Traveling in another country is so much more fun if you can speak the national language - even just a little bit. If you can't speak it, learning the language can become a wonderful part of the journey. Here's a suggestion for your next foreign traveling event: begin your trip by attending a language school in your destination country.
Years ago, my first trip outside the U. S. was to Guatemala. I decided to begin by attending a language school and then tour the country with a friend. I enrolled with a Spanish language institute in the city of Quezaltenango (nicknamed Xela) on a colleague's recommendation. This particular school boarded its students with Guatemalan families, which appealed to me because of the total immersion in the language and culture.
The adventure of traveling abroad was new to me then, and I was happy that the institute had sent an enrollment packet with very clear instructions. They assumed that I spoke no Spanish, (a good assumption in my case, since two semesters of college Spanish hadn't quite made a conversational expert out of me!). Arriving at the Guatemala City airport armed with passport and the school's instructions, I made it through customs and out to the street for a taxi. The driver read my note in Spanish and drove me to one of the three hotels the school had suggested. At the hotel, the desk personnel spoke English, and I was soon settled for the night.
Next morning, I took the bus to Xela, and after the several hours journey, watching the countryside change as we rolled by, I arrived at the school ready to meet my tutor, my host family, and start exploring the city before beginning classes next day. It was exciting to be in another country, all on my own and yet to have people prepared to guide and assist me. It's far superior to using a Fodor Guide, and yet a bit more adventurous than traveling with a tour group.
Each student had a personal Spanish tutor. We met for a sit-down session every day, playing language games to build vocabulary and having conversations for practice. For lunch, all the students and tutors gathered to converse in larger groups. Since we were there from around the world, everyone used the one language in common: Spanish. Some of the students were there only briefly, for a brush up before continuing their journey. The tutoring cycles were one week long.
Students like me who were continuing at the institute for another week or more made weekend plans, with assistance from the school if needed. One time, some of us rented mountain bikes and traveled to a hot springs resort. Another time, we took the bus to a beach on the Pacific and stayed a couple nights. The language school ended up being a sort of frame for exploring Guatemala. One of the best parts of my trip was living with my Guatemalan host family. By sharing meals and being involved with them in other day to day activities, I had a sense of the culture that is not possible to have from staying at a hotel.
At the end of three weeks, I said good-bye to my Guatemalan family and my Spanish tutors, and connected with my friend to travel together to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. I was comfortable enough with the language by now that I could get around, although I really wasn't fluent.
We traveled in Tikal and Antigua and to Atitlan. These are heavily touristed areas, and we would not have had to speak Spanish. The people who worked with tourists generally spoke far better English than I spoke Spanish at the time. But it was more fun to speak the language of the place, and it was the start of becoming fluent. Most of all, my weeks at the school and with the host family were a highlight of my travels in Guatemala, not a precursor nor separate from the journey, and the experience enriched my life, which is what travel is meant to do.
Nicole Minard is a frequent contributor to A-Travel-To Newsletter the best on-line travel information resource. Nicole's archive of articles is found at http://www.atravelto.com/