ticketsMost of the time, we associate learning a language with travelling to another country. Language courses themselves emphasize the travel aspect by teaching us the words and phrases we will need to ask directions, buy tickets, and pay for goods.

Part of the reason for the slanted courses is that once, commercial language learning programs (as opposed to students learning them in schools) were for businessmen who had to pick up another language to expand their companies influence abroad. If you have looked at old courses, you will note that the basic readings revolve around people attending meetings with strangers. Even today, the primary areas in a phrasebook are going to be related to airports, hotels, sightseeing, and restaurants.

But do we <i>have</i> to link the learning with travelling? Surely, if we are learning a language, we plan to use it to communicate with native speakers, probably in their country. If I am studying Italian, I am not going to find anyone in my area to talk to with it.

I started learning Italian before I visited an Italian friend I had made when he was an exchange student at my High School. I travelled alone to Italy during my senior year, then the two of us spent the next week touring the Italian hotspots of Rome, Florence, Siena, Pisa, and Venice.

With me were two small books: an Italian course book and an Italian phrasebook. I learned what I could from them and got corrected by my friend when they weren’t quite up to the task of common street Italian. I even tried to use some of my Latin from classes to understand things, until my friend informed me that Italian and Latin weren’t really that close.

If it hadn’t been for that trip, I probably would never have really given Italian a second glance as something to learn. Instead, it is now a language I love.

At the same time, we now have the capability to talk to people from all over the world in real time on the internet. A person can select a language they like, then become fluent in it through books, using websites and talking to people online, all without leaving their city. This is especially important for those who have little or no money to spend on travel.

But is learning the language of another country without visiting that country as fulfilling?  Is the speaker losing something for not having spoken to natives of the language in their own surroundings? Does French still have that certain “Je ne sais quoi”?

What do you think? Should we continue to link travel with language learning, or is that notion outdated?

  • Sure Erik, learning “travel language” per se may no longer be necessary if you can be motivated to learn a foreign language without the goal of ever visiting the country where the language is spoken. Learning with websites and talking to people online has its own delights: regular engagement with a language keeps your brain buzzing; also, through technology, you can create a wonderful network of language-exchange friends. But maybe the concept of “travel language is not as restrictive as it seems. Much of the “travel vocabulary” that is taught includes greetings, introductions, food, phrases for small talk, and plenty of everyday language, which Skype or online conversations use as well. And while I don’t think that linking travel language with language learning is outdated, a lot of online courses offer other topics as well. But, in response to your last point: There’s nothing like visiting the country whose language you’re learning. And when you can, you’re very lucky!