Internal Language learning Tips and Advice

How to converse with locals abroad

Ten things to bear in mind when you’re thinking of striking up a conversation

Chatting to locals can be one of the most rewarding and enriching parts of travelling, giving you the chance to learn about a new culture and lifestyle and really get a feel for a different country. It can provide a wonderful mixture of practical advice and cultural insight and an experience you’ll remember for years to come.

Research shows that the majority of us (60%) would like to speak to locals when we travel abroad, but with only a quarter of us managing to do it, how do you strike up and hold a conversation when you’re travelling?

1. Practise at home first

If talking to strangers is out of your comfort zone, practise on home turf first. Get into the habit of chatting to people as you go about your daily routine – you’ll be surprised how open people are to having a chat in a long queue or sharing an observation.

2. Absorb popular culture

The way natives speak naturally is likely to be very different to the more deliberate speed and clarity you may be used to in your language lessons. The internet is a great place to absorb some popular culture – radio stations, TV channels, even podcasts or pop music – from your chosen destination to help your ear get accustomed to the speed and vivacity with which native speakers converse. At the Marlow Language Centre we use popular culture as part of our lessons on a regular basis for this very reason. Don’t be overwhelmed if you don’t understand it all – just become accustomed to it so you don’t panic when your reach your destination.

3. Do your homework

In the midst of planning a trip, taking the time to research and learn about behaviour and etiquette is often overlooked. If you want to chat to locals, you need to do your homework to make sure you won’t cause offence when you get there – make it a priority to do your research before you go.

4. Look and learn

Take the time to acclimatise before you strike up a conversation. Simply take a seat in a café or busy public place and just watch how local people interact with each other. See how they approach one another; how they occupy space; how close they get to each other; how they use body language and hand gestures; how loudly they speak; how fast or slow etc. The things you can learn simply through observation are invaluable.

5. Build your confidence

Feeling daunted? Start small and build confidence in your grasp of the language and accent. Ask simple questions – Where is the nearest café? How much does that cost? Can you tell me how to get to the station? – to reassure yourself that you are able to speak and understand the language well enough to communicate.

6. Be open

Most people are happy to chat to foreign visitors once they understand you’re keen to speak to them. Make sure that your body language and mannerisms are open and friendly. In an unfamiliar environment we can naturally “close off” so stay conscious of how you are behaving in order to invite conversation.

7. Ask questions

Most locals love sharing the best their country has to offer so they are eager to give advice. Ask about local life, the secret beauty spots that are off the beaten path, the local specialities they’d recommend, their favourite places to visit – everyone loves being asked their opinion and native speakers will usually be happy to share their favourite tips if you ask with an attitude of curiosity and respect.

8. Be prepared to share

They’ll probably be interested in you too and may ask questions in return. Without sharing personal information, which may not be safe, be prepared to share a little of your own culture and opinions too.

9. Stay safe

At the same time, make sure you’re doing what you can to stay safe. Keep an eye on your belongings whilst you are distracted with a conversation, and be careful to keep hotel details and your room key well hidden. The vast majority of people who chat to you will be friendly and genuine but, as in any country, some will not.

10. Keep your sense of humour

Chatting with locals won’t always go according to plan and not being able to speak the language will likely lead to frustrations and misunderstandings sometimes. Keep your sense of humour, don’t let it upset you, and remember that the conversation that feels toe-curlingly embarrassing on the spot, will seem hilarious by the time you recount the story when you’re back on home soil!