I have always been a firm believer in the idea of learning the language of the country you are visiting. Something as simple as a few words or phrases enhances your experience in the country, and gives you the ability to connect more deeply with the locals you encounter on your travels.
If language learning is not possible before traveling, willingness to learn the language along the way is still very rewarding. You may find the locals to be pleasantly surprised at your attempts to communicate and gladly help you improve your fledgling skills. In my experience, the effort you put forth is greatly appreciated and helps to break down other barriers inhibiting a connection.
My attitude did not change once I decided to study abroad in India, even though all courses are taught in English and many locals know a little as well. However, the task of learning a language for India has a unique set of challenges I have not faced before.
India boasts 22 nationally recognized languages, and there are hundreds if not thousands of local dialects apart from those. Even after deciding on Hindi, as it is the most widely spoken, there are more hurdles to overcome. For one, the sentence structure of Hindi is vastly different than that of English (for example, the verb is placed at the end). In addition, it also has its own script complete with sounds that we don’t use at all in the English language.
I tried my best to pick up a few words and phrases from online language learning resources and by talking to my Indian friends on campus. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to get me started.
After reaching India, I began to try to use some of what little Hindi I knew. Sometimes I was met with surprise, but more often it was pleased amusement at my shaky attempts to communicate.
After all, I could say little more than “My name is Laura Ellen.” “I am from America.” “How are you?” and random words like “only” and “beautiful.” Even with my limited knowledge, I was able to negotiate more effectively in the bazars, connect with locals and even had a very enjoyable ride with a tuktuk driver who taught all of us random Hindi words on our way back to the hotel in Jaipur.
Speaking a foreign language in the country it is spoken in is a much different experience than in a classroom or amongst friends, and can often feel intimidating. I encourage you to push past these barriers and attempt to use the language in spite of your fears of failure.
I am willing to make mistakes and have so far been rewarded with richer, more lively adventures in India. So crack open those phrasebooks and start learning. That spring break trip is still six months away; still plenty of time to pick up a few phrases that will enhance your experience. Believe me, it’ll be worth it.