Heard a Tanzanian say “hakuna matata” since 1994??!!

Hakuna matata – what a wonderful phrase. Hakuna matata…it means no worries for the rest of your days…

Well, not exactly.  Since Disney’s the Lion King turned every tourist-gone-African-sojourner into an ‘hakuna matata’ speaker, if you really want to impress Swahili speakers, say “hakuna shida”.  It translates as “no problem”, and it shows that more of an effort was made, beyond the Lion King, into truly understanding their language.

The beloved Timon and Pumba from Disney's
The beloved Timon and Pumba from Disney’s “The Lion King”


I know some people are more prone to learn languages than others, but simply picking up a few key phrases, like ‘how are you’ and ‘where are you from’ and ‘nice to meet you’ can go a long way in ensuring that you have a much more authentic experience.

In my very first post, I mentioned the close link between language and culture (i.e. there being no word for minutes or seconds in Swahili, indicating the cultural perceptions of “time”)

Today I want to focus on the purpose of language learning for the traveller interested in truly experiencing culture while travelling. 



Attention all English-speakers!  We have a TERRIBLE reputation for assuming that everyone speaks our language. STOPPIT!!!!

If you’re an English speaker who simply starts speaking English when talking to someone from a different country with a different language from English I am talking to you!!!  Simply learning the equivalent of “hello, do you speak English?” will not only show that you’ve made a little effort to learn the local dialect, but it will help you not appear like an ethnocentric traveller that assumes everyone speaks your language.  JUST TRY!  And you’ll appear like you CARE and UNDERSTAND that you are not in an English speaking country.

An extremely interesting map of languages showing the 'families' and connections between each.  It is must easier to learn a language within the same family of another you already know. Thanks environmentandsociety.org for this awesome map!
An extremely interesting map of languages showing the ‘families’ and connections between each. It is must easier to learn a language within the same family of another you already know.
Thanks environmentandsociety.org for this awesome map!

Even when I’m in a country where probably the person speaks English, by opening with “guten morgen” in Germany or “muli bwanji” in Zambia shows that I recognize the beauty and cultural relevance of the language.  And the result is laughter, conversation, and an openness of the local person that I might not otherwise receive so cheerfully.


Experiential travellers are seeking authentic experiences to talk to locals.  Opening up with a greeting or an expression in the person’s language is a sure-fire way to draw their attention and capture them into a conversation with you.  If you know the language, you can actually greet people respectfully in THEIR mother tongue.

Because of the history of colonization and now globalization, English is infiltrating more and more regions at the expense of other languages.  Currently there is a real threat to many local languages (according to UNESCO 2471 languages are presently endangered – visit http://www.unesco.org/languages-atlas/ for more information).

Speaking in another’s language will create a bridge of kindness that will more quickly welcome conversational exchanges between yourself and your host community.  Not to mention how wonderfully funny it will appear as you try to learn more and more of the language (it usually means that your adult-self is talking like a child in your new language and most native speakers LOVE these attempts).


Besides all the cultural relativist, reciprocity explanations for learning the local language, language learning also has a certain level of practicality.  I’m not going to bore you with what you already know – knowing how to ask for the toilet, the police, and order off a menu are all good skills to have while travelling.

My current Italian learning...our trip is now less than 2 weeks away!
My current Italian learning…our trip is now less than 2 weeks away!

But I’m talking about the not-always-thought-of reasons.  I have been able to get myself out of very uncomfortable situations as a lone female traveller because I knew words for “trouble”, “fire”, and, most especially, words that indicated a man was potentially going to start harassing me.  It’s helped me avoid certain situations, including taxi drivers, not because I understood the conversation in full, but I knew enough words to piece together that danger was lurking.

When I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, I was known on the mountain as “Mama Africa”.  While all other climbers mainly talked to fellow climbers, I was able to have the most interesting conversations with the expedition workers because I gained their trust and respect through our Swahili exchanges.  This was amazing during the entire climb, but proved especially important when I had altitude sickness and sadly had to miss the peak.  While I was descending in a nauseated daze, I heard so many porters called out,

“Mama Afrika, wewe ni sawa?!?!?!”  “Mama Africa, are you okay?”

These men would have helped me anyways, but the immense help I was given I know was in part because I had already earned their respect throughout the climb.

Learn the language!  Maybe just a greeting or two…but learn something! It will go a long way to enriching your overall travel experience…

Vous avez ma parole!


A few places to learn languages effectively and cheaply:

Try these apps: Duolinguo, Babelfish, Eton Institute, Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur Method, Livemocha.

I’ve tried the first 4 and enjoyed; the last 2 I haven’t, but have heard great things.  Please add other sites/apps you’ve tried in the comments section!


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