Since leaving the UK in 2011, Chris and I have been lucky enough to live in some of the most beautiful corners of the world. Whenever we find ourselves in a new location we try, to varying degrees, to learn at least some of the local language. We have tried to learn Spanish in South America, Khmer in Cambodia and now Twi in Ghana. By learning a foreign language, if nothing else, you can at least greet a taxi driver in their native language which sends an immediate signal that you probably have some idea of the going rate!

learning a foreign language

Obviously we all grow up learning our mother tongue and so to each of us, the rules and idiosyncrasies of our native language make perfect sense. Sometimes therefore it is only when you really think about your native language that you realise how funny it can be. For example Chris, who has been failing to learn German for an impressive 13 years now, has made me realise that a number of everyday German words are quite amusing if you translate them literally. For example Handschuhe in English means gloves, but literally translates as hand-shoes, with a Kuehlschrank (cold-cupboard) obviously being a fridge. I won’t though upset you with the translation of Durchfall, literally ‘through-fall’, in case you are eating.

On a less disgusting note, in England I could never help but smile when train commuters heading to Loughborough, generally pronounced ‘luffb’ra’, would tell ticket inspectors they were going to ‘Looggie-Booggie’, which actually makes more sense to me.

learning languages bolivia

Our teachers and fellow students at our Spanish school in Bolivia

However of all the languages we’ve failed to learn, the local Ghanaian dialect of Twi is rapidly becoming our favourite. For example when you say ‘thank you’ to someone (me daase) you are actually saying ‘I lay down at your feet’. Or when you wish people a happy new year (mema wo afenhyia pa), you are technically saying ‘I wish you a good meeting of the year’ to which the fantastic response of afe nko mmeto yen bio means ‘may the year go full circle once more and come to find us again’. Which somewhat trumps ‘you too’, don’t you think?

Although of all the fantastic words in Twi, I think the traditional word for Christmas is my favourite with buronya being a merger of oburoni and nya which would roughly translate as ‘white man has something to celebrate’, a translation which doesn’t take much imagination to work out the history behind!

So with that in mind it’s off to meet our Twi teacher (aka the barman at our local pub) to learn a few more words in this fascinating local dialect, but not before recalling my favourite language mistake of all time – when Chris tried to begin a story in Spanish with cuando era mas joven (when I was younger) but instead went with cuando era mas huevo, which would roughly translate as ‘when I was more of an egg’. Even his long-suffering but always supportive Spanish teacher in Bolivia couldn’t hold back the laughter at that one.

So tell me fellow globetrotters, what is your favourite language or literal translation that you have come across on your travels, and have you ever told anyone that you used to be eggier!?

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About Tammyonthemove

Tammy & Chris are a couple hailing from Germany and England, meaning between them they are efficient and polite, but unable to talk about football. Find out why they stopped pushing pens around the British civil service to travel the world on their blog.

34 Thoughts on “The Beauty of Learning a Foreign Language when Travelling

  1. So much fun! I’ve even found that moving from the US to the UK has resulted in a ton of language differences. The turns of phrase and little sayings are so funny and I’m always wondering how we speak the same language but … sometimes… don’t!
    Julie recently posted…The Great American Road Trip: ColoradoMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on June 17, 2015 at 2:37 pm said:

      That’s exactly what my British husband always says, having worked for American organis(z)ations for the last three years. For example he was once out with a new colleague who told him she liked the fact it was warm that evening because it meant she didn’t have to wear pants. Imagine his horror/surprise/delight 🙂

  2. I just wrote a post about how I failed miserably to learn Bahasa Indonesia during my year in Jakarta. Languages are very tough for me…but admittedly I didn’t try all that hard here. But you’re so right that learning the basics can go a long way, especially when it comes to not getting ripped off by cab drivers! I’ll be living in Phnom Penh for the next two years and I’m really nervous about the language. I have grand plans of really attempting to learn Khmer but it seems so complicated. Hopefully I’ll be able to make some progress!
    Justine recently posted…A Girl’s Survival Guide to Traveling to JakartaMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on June 18, 2015 at 6:02 am said:

      I hear you. I think languages that are very different from your mother tongue are always more difficult to learn then let’s say Spanish or French. I lost count of the amount of times I tried ordering an ice coffee with milk in Cambodia and the vendor just stared at me. I usually had to point to the ingredients I wanted and whenever they repeated back to me what the expression was, I said the exact same thing in the first place. 🙂 Tuk tuk drivers strangely always understood my instructions and they found it really funny. They never overcharged me because I spoke Khmer with them. A friend of mine has a good Khmer teacher in Phnom Penh and I can ask her for his details if you like.

