Why it is so important to know the local language

Nairobi is a segregated city. There are areas where mostly working class people live, there are those for the middle class and then those for the rich – and all the nuances in between. I recently went to a place with big malls, co-working spaces, Italian restaurants and well-tarmacked roads. There were more white people there than in the estate where I live. I alighted from my bus and started looking for the place I had a meeting in.

With my non-existent sense of orientation I got lost immediately and I had to ask around.

My Kiswahili skills are colloquial, so I can do small talk, but I don’t understand everything from the news. I am so used to speaking it that I hardly recognise when I am actually doing it.

But as I did ask the people for directions in Kiswahili, something interesting happened:

Four of the seven people I might have talked to in that area, their face lit up and immediately they smiled. They listened to my question, answered, and then added that I speak Kiswahili well and that it surprises them.

There was a bond, an exchanged smile, and friendly words.

Something that I would not have received if I hadn’t spoken their language. If I hadn’t started the conversation in their language.

That is why it is so important to learn the local language that is spoken in the country you are travelling to.

Not only the national language, which is English in my case and spoken by expats and most other foreigners. They don’t get the smile. I got the smiles and compliments because I spoke Kiswahili with the people there.

It opens doors and faces and hearts, and enriches your experience with a feeling of deeper connection.


What is the local language in your destination country? And how do you say Hello, Thank you and Good Bye in it?


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