Studying a Foreign Language: the Best Overlooked Adventure Tool

Next time you go abroad, consider investing in some language alongside your gear.

By: Kyle Obermann
December 1, 2016

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In middle school I fell flat on my face trying to study Spanish. But, when I finally realized the value of opening the books and sitting down to grapple with learning a foreign language it changed my life - and especially my adventure career. Here's why you should include learning a foreign language in your adventure tool kit:

1. Document Places No One Else Has

Speaking the local language can bring you to places that none of your friends, or anyone else, has documented. Foreign countries, especially those less developed, are overflowing with unexplored and unphotographed mountains and valleys that are accessible to those with good navigation and route finding skills. But, unless you have the money for a translator and guide they're hardly accessible. If you speak the local dialect you can hire a local driver and navigate to that remote village or valley mouth; you can ask the local herder along the way if the path you want is the one that follows that river or heads up towards the ridge. And, after all that work cutting out the middle man, you can stand in front of an amazing sunset and sigh with contentment – knowing that you may possibly be the first person to watch the sun go down here from your county.

Hike the Jade Dragon Dragon Glacial Trough
Hike the Jade Dragon Glacial Trough

2. Ditch the Guide Book

Google Earth is better. If you want to truly get off the beaten path, spend the time and research to look for destinations not mentioned in the guide book. Destinations in popular guides are mentioned and weighed not just because their beauty but also by their accessibility – and that means sometimes the best in the book is actually not the best out there. Take the chance to do some planning on your own and use the different angles and views on Google Earth and Google Maps to check out valleys, villages, lakes, monasteries – whatever – and then leverage your language to get there.

3. Local Knowledge, Local Routes

When you speak the local language, the amount of available routes and information expands exponentially. For more remote countries, using English to look for routes crunches your options down to a fraction of what actually is out there. In remote areas of China, for example, you can hardly find a route map worth looking at if you don't know how to search the web in Chinese. The same goes true for just finding unique trip options. Using your language skills – even if its just knowing how to type the word “topo map” into Google – changes the game when it comes to finding and preparing for adventures that other people just can't access.

Hike the Zhuqing Monastery Emerald Lakes
Hike the Zhuqing Monastery Emerald Lakes

4. Safety (For Your Wallet and Yourself)

As you get farther from the cities, locals are less likely to try to rip you off if you speak the local language competently. That's not saying they sometimes still won't try, but at least you stand a fighting chance. Even more so, when you're out in the mountains it's a great measure of safety to know that if something goes wrong you can communicate with the next human you see. Plus, sign language doesn't work so well on an emergency phone call. Bottom line: going into remote places in foreign countries is flat out dangerous if you don't speak the language. Equip yourself with at least some key phrases before you go.

5. Just More Fun

At the end of the day, probably few of us (including myself) will be complete masters of a language other than our mother tongue. But it's sure more fun trying to work out broken phrases in a local dialect than waving your hands around trying to figure out if you should go left of right. Locals tend to appreciate it more too. When you stop repeating the same English phrase with different exasperated annunciations and increasing volume, and instead go for any scratch of local language you know locals are often much more willing to help. Fellow Explorers Kevin Abernethy and Grant Nyquist have both experienced this – whether it's trying to adapt and use Spanish in Italy or just lightening the mood with those you encounter. Being able to communicate – on any level – is just more fun.

Capture the Sunset from Mt. Laozhai
Capture the Sunset from Mt. Laozhai

So, next time you go abroad, considering investing in some language alongside your gear. It changed my life and can change yours too.

Other fellow Explorers with international adventures that you should check out:

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.