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Talk Foreign To Me (a play on words of that song…get it?!) is a brand new interview feature, where every couple of weeks I’ll be asking a whole bunch of language-related questions to other bloggers (and just people who might want to answer some questions). All of this with the aim to highlight the importance of learning another language when travelling.

As a linguist by profession, I’m extremely passionate about learning languages and, more importantly, not being that ignorant British tourist who just shouts louder and louder in English at the waiter in the Greek restaurant who doesn’t understand what I’m saying when I’m asking if they do egg and chips.

There have been too many times in my life where I’ve been baffled by the almost-ignorance of some of my friends who, even when I tell them a million times that thank you in Italian is ‘grazie’ insist on receiving their pizza in Rome with a loud-as-anything THANK YOU MATE.

Um, no.

It’s not hard to learn a phrase or two, right? And, in a way, I think it’s a bit of common courtesy to accommodate the country YOU have chosen to visit.

And we’re not talking complete fluency here. Even the simplest of things like knowing how to say please and thank you in the local language can drastically enhance your experience, wherever you are in the world. One of my party tricks in Kerala, India, was shouting out random phrases in Malayali (it’s hot, do you want to eat, what are you looking at etc.) and they loved it. I made so many stranger friends, it was great!

Anyway, let’s get down to business! The first ever guest kind enough to answer some questions for me is the beautiful Pamela from Travel Like A Chieff….

Let’s start by you telling me a little about yourself! 

I’m Pamela (Chieff)allo from Travel Like A Chieff, a luxury travel and lifestyle blog. My husband and I moved to Dublin, Ireland from Toronto, Canada a couple of years ago and that’s when I started my blog. I left the corporate world and became a full-time housewife after relocating to Dublin, which allowed me to finally pursue my dream of becoming a travel blogger! With four continents, 35 countries and over 180 cities visited – and still counting! – it was time to take my passion and make it my life’s work. You’ll find hotel reviews, itineraries, foodie guides and much more on Travel Like A Chieff!

I am a first-generation Italian-Canadian born and raised in Montreal, Canada where most people’s mother tongue is French but mine is Italian. I started pre-kindergarten as the only non-English or French-speaking child in the whole class where I then learned English. But that wasn’t enough! My parents then decided to get me a tutor over the summer before beginning first grade in a French school. And that is how I learned three languages and I am fluent in all three.

Photo of 5000 year old Passage Tomb famous for the Winter Solstice illumination at sunset
Newgrange, Ireland © Pamela Chieffalo, Travel Like A Chieff

Wow! Fluent in three languages as a child?! That’s incredible. Do you think that speaking more than one language has encouraged or influenced your desire to travel?

I’m not sure it has so much influenced my desire to travel, but it is nice to navigate a country and communicate with locals in their language. People seem to be more receptive and willing to go above and beyond when you speak their language, especially in countries like Italy and France.

It has certainly changed the way I travel in most European or Middle Eastern countries, because being fluent in English, French and Italian require a little less planning. If you get lost, you can simply ask anyone for directions. You can walk into any restaurant and know that you can read the menu and communicate with the staff without any issue. There is definitely less thinking involved when you know the language and you can move more freely.

So do you think it’s important to try and speak the local language while travelling?

I do. It makes it easier for everyone. It also allows you to fully immerse yourself in the culture. People tend to be friendlier when you can communicate with them and it gives you something in common. You are then more likely to start a conversation and find out more about a place.

My husband and I have decided to learn Japanese since we love Japan and most people there do not speak English. Since we plan on travelling there more often we felt it was necessary to at least learn the basics.

Can you give an example of when your language skills have helped you while travelling? Maybe a time when you got something you otherwise wouldn’t if you were limited to just English?

My husband and I were in Paris last year and we usually plan all our dinner reservations weeks, sometimes months in advance. After failing to get a reservation at Le Jules Verne, a Michelin starred restaurant at the top of the Eiffel tower several weeks prior to our trip, my husband decided to give it one last shot on that same evening. We are both Montreal natives and the French seem to find our accent rather amusing. His usual charming ways AND the accent got us a table! Once we arrived it was clear that our table was added at the last minute. We were strategically placed at the end of a section with just enough room for the staff to move freely.

A beautiful view overlooking the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France from a hotel window
Overlooking the Eiffel Tower © Pamela Chieffalo, Travel Like A Chieff

That sounds amazing! On the opposite side of the spectrum, has there ever been a time while travelling where you’ve thought “Damn it, I wish I could speak [insert local language here]”?

Yes! Following our recent trip to Japan, my husband and I have decided to learn Japanese since we love Japan and most people there do not speak English. Things would have been so much easier if we’d been able to communicate with the locals. Most Japanese don’t speak English at all so simple things like taking a taxi or ordering food at a restaurant can be frustrating when you can’t express yourself. Since we plan on travelling there more often, we feel it’s necessary to at least learn the basics!

Other than Japanese, if you had the chance to become fluent in one language overnight, what would it be and why?

I would have to say Arabic as then I’d be able to understand my in-laws when they speak amongst themselves!

Learning Arabic would be amazing! Do you have any tips or tricks on how to easily learn and remember a language?

I am actually not so good at retaining other languages! My brain apparently stopped the retention process after I jammed 3 languages into its repertoire during my childhood. That said, it doesn’t mean I won’t stop trying. We’ll see how it goes with Japanese.

Positano, Italy © Pamela Chieffalo, Travel Like A Chieff

Japanese seems really hard to learn, but I’m sure you’ll get on just fine. 
Finally, what do you think are the most useful phrases everyone should learn before visiting a new country? And how do you say them in the languages you speak? 

