The secret powers of knowing a foreign language

Chatting with the locals

Chatting with the locals

If knowledge is power, then what value should we place on covert intelligence? It is not only military chiefs who would like to have access to certain furtive conversations. We are all spies at heart, and I defy anyone to say that they have never listened in to a conversation on a bus, at a restaurant or even in their own office. The best eavesdropping is done when the target either cannot see that you’re there at all, or is certain that you can’t hear them.

Listening in is so much more rewarding when you are able to understand a language that others don’t expect you to get. I grew up in Nottingham in a Polish-speaking home, at a time when there were far fewer Poles in the UK and most of them knew one another. As a result we could travel as a family on the bus, and if my mother wanted to say something to us that was only for our ears it was very straightforward. Whether it was about the shifty man who had just boarded or the unpleasant smell that surrounded us as a result of another passenger, we were confident in the knowledge that our talk could not be deciphered.

Nowadays that knowledge of Polish is even more useful, albeit for very different reasons. If we sit in Wagamama (do they really have a Poles-only recruitment policy?) I can enjoy the chatter of the kitchen staff, the frustrations of the waiters and the banter and flirting that goes on between them all. Armed with an Indian wife, I must look like the least likely person to understand Polish and so their guard is down. Similarly in most UK hotels and B&Bs where the staff are invariably Poles, it’s easy to listen to their chit-chat, spoken in the loud voices of those who know that no-one can understand what they are saying.

In Poland too, when I have sat in a cafe and listened to British tourists getting frustrated with the staff and the staff cursing them behind the safety of the language barrier, I’ve observed with passive curiosity while having the fortune to hear both sides of the arguments.

I am very lucky to have been brought up to speak two languages from an early age. It’s so valuable to know even a few words of another language, especially when travelling through that country, even if only for a short trip. And I reckon the more obscure the language, the better. Why bother with Spanish or French when you can learn Quechua or Kyrgyz?

At one extreme of linguistic ability, you will be able to mix fully with the local Albanian/Estonian/Tajik folk and astound all as you regale them with tales of home, while at other times acting the ignorant tourist and hearing many fantastic things said about yourself. At the other extreme, even a few well chosen greetings will be enough to make sure that no-one is comfortable speaking about you in their own tongue, for fear that you know too much.

Related posts:

Romania and learning a language by immersion – beware the perils

French whispers on a Chinese train

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Freelance travel writer

12 Responses to “The secret powers of knowing a foreign language”

  1. Personally, I’d choose a useful language over a obscure one every day, but I guess that’s all about what’s around you. To learn a local language whilst spending time with locals, is something I’d embrace at every opportunity. But generally, the more useful a language is, the bigger the motivation to learn it.

    I do – though – see the value of knowing a language nobody would expect you to know :D

    March 29, 2010 at 4:25 pm
  2. Great article! I remember once that I was the person who was just speaking my native language (Flemish) in a foreign country and wasn`t thinking of the fact that there could be people who understood me :) So, I got frustrated with the lady behind me for cutting in line and she apologized to me…in Flemish! You can imagine how I felt :)
    Love the tip, to just learn a few sentences not only that they think you might understand more, but also as a respect to the country and their locals you`re visiting!!

    March 30, 2010 at 10:59 am
  3. There are two major grammatical structures among all languages and learning the other (i.e. not the one your mother tongue belongs to) I believe makes it much easier to grasp other languages. I think every language is useful to know, they can come in handy when you don’t expect it and it there is no down side to knowing another language :)

    March 30, 2010 at 12:07 pm
  4. I grew up with a French Canadian father yet we were strongly discouraged from speaking French in my household for strange Canadian socio-political reasons. Suffice it to say I’d always believed that I couldn’t speak French.

    Yet I have since found that while I’m certainly not bilingual, I have pretty good French. And my abilities in French surface most often when I’m in Portugal, struggling to find an appropriate Portuguese word or phrase. Out pops French that I didn’t even know I knew!

    This is such a strange phenomenon. At first I thought it was just a little linguistic gas happening. But I travel to Portugal so much that I now know it isn’t any kind of accident. It is almost as if my body knows that when I am in a foreign culture, it is okay to speak a language that I didn’t have much permission to speak in my growing up. Oddly enough, as soon as I get back to Canada my French goes back into hiding and I’m quite tongue-tied when I need to speak it.

    Weird, eh? But it is all part of why I find human beings so endlessly fascinating!

    Thanks for eliciting a good chuckle, Andy.

    Gwen McCauley
    http://algarveexperiences.com
    http://twitter.com/gwenmccauley

    March 30, 2010 at 1:29 pm
  5. Thanks for the great comments. We really can’t go wrong with learning any language. I guess I would also pick the more common language if I had to. But it sure does surprise local people if you can roll out a sentence in a little-used tongue!

    Love the stories Gwen and Isabelle. And certainly with Latin based languages, once you’ve mastered one of them the others all seem to be a lot less daunting.

    March 30, 2010 at 2:42 pm
  6. Great post, Andy. I must say that I am lucky as I know 5 languages. Not all of them perfectly but well enough to communicate with local people in lots of places. Speaking languages is part of what made lots of my journeys memorable: being able to communicate with locals and other travelers enables to understand – and appreciate – a little better a country, its traditions and its people.

    March 30, 2010 at 10:16 pm
  7. Well, I’m from Romania (as I mentioned in another comment). Imagine how many people around the world know Romanian :) It is thus logical for me to start learning foreign languages. That’s not a problem, but a pleasure. Almost anyone learns English. But if one travels a lot in Germany, speaking some German would be a perfect solution. I wrote in a post on my travel blog about the importance of learning at least some basic words in the language of the country one is visiting. For instance in German one must know what “Verbotten” means – in order to avoid some trouble (and fees). And of course the list of examples can continue.

    March 31, 2010 at 9:55 am
  8. Simon, I agree that knowing a little bit of any language does enhance the experience, allowing us access to encounters with people who aren’t connected in any way to the tourist trade.
    And Lori, you’re so right: verboten is a very important word to know :-)

    March 31, 2010 at 2:32 pm
  9. Great post as per Andy. Must admit speaking Spanish, French and German fairly badly (Two of them self taught), however some language skills are a real bonus when no-one else you’re travelling with speaks a language…Know its a bit cheesy but would really recommend a language learning CD. Theyre not expensive but if you can pick up 200 words before you visit a country, you’ll just get so much out of it….Also just noticed this on the BBC site – great idea
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/steps/
    Cheers Stu

    April 1, 2010 at 8:40 am
  10. Thanks for the thoughts and the link Stuart. The BBC courses are a great idea and a brilliant free resource. I had a go at these last year and they are pitched at a level that doesn’t scare the novice but gives you a few useful phrases to take away. Worth taking up.

    April 1, 2010 at 1:13 pm
  11. I learned Chinese at university, and I have to agree that being able to understand what Chinese people are saying without them being aware of it is great fun.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:57 am
  12. Chinese must be a great language to know – few Chinese will expect a westerner to understand. I’m sure you have some great moments with that secret knowledge. Thanks for sharing Mike.

    July 20, 2010 at 9:54 pm