  3. Its so nice to read a travel blog which supports language learning. I am constantly amazed and rather disappointed by the number of travelers who make no effort whatsoever to even learn a few basics. Even a few words can open up possibilities of a connection with someone and people experiences are always the most rewarding in the long run. Its worth mentioning the memrise app as it has quick courses for all kinds of languages and is great for the basics.
    Graham recently posted…How to waste $56 million in BangladeshMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on June 21, 2015 at 8:59 am said:

      I agree, learning a few basic expressions doesn’t take much effort and can go a long way. Thanks for the tip about the app. I will check it out.

  4. Ha ha, Loogie-Boogie, I love it! But you’re right, it does make more sense! Trying to learn a language by immersion is a great way to get to know a place more intimately, though you have to be brave and just go for it, and not worry about making fools of yourselves.
    Heather Cole recently posted…Snakes, boars and lions – hiking the Ameln ValleyMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on June 23, 2015 at 7:30 am said:

      I was laughing so hard when I heard Loogie-Boogie for the first time. I agree, I am often a bit shy when it comes to speaking in a foreign language, but having learned so many languages now, I know that the only way to learn it is to speak it.

  5. Anna on June 22, 2015 at 5:33 pm said:

    Love learning new languages when abroad 🙂 Too bad you can’t always practice them all when you leave the country!

    • Tammyonthemove on June 23, 2015 at 7:32 am said:

      Yes true, although having said that, there are often language meet-ups in big cities where people can practice certain languages with native speakers. I also watch films with subtitles in a different language and read foreign language books. Otherwise I’d just forget everything I learned immediately.

  6. Languages are such a challenge for me. I try to learn a few words before I arrive and always end up messing it up. Thankfully my smile must win most people over because I’ve never gotten into trouble….yet. Thanks for sharing your story.
    Sue Reddel recently posted…Low Carb Gluten Free Southern Fried Chicken and Cheesy Cauliflower GritsMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on June 23, 2015 at 7:33 am said:

      I know how you feel. You just have to stick with it though. The more you mess it up, the more the correct way of saying things will stick in your head afterwards.

  7. Immersing yourself in a place and not worrying about making a complete fool of yourself are pretty much the key to learning a language for me. I can only really speak French but always try to learn at least a few words to say please and thank you and people tend to be happy you’re making an effort, even if my pronunciation is usually awful!
    Lucy recently posted…Travel and anxiety: Fighting the fearMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on June 23, 2015 at 7:36 am said:

      I think people really appreciate it if you can at least say a few words. When I have to speak really complicated languages such as Khmer or Twi, people don’t tend to understand me at first either because my pronunciation is so terrible. But by repeating it a few times, they usually get it and then teach me the correct way of pronouncing it. It is a fun way to interact with locals you otherwise wouldn’t interact with.

  8. I love learning new languages, especially when we are travelling to a new country, I took a course in Italian before we went to Italy and had so much fun practicing with locals! Right now in New Zealand picking up several Maori words and phrases, loving it 🙂
    samiya selim recently posted…10 lessons learnt from 10 years of life and travels with ShahaarMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on June 25, 2015 at 3:57 am said:

      I am the same. It is such a nice way interacting with locals. Often tourists don’t interact with locals if they don’t speak the language, and so they never get to experience what locals are like.

  9. Ah, you’re my kind of person! I find foreign languages fascinating as well, and love learning how in related languages some words might mean completely different things. (For instance Czech ‘divka’ which means ‘girl’ means something completely different in Polish.) The English expression that I found most puzzling when I was learning this language was “Hit the road.” I imagined someone sitting cross-legged in the middle of a deserted road in Utah, hitting the asphalt with his fist. 🙂
    Jolanta | Casual Traveler recently posted…Nerding Out with My Son over Corning Gorilla GlassMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on June 25, 2015 at 3:56 am said:

      Ha ha, I never thought about the actual meaning of hitting the road. You are right, it does sound very weird when you think about it actually. But I am sure there is a reason why it is said like this. There always usually is.

  10. Such a great post, Tammy, and one you know I whole-heartedly agree with. Learning the local language, even if you cannot speak it fluently, is just such a great way to learn more about a country and the people who live there. We have always found that even if we only know a few phrases that people are always really appreciative of that, but now that we’re really trying to learn Spanish so that we can have real conversations I think it will be hard to go back to traveling where we can’t ask people how they are doing or where we can find something in their own language. Even when we make mistakes or say something wrong, it feels really good to know that we are making an effort and that we can make ourselves understood. We have had hour-long conversations with strangers and neighbors here in Mexico entirely in Spanish… although we met a lot of nice people on our travels in Asia, we rarely had such in depth conversations with locals.

