Learn the Lingo – Improving Travel Experiences Through Language

Why Learning a Language can Improve Your Travels

Learn the Lingo or “why learning a few simple phrases can improve your travel experiences for the better”.

Thank you to Steven of QuinlanES for this great guest post about why learning a bit of the language when you travel somewhere can really make your trip! Connect with him on his Facebook page here!

Everyone loves the Netherlands.

Well, let’s be honest, most people really only know it by reputation and even then only really know Amsterdam by reputation. You never hear anyone say, ‘Gee, I know, let’s visit the Afsluitdijk (literally the ‘closing off dike’), a twenty-mile long causeway that separated the North sea from what was once the South sea, and is now Holland’s largest interior lake.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 00.19.14

Source: wadvaarders.nl

And when you get right down to it, that’s not a problem unique to the Netherlands. There are plenty of countries that are known primarily for a single touristy place, usually with a catchy theme. Vegas, New York, Tokyo, Paris, Amsterdam.

A large part of the reason for that is that unless you’re willing to learn the local language you are pretty much limited to the places where you can make yourself understood. The amazing local sights, the restaurants that aren’t on the tourist maps, and the little secrets and nooks and crannies that make up the most interesting stories can usually only be found off the beaten track, and that almost requires the ability to speak to the locals.

Sure, Holland is better than most at having common multi-lingual skills, but you’d be amazed how much mileage you can get out of just learning a little bit of the native language. Not only will it probably let you see and do more interesting things because you’ll be able to converse with people, but there is a distinct tendency for people to cut you far more slack if you’ve at least put in some effort.

For instance, there’s a little lake near a town called Gouda called the Reeuwijkse Plassen. It has all the windswept ruggedness one could ask for in an interior lake, with watersports and hiking, and a friendly café right on the edge of the water.

And unless you knew it was there, the chances of running into it by accident are as close to non-existent as it gets because it’s not on a major road between towns. It’s not a very ‘touristy’ place. If you asked a local in the town however if there was anywhere cool to see some nature, odds are they’d point you to it, though.

Town hall of Gouda

Gouda’s majestic Gothic town hall (Source: zy-co.com)

Of course, one of the great things about the country is that it’s pretty small, which can work against it sometimes as well, but here are a few suggestions for seeing the best of Holland on a budget.

And no, I’m not going to be telling you about Amsterdam.

Everyone knows about Amsterdam.

If I was going to suggest a place to go to get the real feel of the country, it would be the Hague. A very brief train journey from Amsterdam (or really anywhere else, the country is objectively tiny) the town has everything that I consider quintessentially Dutch, and while it’s still a tourist hub, it tends to attract a far lower number of them than Amsterdam.

Den Haag

There are two great things to see there and each deserves a few moments.

The first is the Hague markets. It is the largest outdoor market in Europe, is open on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and needs to be seen to be believed. You can buy virtually anything there, as the combination of general Dutch liberalism and mercantile interests mean that stalls carry everything from fruit to high-end electronics. Do sample the iconic Dutch foods (even though many of them were nicked from the Germans).

The second is just generally it has the best architecture in the country. Between the Peace Palace and the old seat of government, the Binnenhoff, the Hague is the place to go to find both Dutch vibrancy and culture, and beautiful examples of medieval construction that have survived to this day.

The Binnenhof in The Hague

The Binnenhof (Source: denhaag.com)

And of course, you can always ask a local for suggestions. Even if you speak no Dutch, you’ll find that the relative smallness of the population has led to some of the highest incidences of people speaking multiple languages in Europe. Still, a bit of local language knowledge can you both into and out of trouble.

For that matter, I have fond memories of being lost in Beirut many years ago and walking into the first bar I could see and asking the barman for directions in what I can only assume was an atrocious Lebanese accent, with only the faintest grasp of the language. I was hoping he’d more or less point me in the right direction, but he took pity on me instead, revealed he did in fact speak better English than I spoke Lebanese, and helped me out.

Language and travel

An attempt to understand a culture is often rooted in its language. Translations are all well and good, but how can you grasp the subtle nuances of the stories you’re hearing if you’re filtering them through the imperfect medium of an off the cuff translations.

Sure, being a genuine omniglot is rare, but we have a world of information at our fingertips, and less excuse every day to at least learn a few phrases. Even utterly trivial ones can demonstrate that at least you’re trying, and that counts for a lot in this world, even in the Netherlands.



The Flyaway Girl’s Recommendations of (free) Apps and Websites for Language Learning:

Duolingo (iOS, Android, Windows) – a free website and app for learning a variety of languages at different levels. One of my favourites for language learning! Easy to do a little bit each day – was amazing when I was learning Spanish (in Honduras) and Portuguese (to talk to a colleague at a Brazilian grill in Austria).

Lingopal (iOS, Android) – free app with paid upgrades for a variety of languages. Perfect for learning some basic phrases as well as some rather random “flirtation” sentences. Personally, I prefer their older “Lingopal Lite” apps than their new Lingopal 44 app.

Memrise – (iOS, Android) – this website was an absolute lifesaver at A-Level when I was learning words for keyword tests! (I should really be using it for my actual German degree now…) Has an incredible amount of languages so it’s handy if you happen to be going somewhere with a less commonly learnt language (Mongolian, Kazakh, Tamang and Faroese, for example).

Transparent Language’s Word of the Day – TL sends you a word a day from a language (or languages) of your choosing. You can receive it by email, on your Facebook feed, on Twitter, or on RSS feed. Grow your vocabulary one word at a time!

Italki – a great community of language learners and teachers! You can use the “notebook” to write posts or notes in your non-native language and have it corrected by native speakers. You can also do language exchanges and join in on discussions.


Do you like to learn some words or phrases before heading to a country? Any experiences that were great because of knowing some phrases? Or any that could have been better if you had spoken a little of the language?

Tell us in the comments!

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  • Reply
    Pam @ Skinny chick travelling
    February 11, 2016 at 2:33 am

    I found Duolingo to be to messy for me 🙁 I might try it again. Found so many new websites so waitin for time and energy to start and see which one is good. I’m struggling to pick up Spanish, which I mostly understand basic convo but need to learn how to speak and don’t know why it’s been so hard 😀 I also need it for Central America

    • Reply
      February 11, 2016 at 2:40 am

      Ah really? I liked it! The app has improved from when I used it before though.

  • Reply
    May 3, 2016 at 1:50 pm

    I like Duolingo. Really liked Live Mocha too, but unfortunately that no longer exists. 🙁

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