We travel with our five senses; we’ve all heard that before. And there’s no denying it: We absorb the smells and flavors of the country’s cuisine, the shouts and bartering in the marketplaces; perhaps the brightest colors we’ve ever laid eyes on. But I’d argue that language becomes a very important sixth sense in travel, one that doesn’t neatly fall into the little box of auditory. Language is more than just hearing words; it’s visual, it’s colorful, it’s layered.
Language and Travel
Whether you are curious about languages in the places you travel, or you despise the challenges a new language can present, the fact of the matter is that language makes up a significant part of any trip. Language is a snapshot into a culture, offering unique insight that you don’t get by visiting museums or touring old churches. And much like we remember a fantastic meal in a place, the feel of walking barefoot on the Sahara sand, or the smell of prehistoric plumbing systems, language also provides us strong memories of travel.
I’ve been to Italy four times, because every beautiful thing in this life can be found in that one little boot. And sure, I vaguely remember the Trevi Fountain, and have a picture with a fake David statue. But frankly? What sticks out most for me from these visits is Italian itself. The musically staccato rhythm of the language. My naïve shock that, in fact, it’s not the same as Spanish. And, of course, the famous Italian gestures.
Mere words are not enough for these people; they need full use of their hands, faces, even elbows to convey true meaning. I’m convinced the reason Italians can eat as much as they do and keep a healthy weight is because they’re gesticulating so much throughout a four-hour meal that they end up burning more calories than they consume. They probably leave lunches hungry again for dinner. It’s like running a marathon with the arms.
(Take note: Sit at least two feet away from your dinner company if you’d like to avoid being accidentally smacked in the face during even such mundane conversations as the weather.)
I studied abroad in Southern Spain, known for its white-washed houses, Flamenco dancing, and unintelligible accent. They say it’s the worst place to learn Spanish, but once you do, you’ll be able to understand the language perfectly anywhere else in the world. (Except I still can’t crack the code with my Venezuelan friends, but hey.) I had such a love-hate relationship with el acento andalú, but in the end it came to represent to me not a series of nouns and verbs, but an unforgettable year in Granada. Twelve months of my life I spent living abroad for the first time, discovering a passion for travel and language and culture, and soaking up la vida andaluza. I’m now surrounded by much clearer Spanish and more often than not, Catalan. But whenever I hear andalú, I’m immediately flooded by memories from my year down south.
The signs and graffiti I saw throughout Marrakech and the desert towns in Morocco were in an indecipherable script that became its own art form. I know nothing of Arabic, and I had no idea what any of the words meant. Therefore, as the graffiti lost its intended message, it took on a new visual element, and became the artistic backdrop to my adventures. The beauty of Morocco is not only found in the shimmering Saharan dunes, but in the writing on the walls. Language isn’t just auditory—it’s art.
Poland was the first place I solo-traveled without knowing a word of the language. The trip was humbling in many ways for me, and one of those was due to the language. Sometimes, as native English speakers, it’s easy to think we’ll be understood anywhere. Sometimes, even, that it’s our right to be understood—it’s the global language, after all, so shouldn’t people be learning it?!?
After missing train and bus transfers and feeling utterly alone after finally arriving in Krakow, I tried to read a map full of impossibly long street names, and asked for help from passersby to no avail. I was lost, and it hit me: Polish is damn hard. Complicated. And different than any language I’ve ever studied.
As an English speaker, it turns out, I’m not linguistically invincible when traveling, and instead of filling me with angst or despair, this realization was slightly freeing. After all, isn’t part of the reason we travel to get away? To see something new? I was still in Europe, sure. But for a brief moment, surrounded by street signs and menus and town names that combined thirty consonants in a row, with letters I’ve never seen before, with sounds my own mouth couldn’t hope to produce and people who couldn’t understand me, it was like I was truly worlds away.
What sense is that? It’s not a typical feeling, at least not in the tactical way. It’s not a pungent smell or a decadent taste. It can’t be pigeonholed into the traditional five categories; it’s more like a sense of self, of realizing one’s limits and one’s potential; a shifting sense of the at-once smallness and vastness of this world. That’s the power of language. It touches on senses we didn’t even have the sense to notice in the first place.
Language isn’t just auditory. It’s visual, it’s physical, it’s emotional. It’s a sense all its own, and if you can look beyond the bad rap it gets as a barrier, language can make for some pretty enriching travel experiences.