In the words of Nelson Mandela, "Talk to a man in a language he understands and it goes to his head. Talk to a man in his own language and it goes to his heart".
Converspeaking the local lingo will allow you to understand the sense of humor, the social dynamics, the cultural values, the religion and the way of life for the people who live in whatever country you choose to call home. It is a literal impossibility to ignore the culture of a country when you are immersed completely; it is a sink or swim mentality, where you either learn how to stay afloat or you drown.
Without knowing the language you can never communicate with the local residents above and beyond the rare handful who might happen to speak your own tongue. Sure, you might be able to have a basic conversation about foods, travels and similar likes/dislikes, but you will never be able to experience the true depths of a destination without meeting the people on their turf.
Political conversations, for example, are completely off the list of possibilities, as are relationships beyond the fleeting "met at the hostel" or "someone I met at the local bar" level. You cannot understand the cultural reasoning behind the how or why things are done; instead, you are only the outsider, the foreigner.
It goes beyond simply the local sense of humor and local jokes. Negotiation, for example, is a common way of life in many countries around the world, with the golden rule of thumb being that if it isn't bar-coded and in an official computer registry then it's up for negotiation. But the only way you will ever be able to get the best local rates is if you speak the local lingo. This enables you to not only bargain more efficiently, but it also enables you to ask people in advance what the going rates are for your particular part of the world.
Bargaining for long-term accommodations in the local language is also vital if you want to get the best deals, because there is a certain level of respect that comes from the local people when you are speaking with them on their terms, using their language. It speaks to their heart.
You show that you are more than just another entitled tourist coming to their country to spend your dollars and your euros and treat their people like slaves. Instead, you are bowing you head in respect and giving them the home field advantage, and that respect goes a long way to ensuring you get the local rates, not the foreigner upcharge.
That respect also goes hand in hand towards avoiding cultural misunderstandings as well, and knowing the local language means you will have the home field advantage should you ever need to talk your way out of a rough situation, regardless if its dealing with thugs or corrupt police officials. If you know how to deal with corruption like the locals deal with it, and know the right phrases to say, you can get away with a minimal bribe rather than paying the aforementioned tourist rates for things like bogus parking tickets or local shakedowns.
At the end of the day the old phrase "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" holds true no matter where you go in the world. Just as much as you expect foreigners living in your country to speak your language if they are living there, you need to be giving them the same respect if you are living on their turf. Respect will go a long way to helping your cultural, language immersion experience, and you'll experience a way of life that you would never see if merely visiting in you native tongue.
For more information about Tim Anderson and his travels, visit Marginal Boundaries
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