How to improve independent travel: The one thing that will change travel for you forever
It's humbling, trying to do something you're not good at. Attempting to learn a skill you have no natural aptitude for, it brings you down a peg, it makes you realise you've become too comfortable in your adult life, that you've identified the things you're good and just stuck with them.
But you can't just go on eating nice food and watching sport forever. So I've decided to learn a language.
I'm learning Spanish, again. Long-term readers of this column would understand that I've attempted this before, on several occasions, with limited success.
The most serious attempt involved a four-week stay in Seville, in which I put as much work into my exploration of the city's bars and clubs as I did into learning its language. More, in fact.
I barely learned a thing there, in terms of the Spanish language. I missed most of my Wednesday classes because there was a nightclub that gave away free sangria for an hour on Tuesday nights. I was "sick" the day my teacher introduced the concept of conjugating verbs, and I never recovered (in any way).
I'm starting to remember, however, why I drank so much in Seville. Part of it was a desire to enjoy a city with an amazing nightlife. Another part, however, was to fall back on something I was good at, to get back into my comfort zone, to eat delicious food and roam Seville's narrow streets in the wee hours in my natural habitat.
Because during the day I was struggling. I find learning a new language really difficult, as I'm rediscovering right now in San Sebastian. Maybe that's how it is for everyone. Maybe that's just what learning a language is like. But I find it very hard, and I don't enjoy that feeling.
It's worse than just the struggle to learn a second tongue, too. The problem here is constantly having to field questions like, "Which other languages do you speak?" from Europeans who just assume you'll have at least one or two more up your sleeve.
I have to admit, then, that I speak only English. I have to cop the raised eyebrows of Europeans, and then the dawning of their realisation that I'm a native English speaker and therefore expected to be lazy.
"You don't learn another language in Australia, do you?"
Maybe things have changed. I hope they have. But I have to explain that no, I didn't have to learn another language when I was a kid. I had to take six months of a foreign tongue in grade eight, to see if I liked it, but after that the choice was mine, and growing up in central Queensland, tackling something like a foreign language that seemed like a huge challenge even back then just didn't make sense.
So here I am, a grown man who can speak only one language. And it sucks. Travellers should be able to converse in more than one tongue. Francophiles should be able to speak French. Lovers of Japan should be able to converse in Japanese. And people like me who love Spain and Latin America should be able to hablo espanol.
There's so much you miss out on when you can't speak to local people, when you can't read the local paper, when you can't ask questions about what's happening around you, when you can't have any conversation more involved than "one beer please". There are vast layers to foreign societies that you can't touch when you speak only English.
So I have advice for my fellow travellers, for my fellow Australians, and for my fellow parents in particular: force yourself to learn a language. And, maybe even more importantly, force your kids to learn a language.
I wish I'd attempted this sooner. I wish someone had forced me to drop multi-strand science or drama or whatever else I was doing in grade nine and made me take a language subject at school. Just to have some basic grounding, to form an interest in this skill, to see how languages work, to learn, at least, that verbs need conjugating and that that's a thing I'll have to do some day.
I'm convinced this is one of the greatest skills a traveller can have, and one of the greatest gifts you can pass on to your kids.
The difficulty for Australians, of course, is figuring out which language to learn when you're so young. If I'd followed conventional wisdom in the '90s I would have learned Japanese, because that was the language of our future back then. I'd be more than happy to be able to speak Japanese now – I love Japan, I want to know more about Japan – but Mandarin would certainly be handier.
European languages can feel so removed from our own experience as an Australian kid. When will we ever get the chance to speak German to a native speaker? What use is a knowledge of French?
But part of my recent epiphany is that it doesn't matter that much which language you choose. The important thing is that you choose one. It makes things easier later on. It sets you up for a life of discovery, a life of understanding.
The actual learning part is hard. But it only gets harder.