New Survey: Do Americans Learn Foreign Languages Before Traveling Abroad?
Summer 2023 has reached its peak, which means more and more Americans are taking vacations, workations, and expanding their cultural horizons. While for some, exploring a new destination is limited to sightseeing and tasting the local cuisine, others take the chance to learn some words and phrases in a new language.
At Promova, we surveyed 2,000 U.S. citizens aged 16+ to uncover American attitudes towards learning some foreign language basics when traveling abroad.
- Only 29% of Americans usually learn basic phrases in the language of the country they are visiting.
- 33% of Americans believe that English is sufficient for international travel.
- In the summer of 2023, over 54% of Americans are going to learn a foreign language before traveling to the country where it’s spoken.
- 1 in 3 Americans usually feel anxious that locals won’t understand them while traveling abroad. This is most common among the younger generations - 54% among Gen Z versus a surprising 23% for Baby Boomers in the U.S.
- 94% of Americans have used their new language skills while abroad.
- 38% of Americans continue learning the language after their trip.
Where Do Americans Plan on Traveling Abroad in Summer 2023?
The survey revealed that just 1 in 4 Americans plans on traveling abroad this summer. The states containing the most traveling Americans include Rhode Island (50%), Idaho (44.4%) and California (41.5%). The most popular countries to visit are Canada, Mexico, France, Italy, the UK, Australia, and Japan. Syria, Botswana, Cape Verde, and Uzbekistan were the least chosen destinations.
In 2023, over 56% of Americans are going to learn a foreign language before traveling to the country where it is spoken. The most popular languages are Spanish (43%), French (29%), Italian (16%), Japanese (10%), and German (8%).
When it comes to choosing a foreign country for their trip, 70% of Americans are visiting the country where they are proficient in the local language. This choice is age-dependent: younger people (Gen Z) are more likely to visit a country where they can speak the local language (English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese). According to the survey, they are proficient in English, French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese.
Why Do Americans Learn the Local Language Before Their Trip?
1 in 3 Americans usually feel anxious that locals in another country won’t understand them. This feeling is most common among younger people - from 54% among Gen Z to a surprising 23% among Baby Boomers.
Americans most eager to learn a new language before their trip live in Hawaii (75%), Nevada (47%), Massachusetts (44%), Idaho (44%), and Maryland (44%). The survey shows that Nebraska is the state where Americans are least likely to learn a new language for international travel - only 7.1%.
In response to their anxiety about being misunderstood by locals, 44% of American Gen Zers learn some phrases and basic words before their trip. This trend decreases with age: 33% of Millennials, 28% of Gen Xers, and 21% of Baby Boomers learn foreign languages before traveling.
“Many people feel anxious because they think that one mistake in grammar or pronunciation will ruin the understanding between them and natives. But the truth is that natives might not even notice a minor mistake. Moreover, according to our survey, 68% of Americans speaking other languages were perceived positively by locals. At the same time, most of them would be able to get what you are saying despite a strong accent. To help reduce overthinking and anxiety when speaking with the locals in a new language, I recommend practicing your language skills beforehand – prepare some sentences you will need and record yourself saying them. That will help you structure your thoughts and practice grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. When talking to natives, do it in a place you feel comfortable where there isn’t much background noises. And remember, talking to one person at a time is always easier than conversing in a group situation,” says Kate Protsenko, Head of Tutors at Promova, CELTA / Delta Trainer with 15 years experience teaching English.
Why Don't Americans Learn the Language of The Country They’re Visiting?
Almost 33% of Americans think that English is sufficient for international travel, which is why many don’t learn foreign languages before going abroad. 40% of Baby Boomers, compared to a surprising 25% of Millennials and 24% of Gen Zers, believe that English should be enough for communication in other countries.
This sentiment is highest among people living in Iowa (66%) and the lowest in Nebraska (10%).
At the same time, over 26% of surveyed Americans believe that Google Translate can help them overcome the language barrier while abroad. 76% of those people use Google Translate’s audio feature to make communication easier and quicker.
20% of respondents answered that before a trip, they “read a few words, but immediately forget them,” but a few effective learning techniques can help your new language skills stick.
What Foreign Words and Phrases Do Americans Learn Before Traveling?
The majority (81%) of Americans learn at least some greetings and goodbyes in the local language. But Millennials prefer to learn basic questions, like asking for directions or how much something costs (77%).
Many Americans learn words and phrases related to food before the trip. A large proportion of people in every age group jokingly admitted they wouldn’t survive without these terms. Gen Z is the “hungriest” generation - 61% of them usually learn words around ordering food.
38% of Americans continue learning the language after their trip. This is more common among Gen Zers (55%) versus Millennials (36%).
An impressive amount of Americans (94%) have used their new language skills while abroad. Men (92%) are more likely to try out their freshly acquired skills on their trip than women (86%).
71% of respondents note that they said hello and goodbye in the local language. 54% go further and speak the local language in restaurants. And 46% have asked for directions in the local language. Shopping is another popular occasion to try out new language skills: 24% of Gen Z, 32% of Millennials, 34% of Gen X, and 33% of Baby Boomers said they’ve spoken the local language at stores.
How Do Americans Learn a Language Before Traveling Abroad?
Language apps (68%), Google (47%), and YouTube (43%) are the main ways Americans develop new language skills before their trip. 7.5% of respondents overall (and 10% of Millennials) shared that they use ChatGPT.
Men are more likely to use ChatGPT and take lessons with a language tutor than women. On the other hand, women are more likely to turn to TikTok and language apps to learn foreign words and phrases.
How Do Locals React When Americans Speak Their Language?
68% of Americans noted that locals reacted positively when they tried to speak their language. This reaction increases with age: 63% of Gen Zers, 67% of Millennials, 69% of Gen Xers, and 71% of Baby Boomers have received positive reactions from locals when interacting in their language.
Everyone who feels worried about how native speakers perceive non-native speakers can relax, because 89% of our survey respondents said that locals have never shamed them because of their language skills.
Learning some new language skills before traveling abroad is not only good fun, but it can help you immerse yourself much more while on your trip if you’re able to communicate with locals in their native tongue. Locals in other countries love to see when travelers make an effort to pick up at least some of the basics in their language – it makes them feel more respected, appreciated, and heard.
Whether you’re a tourist, digital nomad, or business traveler, you will absolutely benefit from having some words and phrases in your back pocket that you can whip out when conversing with locals. So, the next time you visit a non English-speaking country, set the goal to learn a few greetings, goodbyes, basic questions, and other useful phrases that will help you get around and connect with the local people.
And we have just the thing to help you there! In the Promova app, you can learn up to 10 of the most spoken languages in the world, including English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Korean, Japanese, and more. Your learning experience and courses with Promova are completely personalized based on your level, interests, and goals, and you’ll be guided every step of the way.
So, don’t wait until after you buy your flight to learn a new foreign language – you can start today with Promova.
Methodology: On June 27, 2023, we asked 2,000 Americans about their foreign language habits before traveling abroad, as well as their experience of applying their new skills. 39% of respondents identify as men and 61% identify as women. We asked people from all generations: 37% of respondents are Baby Boomers, 16% are Generation X, 32% are Millennials, and 13% are Generation Z.