The Top Reasons to Take Your Gap Year in a Foreign Language

Olivia Christine Perez

Traversing the globe as a writer and marketing consultant, Olivia writes for Go Overseas about topics including gap years and general travel advice.

McKenna J., AIFS Barcelona
Photo by: McKenna J., AIFS Barcelona

When building your bucket list of places to visit during your gap year, do you only pinpoint English-speaking countries as your dream destinations?

I mean, why visit a place where you would have no one to talk to and can’t even read menus and signs… right?

Wrong! If you only plan to visit destinations that share the same language as your native tongue, then you might be making a huge mistake. Traveling overseas to places that don’t speak your language can be beneficial both personally and professionally.

Here is a list of perks that prove why you definitely need to visit countries where you can’t speak the language.

You’ll Master The Art of Non-Verbal Communication

How often do you take advantage of the ease that comes with monolingual communication? When your daily routine never challenges you to think outside of the box, do your language skills and creativity falter?

When you travel to locales that don’t share the same language, let alone colloquial dialect, you’ll find your creativity will start to take the lead in communication. Besides hand gestures and lots of pointing and grunting, you may notice the very nature of your “statements” become clearer and more concise. In fact, your problem-solving skills might even become the star of the show.

You'll learn how to get your point across without complex semantics, fluff, and jargon. You'll learn to use the written language (hello, Google Translate) and physical expressions to connect with people in ways you may not have otherwise attempted.

This is a skill that can benefit you in the professional world, too. From presentations, client briefs, and interviews to upper management communication and that daunting request for a raise, learning the art of non-verbal communication helps you better understand body language and read emotional cues.

You’ll Learn To Be Silent

Ashley M., Trek to Teach
Photo by: Ashley M., Trek to Teach

Reflection is a beautiful thing -- and one we probably all need a little bit more of in our lives. In a society that is conditioned to already have an answer when “listening” to a question or statement, the art of silence is quite foreign to the majority of us.

We often equate silence to passiveness and weakness; pauses to hesitation fueled by fear; and an absence of response to an argumentative defeat. But is that the true definition of silence? Can silence in fact help us grow deeper relationships? Can it help us travel with ease?

When you can't use language the way you best know how, you might find you get into less disagreements, make less (verbal) assumptions, and say less hurtful things. Your words suddenly cease from immediately lunging at an opponent without consideration and the lost art of “thinking before you speak” will suddenly make an appearance.

The perks of being silent:

  • You pay attention before making decisions.
  • You think before speaking.
  • You learn to listen more often.

We hope you'll agree that all of these are skills we should practice more. Taking a gap year in a country where you don't speak the language will be a great opportunity to practice!

You’re More Likely To Try New Things

When was the last time you tried something new and loved it (like food, for instance) only to be totally grossed out when you found out what it was?

Sometimes knowing a language in a foreign country can hinder our ability to be more open-minded. It makes us forget that speaking the same language doesn’t necessarily mean we have to share the same tastes, cultures, and traditions.

When you visit an unfamiliar place, on the other hand, your curiosity is heightened. That fear and judgment that usually cripples you without question is suppressed by the desire to fit in “like a local”. Head to a country despite not speaking the language and you’ll find preconceived notions of that location may gradually disappear.

Dance to the universal language of music, smell generations of traditional recipes seep beyond restaurant doors and dine to your heart’s content, or explore the lines, curves, and colors of local architecture and landscapes. Whichever you choose, you’ll notice your senses heighten when you are pushed to enjoy life without words.

You’ll Have The Opportunity To Become Multilingual

Linus C., IVHQ
Photo by: Linus C., IVHQ

I am stating the obvious here but what better way to learn a new language than visit a country where you don’t speak the language!? Research shows the best way to become multilingual is to fully immerse yourself within that culture without "cheating."

Lingual "cheating" is resorting to your native tongue when you can’t find the right words to express yourself. While it may soothe frustration, it doesn’t help your growth. The more you avoid the easy, comfortable route when communicating in a foreign country, the more you’ll learn.

Instead, forget your comfort zone and venture to areas that challenge you to learn how to carry on everyday routines and conversation. Start communicating with physical gestures and move on to direct translations. Carry a calculator, pen and paper, or even a language app on your cellphone. Eventually you'll begin to match words to these actions.

Tips for learning a new language during your daily routine:

  • When shopping and inquiring about prices point to both the object and your wallet and motion toward the register. This will indicate your desire to purchase the item. When the employee yells a number you don’t understand, bring out your calculator for numerical translation.
  • Practice dining, shopping, and using public transit in the local language.
  • Learn the lyrics of popular songs and find out what they mean.
  • Study local phrases and substitute textbook greetings with laid-back chat only a resident would know (granting you total cool points, obviously).

Learn more tips to overcome common language learning hurdles. Taking your gap year in a country that speaks a foreign language is the perfect opportunity to finally move past these obstacles and tick 'learn another language' off your list.

You’ll Become More Sensitive To People With Disabilities

What may be even more difficult than vacationing in a country where you can’t speak or understand the local language is living a life where you can’t speak or hear at all. People who have all five senses often forget the daily struggle those with disabilities endure (like people who are speech or hearing-impaired, for example).

When you visit a new country and cannot understand what a tour guide tells the group, you probably wish there was a second guide translating the information in your language. News flash: so does someone who cannot hear. Wouldn’t it be nice if all tours had a sign language translator, too?

Consider your experience not speaking the local language of a country (and the struggles that come with it) and you'll have just a small taste of what someone with a disability might feel. Your experience abroad can help you embrace a newfound empathy and admiration for those who live their everyday lives adapting to a world that hardly considers their needs. We should all aim to increase our level of empathy through travel, and this is a great way to do so.

If you feel nervous about visiting a destination where you don’t speak the language, remember you can always take language classes while traveling. This can help you learn the local language even faster and will look great on your resume.