mingle with some fellow travellers? No problem. How about bartering to get the local price for a colourful ethnic hat or silly wooden frog? Done. Even when reprimanded by the police for driving without a license down a one-way street, a few apologetic words and a smile can resolve matters without having to pay a “Special Tip” to the police retirement fund. In Asia, when you’ve mastered some basic phrases and can even read menus (did you really want those stir-fried frog’s intestines?), you might still feel like a tourist and something of an oddity, but you can endear yourself to the locals without having to be a linguistics professor.
For us stubborn Brits, learning a European tongue such as French or Spanish is perhaps less challenging than most Asian languages, what with their indecipherable alphabets and awkward tones (each word may have five or six different meanings - confusing to say the least), but a few months away could be the ideal opportunity to hone your language skills - and work on the tan of course. Regardless of language and destination, anyone that makes an effort to speak like a native will be rewarded in the long run; and who knows, you might just end up staying longer than expected...