6 Times Your Foreign Language Skills Will Save The Day

by Rebecca Murphy

Having foreign language skills often proves to not just be an advantage while abroad, but a necessity. Being able to speak in your host country’s native language creates a stronger connection with peers, host families, and local communities, and it also fosters a safer and healthier environment for you as you’re traipsing around some far-off region.

Friends sitting in the grass at a riverside park at sunset
Your foreign language skills will help you do more than just make friends. C’est necessaire pour survie! 

Established language skills will always come in handy while abroad, and it’s important to immerse yourself so you continue to improve. Trying to get by on just a few key phrases and fake grammar will only hurt yourself, and to locals, it will honestly makes you seem as ridiculous as Dory “speaking” whale. If she had obtained better language skills in her school (no pun intended), she probably wouldn’t have ended up in a whale’s stomach. Still don’t believe it’s important to learn the local language? Here are six examples of how whipping out another language will enable you to be your own hero.

1. When you’re conveying a dietary need.

Potentially the biggest opportunity for your language skills to save the day will be when you’re ordering food. We all take our food seriously, especially when some foreign delicacy is on the line (no one wants to mess up that sushi order in Tokyo, right?). This is particularly important when you have a dietary need that you need to convey to your server. Only having basic language skills is just not going to help you when you’re trying to say you have Celiac’s but only know the words for “I can’t eat bread.” Not worth being rushed to the hospital just because you didn’t feel like studying a little more, right?

Even if you don’t have a dietary need and you’re just trying to be health-conscious (do people do this while abroad?), there is nothing more embarrassing than accidentally asking the server if your food has condoms in it when you’re really trying to ask about preservatives in French. Learn your vocab, peeps!

Table at a cafe
Being able to communicate your dietary needs will really come in handy at the neighborhood watering hole.

2. When you’re asking for help.

We all hate to admit it, but emergencies happen while abroad. Whether you drank one too many glasses of fernet and need help getting home or you were not as aware of your surroundings as you should’ve been and got mugged outside of the grocery store, there is always the chance that you’ll need some assistance. It’ll be a hell of a lot easier for the police to find the mugger if you’re able to give them more than “they had brown hair” or “they were tall”.

Also, it is not uncommon for people to get sick or injured while abroad (we’re all human after all), and if you end up at a doctor’s office, pharmacy, or any type of medical-related establishment, you will definitely need to know how to describe what’s wrong. Healthcare in other countries is probably not what you’re used to in your home country, and there is a high chance that they won’t run any real tests before diagnosing you, but they’ll just take your word for it. So, knowing the necessary vocab is crucial. You don’t want to end up being treated for bird flu when all you have is a really bad cold!

3. When you’re being marginalized.

Foreigners get a bad rap a lot of the time for totally unfair reasons. Look at the refugee crisis if you don’t believe us. At some point during your time abroad, you will encounter someone who immediately judges you just because you’re not from there. As someone who is throwing themselves out of their comfort zone and trying to learn in a totally different environment, we promise you that it will majorly piss you off.

This situation usually plays out the same way for everyone abroad, where the local says to someone else in their native tongue something derogatory about you. The best way to make them feel an inch big and rethink their judgements? Speak back to them in their native language. If you’re at a club and overhear someone make a comment about you and your gringo friends, casually comment to them in Spanish about how much you love the song that’s playing. If you’re on the subway in Paris and someone talks to you like you’re a moron, just comment back in French. Nothing makes people STFU quite as quickly as instantly proving that they’re in the wrong, not you.

Man texting on an iphone
It does come in handy when you’re socializing, especially texting; you don’t want to sound like a weird robot!

4. When you’re socializing.

Everyone feels more comfortable in their native language, so if you’re looking to make some new friends, you’d better be trying to do it in the host language. If you’re at a bar and want to get in with the group of locals taking shots who really look like they run the town, approaching them in their own tongue will definitely make them much more receptive.

Having a solid background in the language will obviously make this easier, and it will save you from some potentially uncomfortable situations. Without real knowledge of the language, you could end up using incorrect words or false cognates that lead to locals completely misunderstanding what you’re saying. It is all too common to hear someone trying to get by with broken Spanish and thinking something like “estoy embarazada” means “I’m embarrassed”, while it actually means “I’m pregnant.” Don’t unintentionally start false rumors about yourself just because you didn’t pay enough attention in Spanish class!

5. When you’re haggling at a market.

You’ll probably find that local markets are the best way to shop while abroad. They are usually less expensive than grocery stores, have fresher food, and they’re a great way to get immersed in the culture. The problem, though, is that when a vendor realizes you’re a foreigner, they will try to jack the prices up because of the assumption that all travelers are wealthy.

Unlike grocery stores, most vendors at markets can sell their products for whatever price they want, so bartering is usually encouraged to bring their prices back down. Vendors probably won’t go for this if you roll up yelling in English, but will be much more willing to haggle if you whip out your snazzy language skills. Learn your currency terminology and hit the streets!

Friends talking
Trying to impress your new friends and that 10 out of 10 cutie over there? Foreign language skills will help with that.

6. When you’re impressing that hottie.

Let’s face it: speaking another language is sexy. “His accent is so unattractive” and “I hate the way she speaks French“ fall under the category of #stuffnobodysays. Most young people are instantly attracted to someone who is deemed exotic or foreign, so why not break the ice and get the ball moving by charming that cutie with your bilingualism?

These examples are really only the tip of the iceberg because there is, in reality, no time when your language skills won’t come in handy while abroad. Push yourself to learn as much as possible when you’re in your host region and practice speaking as much as you can with locals. After all, you don’t want to be that guy who returns home from China broke, hungry, and lonely because you didn’t learn enough Chinese to get by!