    As for hilarious “lost in translation” moments, one night at a bakery here in Mexico, I wanted to ask if a pastry was salty or sweet. So I said, “¿Es salida?” The woman gave me such a confused/puzzled look… when I rephrased it as “¿Es dulce?” she finally figured out what I meant, but it wasn’t until left that I realized I had asked her if the cookie was an exit; the word I wanted was salAda, not salida… oh what a difference one letter makes!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted…Channeling our Inner Sexagenarians at Ajijic & Lake ChapalaMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on June 29, 2015 at 7:46 am said:

      Ha ha, your pastry story made me smile. I am sure even though the lady was confused, she appreciated you talking Spanish. When I first went to South America in 2005 I could hardly speak Spanish, so I couldn’t really talk to anybody outside of people who worked in the tourism industry. When we moved to Peru last year we had three months of intense Spanish classes behind us and although we couldn’t really express ourselves very well, we at least understood what people were saying. It is so nice to have more in-depth conversations, like you said. You can learn so much more about a country by talking to locals than reading about a country in Lonely Planet.

  11. We would definitely love to learn another language. 🙂 In fact, even in our domestic travel, we always make it a point to learn basic pleases, thank you’s, etc. in the local dialect.

    • Tammyonthemove on July 8, 2015 at 3:38 am said:

      I agree. I don’t think locals expect tourists to be able to converse with them fluently in their local language, but at the same time I think they really appreciate it if you at least some basics.

  12. Always found lenguage fascinating,. and the best way to learn it its right at your host dinner table.
    Great post you guys. Cheers!.
    German

    German recently posted…Keep calm and learn Spanish.My Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on August 9, 2015 at 6:37 am said:

      Hi German, I agree. It can be confusing when you first start learning, as people tend to talk very fast, but living with a family and having lots of local friends is the best way to learn.

  13. Hi there Tammy, is really a great feeling knowing lots of languages. Although it may take a while to master lots of things, at least knowing 10 words and how to express yourself is good. Sometimes you can even visit a region that don’t speak English and you may be forced to say hi, or say something at least. The good thing that I love is that the people are always ready to teach you their language. Thanks for he share.

    Cindy

    • Tammyonthemove on January 28, 2016 at 2:18 am said:

      Yes, that’s really true. Wherever I went, people were always happy to teach me expressions (and then breaking out in fits of laughter when my pronunciation was terrible 🙂 ).

  14. Good for you! Learning a new language is not easy but it develops the mind and opens your outlook.

  15. Hey!

    Its am nice share/..

    Yes, I agree to your words …It is going to take some time to be fluent in another language and the method that you decide on should be one that you are completely happy with and one that you are not going to get fed up with after the first few lessons.

    Another good way of learning a language is to attend classes at your local college. Using this method you will be learning alongside other people in the same position as you.

    Thank you so much for your share keep doing good work..
    God Bless U!!

    • Tammyonthemove on June 21, 2016 at 1:24 pm said:

      Thanks Helen! Yes I agree, going to your local college before learning a language in another country would provide you with a good groundwork of grammer and initial phrases.

  16. I love learning new languages when I travel (or trying at least!) – I feel like it shows respect to the locals (I don’t expect them all to speak English just because I do), it opens doors to getting to know people better, and, yes, it makes for some good stories 🙂

    I think that so far Georgian has been my favorite language to learn – new alphabet and new sounds, so pretty difficult, but NO ONE in Georgia expects a foreigner to speak Georgian and so a few basic phrases go a long way to endearing you to people. Most travelers there either communicate in English, or they speak Russian (which, can be a bit off-putting to some, especially younger folks, as they don’t want to be associated with Russia anymore due to the history/ongoing conflict). Plus it’s a crazy old language with influences from Farsi, Arabic, Russian, Turkish – it’s so cool.

    As a returned Peace Corps volunteer I am a bit biased, but I think that the Peace Corps has some great free language learning resources on the internet – they even had audio lessons for Georgian so I could hear how to wrap my tongue around 5 consonants in a row!
    Mary Berghaus recently posted…A Different Kind of TravelMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on June 28, 2016 at 7:53 pm said:

      Learning languages with a different alphabet is certainly fun, but I also find it harder. I learned some basic Khmer when I lived in Cambodia, but couldn’t get used to the script. Are the Peace Corps learning resources also available to non PC volunteers?

  17. learning a new language while traveling, helps in cultural exchange. it is always nice to talk with locals in their language. they love when foreigners talk in their language.
    tanveer @kashmir_ladakh recently posted…Don’t be a gamma in the land of lamaMy Profile

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