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Does learning a few words of the local language improve your holiday?

Making an effort to learn some of the local language can open up whole new worlds on holiday, says Conor Power


Duomo cathedral in Florence, Italy

Duomo cathedral in Florence, Italy




Duomo cathedral in Florence, Italy

The first time I was in Warsaw, I found myself in a bar looking to order a drink.

I knew the word for beer (piwo), but I didn't want a beer, so I tried the one full question in Polish that I had spent weeks learning by repetition - "Czy mówisz po angielsku?" (Do you speak English?)

The barman's expression, until then disinterested and mildly irritated, changed instantly. A broad smile burst through his heavy moustache like a dancing girl through a stage curtain. He shook his head and said something that ended with the word "polsku!"

There followed a torrent of words I couldn't understand, but which made us both smile. He was doing his best to help me, and I was doing my best to get a drink.

It turns out that the Polish word for vodka is wódka. Who knew?

Modern technology has given us high-speed communication. We can zip messages all over the world in the blink of an eye. But online-dominated exchanges have also created bubbles that shield us from reality. Looking back on that drinks order in Warsaw, it struck me that one of those bubbles comes with us on our travels - a bubble that makes us think everyone in the world speaks English.

It's an easy habit to fall into. Lots of people speak a little English nowadays. Every airport in the world has signage and staff that speak English. Tourist resorts and city public transport systems abound with secondary signage in English. In some countries (such as Sweden), English has practically been adopted as another main language. But the fact remains that, as a mother tongue, English is the world's third most-spoken language, after Mandarin and Spanish.

"By assuming that everyone is going to have English because it's so widespread now, you do get into a mind-set of 'People are going to cater to me and I don't really have to make much of an effort'," says Claire Long, a brand ambassador for Languages Connect (languagesconnect.ie), an awareness campaign run by Post Primary Languages Ireland as part of the Government's strategy for foreign languages in education.

"That's not a great mindset to have when you're trying to create new experiences. If you really want to get a broader world view and actually talk to people and see what the people are like in the country you're visiting, you need the language… otherwise, you're in a kind of parallel world to the people who are actually living there, because you're not interacting with them in a real way."

Long speaks French and Japanese, and says using those languages while travelling in France and Japan led to her being embraced into the cultural heart of those countries and living unforgettable experiences.





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Not everyone speaks a second language, of course. Learning one is rewarding, but you don't have to go that far. On my travels, I've learned that simply trying, or making a small but genuine effort to communicate in the local language, can open up the hearts and minds of those you're speaking with in disarming ways.

Modern travellers can also draw on tech to help dip their toes into new languages. Google Translate is a superb free tool, for example - a dictionary, translator and interpreter in your pocket. I once had a conversation with a man in Japan using the app, where we typed sentences and watched the words switch from one language to the other. My new-found friend was amazed at how Google knew the correct kanji (symbol) for his surname - something, he said, most Japanese people don't even get right.

Google isn't the only show in town. You can download entire dictionaries of foreign languages before you leave home, and there are many excellent language apps that have streamlined the language-learning process, too. Busuu is one of the better ones, making good use of technology and connecting with other language enthusiasts around the world so that you're not alone on your linguistic journey.

Travel is so accessible and quick nowadays, it's easy to jet off without as much as a word of the local language. But taking a little time to go beyond the token 'gracias' or 'bonjour' also gains you little parts of a key that can gradually unlock entire worlds around you.

"No matter how much English becomes a common working language of business, or tourism, or whatever, in every country, people will continue to create and tell stories," says David Little, a retired linguist professor at Trinity College Dublin. While it sometimes seems like English is set for world domination, and that there's little point learning alternatives, he argues otherwise. Those stories "add to their infinite cultural hinterland and the only way you can access any of that is by learning the language", Little says.

Throwing in those few words with my Polish drinks order felt like respect and good manners; the same as if I was visiting someone else's house. And once travel feels like that, all kinds of wonderful things can happen.

Top 5 language layovers





1. Irish in Donegal

Oideas Gael offers various activities to make embracing Gaeilge more fun. Courses in Co Donegal start at €110 (for a weekend course in March revolving around bodhrán-playing). oideas-gael.com

2. French in Dublin

The Alliance Française in Dublin offers an intensive, two-day pre-travel course to prepare for practical situations tourists will likely encounter while exploring France. Essential savoir-faire for €120. alliance-francaise.ie

3. Spanish in Andalucía

Peublo Español offers fully-immersive, eight-day courses in Andalucía, Spain. The €1,950 price includes room and board, activities, guided tours, return transport to Madrid and a team of a team of native speakers to provide 100 hours of strictly Spanish-only conversation. puebloespanol.com

4. Arabic in Morocco

GoLearnTo.com has a range of courses in different countries that marry language learning with a cultural activity. The week-long 'Arabic and Moroccan Cooking' course in Tétouan is one pick of the bunch. From €235 B&B.

5. Italian in Florence

With Euro Pass, you can learn Italian in Florence. Morning lessons, guided tours and accommodation options mean a per-week variation from €280 (course only) to €570 (half board with host family). europassitalian.com

NB: All prices subject to availability/change

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