Where is the bathroom?
French:  Où sont les toilettes?
Italian: Dove si trova il bagno?

Where is the best shopping area?
Italian: Dov’è il miglior shopping?
French: Où est le meilleur endroit pour le shopping?

Can I order another glass of [insert beverage here] please?
Italian: Posso avere un altro [insert drink here] per favore?
French: Puis-je avoir un autre [insert drink here] s’il vous plaît?

You can find Pamela (and turn green with envy at the places she visits!) over at Travel Like A Chieff as well as her social media channels: Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | LinkedIn


A huge thank you to Pamela for being kind enough to participate, I really enjoyed reading her responses AND as an added bonus I now know how to find the bathroom in France!

Do you speak a foreign language?! Or is English your foreign language? If you’d like to be interviewed for this feature (you really don’t have to be fluent, I’m just interested in your general experience with languages abroad) then please drop a comment below or shoot an email to rhiannon@walestowherever.com and I’ll get back to you with more info!

17 Comments

  1. I’m trying to learn French at the moment (I learnt a bit in school but never kept it up after I left) because we always visit France for a holiday and would love to be able to immerse myself in it a bit more! I’d love to try something a little more exotic its quite overwhelming, being fluent in three languages as a child is INCREDIBLE!! Thanks for sharing xoxo

    shan // http://www.cultureandcouture.co.uk

  2. I’m not a linguist but I love languages and am always so envious of people who are multi-lingual! I think it definitely helps to pick up new languages as a child – they say kids under the age of 7 pick up new languages much more quickly than adults. I know some Spanish, and even though my Spanish is terrible, I agree it still helps to be able to ask for basic directions in the local language, read the menus, etc.

    • rhiydwi Reply

      I’m fluent in Spanish and English, semi-fluent in Italian and I’ve always promised myself that if I ever have kids I’d raise them to speak at least 2 from birth! If only to save them from the homework in their teens.
      Even knowing the most basic of Spanish can open up so many places to you, though!

  3. I’m on my way to becoming tri-lingual, with English, Spanish and now Italian. I have to admit, I wouldn’t say ‘Dov’e si trova il bagno’ as it sounds formal, but maybe that’s just my learning more conversational Italian! So impressed they’re learning Japanese and she wants to pick up Arabic too! Wow, I need to up my game!

    • rhiydwi Reply

      Snap, we match 😉 I’m a first-language English translator of Spanish and Italian! Would you say “dov’è il bagno”? That’s what I was taught to ask non-formally, but what Pamela mentioned would be a more polite, formal way of asking I think. Like, if you were in a restaurant and asked the very old owner where the bathroom was.
      I know, she’s amazing, right?! Off to DuoLingo I go…..

  4. What a wonderful series of posts to write about. Language does play such a big role when travelling and I must agree with you.., it doesn’t heard to learn a few key phrases to help you get by. As mentioned in the post, locals so really appreciate when you can communicate with them or at show that you’re trying. It’s really annoying when you see tourist almost yell in English because they think the local will understand them better. It’s disrespectful I feel. Loving this series!

  5. Ahhh what I would do to be able to speak multiple languages!! We just had our first baby and I am dying to raise him speaking two languages. What a gift to be able to speak the local language when traveling. I try to learn at least the basics for wherever we travel to, but my goal is to learn french.

  6. This makes me so happy because I am a linguist too! Such a good idea to use these interviews to help people understand the importance of learning another language and how key it can be to enhancing your travel experiences 🙂 I find knowing Spanish helps me a lot when I travel, because if I can’t find an English speaker, I can almost always find a Spanish speaker!

  7. This is a great idea! I am very interested to pick-up a few helpful phrases and words I can use in my travels.

    Looking forward to more of your upcoming interviews. Anyway, I also sent you an email.

  8. Wow, I bet it would be very useful to be able to speak three languages fluently. Even knowing some Spanish has helped me even in countries where that is not the language.

  9. I’ve been wanting to learn Spanish since the last 2 years but can’t get myself to join a class.. I would love to speak a foreign language.. It really helps.. Let’s hope that happens someday 🙂

  10. Always interesting reading how some people learned other languages. I’ve met a lot of people while traveling who speak 3+ languages who don’t even find it out of the norm.

  11. You got it all wrong. You not only need to speak really loudly in English but also really slowly. Then, it should be reasonable for the whole world to understand you. I jest. In all seriousness, learning hello, goodbye, and thank you for every country we visit has brought us so much deeper connection to the people we meet. Even if the conversation quickly drifts back to English, everybody appreciates a sincere thank you in their native tongue.

  12. How wonderful to be able to speak 3 languages! I would be thrilled if I were fluent in just two. Such a fun interview to read!

  13. Learning at least a little bit of other languages is so important, especially when you are traveling. My wife and I speak some Spanish and it definitely helps break the ice with locals that barely can speak English. Even if you can’t speak fluently, they do seem to appreciate the effort and between two people barely able to speak, communication is still possible.

  14. I’m italian and I know English and soon I’ll learn French too. Speaking different languages is very helpful while traveling.

  15. Preach, Girl! I see all my own frustrations in your post. It never ceases to amaze me how my American friends refuse to learn even just a few words in the local language before traveling. Just the other day, I suggested it to one that was heading to Spain, and she said “why bother? Everyone speaks English.” OMG, I almost flipped out. I might not be fluent but the hubby and I can at least speak the basics in six languages and are working to become fluent in 4, counting our English.

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