If I could choose a superpower to have whilst traveling, it would be the ability to speak fluently the major language(s) of the area that I’m visiting, and to have a solid grip on all the various cultural practices of its people. I’m skilled with languages as it is, but absorbing them takes time that I don’t have to spare.
Here in Tanzania, as I speak through interpreters, I really can tell that I’m missing something. I wouldn’t know what to name it if I could so for now I will refer to it as “small talk”. Yes, small talk. It’s what happens when you stop by and visit a family cooking dinner outside their home. You can sit down and shoot the breeze for a while. Ask about the weather, make funny jokes, etc. Then, when you’ve become something more than passing acquaintances, you can ask important questions; in my case, about malaria.
I know that there are important stories and observations, anecdotes and humor that come from conversations that have been built on small talk. You don’t get that with a translator. When we travel as a large group of Westerners, it’s hard to have a conversation that doesn’t appear transactional; indeed, many of them end in our interviewees asking us for “support” in one form or another. If we were able to first establish a friendly atmosphere by employing the local language, that relationship would turn our question/answer sessions into…actual conversations.