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  • Writer's pictureJarmo Leppinen

Speaking in tongues

Updated: Nov 12, 2018

English is pretty much universal language nowadays and widely used also by travellers everywhere, no matter if it’s their first language or not. It makes things easier, but I dare to say that those who take the effort to learn and use also other languages will get much more out of their travels (and life in general).

In Finland everyone has to study three languages, Finnish, Swedish and English. In addition to those, I have studied also French, Spanish, Russian and one course of Danish and Japanese. Not being a very talkative person, I study more to understand than speak. Knowing languages always opens new worlds and helps to understand people and culture better. I’m also more interested to know the basics in many languages than to concentrate just one or two.

Knowledge in languages often multiplies: knowing one Slavic language helps to understand the others and same thing with Scandinavian and Romanic languages etc. There are also plenty of loanwords in pretty much any language. Did you know that bread is pan in both Spanish and Japanese, and potato is kartoffel in both German and Russian? So it is not just learning one language, you get more with a price of one!

Kiitos, tack så mycket, thank you, merci, gracias, tak, спасибо, ありがとうございます, dank je wel, gracies, danke schön, dĕkuju, d’akujem, paldies, ačiū, dziękuję, hvala, köszönöm, tänan

In many situation, like in a grocery store, it does not necessarily take more than a “hello” and “thank you” and you can feel like a local. Those words in the headline are among the ones I have used in real situations, probably you recognize more than one.

If you just want to learn something for your trip, 5-10 words or phrases are usually enough. YouTube is full of language videos where you can hear the correct pronunciation. That is how I do it for my trips, making a list of them most useful phrases, plus watching videos. I use that idea also in my Practical Guides where you can find a list of the most useful words or phrases and a YouTube link, so you don’t have to spend time for the search yourself.

In many travel guides there is a language section with questions like “Where is the train station?”, but not a list of the possible answers. I don’t think that there is a point in learning complicated questions if you won’t understand the answer. That is often the reason why I end up using English instead of the local language. I could ask the question, but I know that I wouldn’t understand the answer. On the other hand, as English is also a foreign language for me, it can sometimes be hard to switch to English, when I’m oriented into French for example.

Different thing is that if you have studied the language several courses or years. There are situations when it is just best to use English to be understood, like at the airport security control, but I would feel a little bit embarrassed if I wouldn’t use at least some Swedish, French, Spanish or Russian when the time and place is right. If I need to brush up those languages before a trip, I for example watch movies and read some simple texts in to orientate myself to that language.

My humble success

The most rewarding is when you can make an entire sentence or even have a short conversation in a language that you don’t feel fluent with. I have checked in into a hotel by speaking French and Swedish and ordered in a restaurant in Russian. Before I took a short, six lesson Japanese course in spring 2017, I knew two words (which I would have pronounced wrong) and could read nothing in Japanese. Suddenly I was in Tokyo, amusing myself by reading Japanese ads in metro trains and greeting people with correct phrases. I’m not bragging and definitely don’t overestimate my skills, but it felt that the short course really paid off.

It’s not always perfect though. Sometimes few words of the local languages is just not enough and the other person does not speak or does not want to speak English. Then it’s guessing and gestures, but eventually it will still always work somehow.


So why is it worth learning also other languages than just English, even just a couple of words?

- It helps you to understand the people and culture more and makes the world more open to you.

- It shows respect towards locals and helps you to make a good impression.

- It is fun and rewarding.

- Not everyone speaks English and signs are not in English everywhere, so it helps you to survive.

Dare to use your skills, don’t demand perfection from yourself and be happy when you succeed. Probably the locals will appreciate your effort too.

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