Saturday, 11 June 2011


More than a few people gawked when I told them I'm going to Nicaragua without knowledge of Spanish. It may be I'm highly ignorant, which is the worst way to travel, and maybe I shouldn't even 'deserve' to go to a country without having learned some of their language, and it's even worse since I studied linguistics. Maybe, maybe not.

I tell people, "I'm going to Nicaragua."
They say, "Do you know any Spanish?"
"Are you going to learn any?"
"Not much before I go. I've got phrasebooks and a dictionary and that's it."
"How long are you going for?"
"Three months."
"Estás muerto."

The problem with learning foreign languages for me is the lack of contact with the living language. All throughout elementary and high school we talked our way through fake conversations with other foreign language learners and a teacher who may or may not be a native speaker of French. I've given up on learning languages unless I'm in the country. I have to disconnect my mind from, "I'm memorizing these words because..." and connect the words and phrases and grammar I'm learning towards something that is communicable and understandable and will get me something, either allow me to convey some information or give me some useful information.

I sort of wish I'd learned more Icelandic while in Iceland, but only sort of. Does that make me sound ignorant? Unless I have a real motivation to do it, and that comes out of need to communicate. Proof of this comes from people who went on Rotary exchanges during high school. Usually they were immersed into situations where no one else knew or would speak English to them and they adamantly must speak the host language. I wish I had that experience. All I've had experience with as a foreign language is my mangled French and my broken Cantonese. I know that I can get by in my world with only English, but if I want to get out of my world I recognize that English alone is not, is never sufficient. But not travelling because you're afraid of language barriers or you're afraid of looking ignorant is worse than not knowing the language.

Anyway, it's true that the more prepared one is, the more smooth of an integration I'll have into another culture. I'm defensive about my choice to purposely lack preparation, but that's for me to worry about and for you to not call me ignorant.

Traveling without knowing the language doesn't have to be a disadvantage: In Defense of Ignorance

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