If Seth Kugel, the reporter who writes the Frugal Traveler column for the New York Times, were to speak at a high school graduation ceremony, his most important piece of advice would be this: if your plans for adulthood include international travel, learn another language.
In his column, Kugel described how knowing Spanish and Portuguese has made his summer trip across South America much more memorable:
Sure, I could have survived this summer without using Spanish or Portuguese. English speakers are almost everywhere these days, and when they’re not, communicating through gestures and drawings still works (which is why we have charades and Pictionary). But my trip has been made immeasurably more enjoyable, and measurably cheaper, because I’m multilingual….Somewhere down the line, if you can get to even a moderate level of fluency and get yourself overseas, you’ll be allowed into strange and fascinating worlds that you’d otherwise never be able to access.
He’s right, of course. Sure, speaking English means that you can get by as a tourist in almost any part of the world. But knowing the language of the place you are traveling to, even just some of it, is your ticket off the beaten path. Kugel describes some awesome travel experiences that were made possible by being multilingual, such as talking to a Mayan priest in Guatemala and knowing exactly the right obscenities to scream at a greedy cab driver.
On a more practical level, however, knowing how to speak another language can also help prevent travel headaches and disasters. For example, during my honeymoon in Italy, knowing some Italian meant that I could call a cab when we the promised transportation from the train station to our vacation rental didn’t materialize. It also meant that once we got to the little town where we’d rented a villa, we could ask for the owner. There’s no doubt about it-travel is better when you can understand what everyone is saying!