Recently, I had a chance to travel internationally for work for the first time. It was incredibly exciting!
I was sent to one of the biggest travel trade shows in Berlin, Germany, and as someone that’s 1) never been to Germany and 2) doesn’t speak German, and 3) has never attended a conference with 170,000 other people, I knew it was going to be a (welcome) challenge.
As I was navigating the gargantuan conference (ahem, 26 exhibition halls AND its own shuttle system!? It truly was a conference only the Germans could have organized) and new city, I made the following observations based on speaking another language besides my mother tongue, but not German:
When in another country that speaks a language you don’t, you default to the foreign language you do.
I boarded the bus for the first time, I’m sure the driver appreciated me responding to his question in German with a Spanish “no sé”. I wasn’t even consciously trying to speak Spanish with him…I just knew English wasn’t what I should be speaking in Germany. Throughout the week, I struggled to *not* speak Spanish. I realized I had trained my brain to default to it since most of my travels outside of the United States have been to Spanish speaking countries. Instead, I would start with, “Sprechen Sie Englisch?”
You hone your ability to read nonverbal cues.
Since most of the conference attendees I interacted with spoke English, I luckily got away with zero German skills during the event. While around the city, I picked up quickly when I was standing in the wrong place on the bus based on looks or gestures from locals. Or, better yet, I’d make it clear with my facial expressions and body language when locals would try to ask me for directions.
You easily pick up on words and phrases here and there.
After learning one language, you’re primed to know what to look for and how to make connections between words and phrases in languages where you have no background whatsoever. Deciphering signs and transportation made me proud that I could grasp basic concepts after studying French and Spanish. While I didn’t get as much time to study up on key phrases, travel also teaches you what to look for and how to problem solve on the fly.
You appreciate well marked and efficient transportation.
I never got lost in Berlin. Ever. That’s saying a lot considering I’ve gotten lost multiple times in Spanish speaking countries! I thank the ever-efficient Berlin transit system, the well marked buses, trains, and stops, and its equally amazing trip planner app that told me the precise times (down to the minute) and locations of all I needed to take. If the rest of Germany is anything like Berlin, the type A side of me will love any excuse to take more trips back.
Languages have always fascinated me, and I’m glad I got to experience a context with one where I knew absolutely nothing. I’m almost glad I didn’t have time to brush up on common phrases because I forgot what it was like to be in a brand new environment not knowing anything.
As I work with students and give them advice on what meaningful travel experience is a good fit for them, it’s been easy for me to forget that learning a new language is a huge feat and how accomplishing it feels to pick up on seemingly little things (Straße = street!).
What language wins have you made in your travels?