Should You Try to Speak the Local Language Badly?


Thank you to Aly Walansky and BravoTV for including me in their Jet Set article on Should You Even Try to Speak the Language Abroad… Or Save Everyone the Embarrassment?

My tips are #2, 3 and 4! I have always TRIED to learn the local language. As you can read below from Aly’s article, sometimes it does not go so well in the beginning. When I first tried to speak the local language in China, a man told me, “I do not understand English!” My friend said, “She is not speaking English.” I keep trying and laughing and traveling! 

“For many travelers, there’s something both electrifying and terrifying about venturing to a country whose people speak a different language. And while you might be able to wiggle your way through a few phrases in Spanish (thank you, high school) or squint your way through a French menu (thanks, French college boyfriend), actually having a conversation in a language foreign to you can not only be difficult, but also embarrassing. And that’s to say nothing of the frustration of the other conversation partner.

So we asked around: In terms of etiquette, is it better to adopt the fake-it-’til-you-make-it mentality, or throw up that white flag in submission, admitting it’s going to be a no-go before you crash and burn? Here, some well-traveled experts share their best advice for navigating a language barrier without making a fool of yourself or insulting a friend, waiter, or stranger:”

2.  Be able to laugh it off.

“By making an effort, you’re acknowledging that you respect the customs and culture. That being said, most locals will appreciate the effort and won’t mock you for not appropriately pronouncing and expressing yourself. “When I was in Tansen, Nepal, I requested momo, a local food dish, for dinner in Nepalese. The faces of the people at the restaurant were priceless. I knew something was wrong but was not sure what so I asked again for my chicken momo,” Lisa Niver, a 95-country traveler, shared. “What I asked for was momo with dog and they were concerned that I actually wanted dog momo as opposed to it being my mispronunciation.”

3.  Consider it a lesson in culture.

One of the benefits of at least attempting the language is that locals will relax around you. When they know that you value their heritage and have a desire to understand their culture, it opens up barriers, even if you can’t communicate in a manner as in-depth as you would like. “Learning a language will help you interact more with locals and even if you are not very good at first, it makes for very good stories! Recently I went on a liveaboard dive boat in Cuba. It was me, 10 men from Mexico, and one Israeli paratrooper. I would tell you my Spanish is not so great but I translated the scuba briefing three times a day from Spanish to English. One day I was trying to figure out the word chalon. I said, ‘I think it means window.’ Alon looked at me and said, ‘Lisa, chalon means window in Hebrew but I do not know what it means in Spanish.’ One of my 11 male dive buddies told me, ‘Your Spanish is excellent. Where did you learn to speak so well?’ I said, ‘En la calle (on the street)!’ and we both laughed,” Niver shared. “I stopped worrying that I don’t speak well enough and have learned so much along the way that I now speak very well. When I went over my notes to write about the Cuba trip, I discovered that I wrote them in Spanish! I had no idea at the time but I was speaking and writing in Spanish the entire trip!”

4.   Remember it gets easier the more you do it.

Many romance languages — like Italian, French, and Spanish — have similar roots and may even share some words, making it easier to bounce between them as you travel. Niver says the more often that you study different dialects and phrases, the easier it will come to you, much like with anything else worth the effort.


Should you try to Speak the Local Language?

I was also a travel expert in Aly’s article:


More about my Nepal Adventures: Choosing to Trek in Nepal

As of March 1, 2017, I now have over one million views on my videos. Here is some of the footage from my three months in Nepal. Thank you for all your support! Lisa

VIDEO: Traveling in Nepal


Lisa Ellen Niver

Lisa Niver is an award-winning travel expert who has explored 102 countries on six continents. This University of Pennsylvania graduate sailed across the seas for seven years with Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean, and Renaissance Cruises and spent three years backpacking across Asia. Discover her articles in publications from AARP: The Magazine and AAA Explorer to WIRED and Wharton Magazine, as well as her site WeSaidGoTravel. On her award nominated global podcast, Make Your Own Map, Niver has interviewed Deepak Chopra, Olympic medalists, and numerous bestselling authors, and as a journalist has been invited to both the Oscars and the United Nations. For her print and digital stories as well as her television segments, she has been awarded three Southern California Journalism Awards and two National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Awards and been a finalist twenty-two times. Named a #3 travel influencer for 2023, Niver talks travel on broadcast television at KTLA TV Los Angeles, her YouTube channel with over 2 million views, and in her memoir, Brave-ish, One Breakup, Six Continents and Feeling Fearless After Fifty.

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