When Kathryn Hagen and her husband, Tom Anderson, travel abroad, their preparations include learning at least some basic words and phrases in the country's language. It's their way of showing respect and enhancing their interactions with locals.
"In China, we could say the greetings: 'good morning,' 'good afternoon,' 'please,' 'thank you,' 'that was delicious,'" she said. "Many times I would forget and say 'good morning' at six in the evening, and that starts a humorous engagement. People will laugh, and you laugh too."
On a trip to Spain last fall, the Edina couple went a step further. Having recently retired from her job with Edina Public Schools, Hagen had set a goal of improving her Spanish. They signed up for a Spanish immersion class in Malaga, a city in southern Spain.
"We started out with very little Spanish and we got to a different level of beginner," she said. "I felt comfortable initiating very small conversations. And once you initiate a conversation, even if you're not perfect, people really respond."
As many travelers have discovered, acquiring even a smattering of a foreign tongue — being able to say "hola" or "bonjour" or "hujambo" to the Spanish, French or Swahili speakers you encounter — can greatly enhance your travel experience.
Oh, you probably won't have time to get fluent. And sure, in many places you can get by OK with English. But even the most rudimentary language skills can make a big difference in your appreciation of the culture, your interactions with the locals and the way you're perceived as a visitor.
"It's more the human warmth aspect, I think, that you get," said Marnie Jochems of the University Language Center in Edina, which offers private language instruction. "If you are willing to use their language, people are much more open to use their English, although it might not be perfect either. If you show that you are willing to make mistakes, I have found that the other person is much more willing to do the same thing."
Depending on how and where you study a language, you may also pick up some understanding of the culture along with it.
"Lots of times what trips people up when traveling is not the language, it's the culture," said Carl-Martin Nelson, director of marketing, community and enrollment at the Moorhead-based Concordia Language Villages, where immersion programs combine instruction in both language and culture.
For example, Americans dining out in France may perceive their waiters as inattentive, but French serving style is meant to be politely unobtrusive.
"Those subtle difference can sort of change the experience," Nelson said. "I've been to China three or four times, but I don't even know when I'm insulting somebody from China."
Kathy Manderscheid of St. Paul started taking Norwegian classes in January 2006 at Mindekirken, the Norwegian Memorial Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, to prepare for a trip later that year to the land where her great-great-grandmother was born.
"I wanted to be more culturally aware, to maybe be able to use the language a little bit," she said. " I had very low expectations: hello, goodbye, please, thank you. [After taking classes] I could do a little bit more than that."
Long story short, Manderscheid and her daughter wound up staying in the home of a Norwegian couple who, though not relatives, shared a genealogical connection to some land her ancestors had farmed. Manderscheid's hosts spoke fluent English, but as they squired her around to sights and events, she found chances to use her Norwegian, as when visiting an older woman who spoke no English.
"People in Norway were generally, I think, touched that you are learning this language," she said, especially considering that, unlike Spanish or German, it's not widely used outside the country.
Afterward, she maintained an all-Norwegian e-mail correspondence with a distant relative. When she returned to Norway in 2012 with her husband, Manderscheid discovered that the relative keeps a photo of Manderscheid's family in her living room.
Manderscheid has become passionate about Norwegian culture, collecting traditional artifacts, joining the Sons of Norway lodge, attending Concordia programs. And she has kept up her lessons.
"I've let go of the expectation of being bilingual unless you're immersed in it and hearing it all the time," she said. But she can now read simple books in Norwegian. In addition to being a treasured connection to her family's past, Manderscheid figures studying a language is good for her. "It's probably good for my brain, I hope. It's really good for my soul and my outlook on life."