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Learning the local language could change the way you travel the world

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

As a linguist, life-long language learner and travel enthusiast, one of the very first things I do whenever I plan to travel abroad is to learn some of the local language.

A smiling woman clicking on the word English

I know what you’re thinking: Nowadays, you can easily work your way round the world just by speaking English, our lingua franca, so why bother picking up a few local words that you’ll probably only end up mispronouncing anyhow? Well, taking that extra time to familiarise with the local culture could change the way you travel the world. Forever. In this respect, it goes without saying that this clearly involves picking up (or at least making the effort to pick up) a few key words, too.

Some of the words and phrases I learned ahead of my last trip abroad were Jiena jisimni Caterina (My name is Caterina), Jiddispjaċini (I’m sorry) and Grazzi (Thank you) - there was another one, but I’ll wait until the end to reveal it, as it’s a powerful one.

… You guessed it? It’s Maltese!

A children book in Maltese

For those not familiar with the country, Malta has a fascinating linguistic background due to its long, intricate history. Maltese is a Semitic language, part of the Afro-Asiatic family and descended from Siculo-Arabic. However, with the Norman invasion of Malta and re-Christianisation of the island, Maltese evolved independently of Classical Arabic through a gradual process of Latinisation. But that’s not all: In the course of its history, it has also been significantly influenced by Italian, French and English. That explains why Grazzi sounds a lot like “Grazie”, for instance!

Fun fact: Did you know that Maltese is the only official Semitic language of the European Union?

As an Italian native speaker, I unsurprisingly encountered quite a number of difficulties mastering the pronunciation of even the most basic words in Maltese. But however good (or bad, I must admit!) my pronunciation, I was still determined to forge ahead with my self-imposed challenge, and I’m going to explain why.

Several hands holding a globe

As we’re living in an increasingly globalised society, travelling abroad is ever-more accessible to the wider public, whether we like it or not. The number of flights is increasing, and this is inversely proportional to travel fares. In a two-hour flight within Europe, you can literally take off and land in two completely different worlds, such as Italy and Malta. Nonetheless, travelling should not be merely about getting yourself to a different location, as is unfortunately the case for too many of us. The secret is to get as close as possible to the local culture and language, and especially to the local people. Living like a local and with the locals, even if just for a few days, is what we should be seeking to do in a quest for authenticity. Otherwise, your trip abroad will be simply reduced to a series of pretty photos.

The great thing is that you don’t need to be an experienced traveller, nor a polyglot to be able to live an authentic travel experience. The only thing you really need to do is to be willing to travel respectfully.

In fact, there’s a series of important actions each and every one of us can take to travel more responsibly and show respect for the local culture:

Do your research: Research the local customs and culture. Find out about the country you are about to visit, learn as much as you can about its history, religion, traditions and politics.

Pick up some local words: The level of difficulty picking up new words will very much depend on your destination, but there’s nothing stopping you: “thank you”, “you’re welcome”, “hello”, “please” are just some of the key words and phrases you should always know how to say. And remember: Languages always speak volumes about the history of a place - you’ll be amazed when you connect all the dots! Not to mention how different your approach to the locals will be.

Observe the cultural etiquette: Always be mindful that whenever you travel abroad, you’re inviting yourself into another culture. Whether similar to or completely different from your own, showing great respect for the local culture and observing local mannerisms will not only help you engage better with the locals, but will also transform your trip into a completely different experience.

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, there was one other word that I learned during my short time in Malta: “saħħa”. This is not a word that I learned from my phrasebook, nor on Google, rather from a local man who taught it to me after we’d spent an amazing couple of hours enjoying the peaceful seaside and eating pastizzi. As we said goodbye, he wished me “saħħa” and explained that it meant more than just goodbye: “Till we meet again, be in good health and strength.”

I’d never have had the chance to be blessed in this way if I hadn’t been seeking authenticity during my travels.

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