Preferably somewhere that is vastly different from your own experience and makes you feel out-of-place and uncomfortable. First, anyone should do this so you can understand how much you assume about how the world works. Second, if you’re a writer, doing so gives you great material.
I just finished reading through a friend’s manuscript. They spent some time in Africa and it has elements of African witchcraft in the book and I honestly think part of the reason those parts came across so well (to me, a random American who has not spent any time around African witchcraft) is because this person lived in Africa for two years and probably saw at least one chicken sacrifice while there.
You don’t have to go to that extreme. I was thinking about this because I landed in Prague today and I don’t speak Czech. (I can now say, “I do not speak Czech,” “I do not understand Czech,” “I’m sorry,” and “Do you speak English?” which are handy, but by no means allow you to have a conversation with a Czech driver for thirty minutes.)
It’s been a while since I’ve been in a country where I can’t communicate fluidly. Sure, some English speakers might struggle with my accent (or I with theirs – Irish always throws me for a loop and don’t get me started on what I thought a diving exit was when a Kiwi bloke tried to explain it to me – (hint: you do not stand in the plane and dive out of it without touching the step)), but I can at least have full-blown detailed conversations with people in English-speaking countries.
Which means that if I don’t understand how something works, I can ask.
But in a country where I don’t speak the language, I’m forced to observe. To figure out how people drive by seeing them drive. To figure out how to board the plane by watching everyone else line up.
(An interesting example of this – In Denver they installed a light rail about a decade ago. And they stenciled yellow “Door” signs every five feet or so. People would arrive and line up behind the door signs in a neat little line and then board in order of arrival. Compare that to New York where people crowd every inch of the platform and then shove their way on board regardless of when they arrived.)
Traveling in a country where you can’t “use your words” is also fantastic for learning non-verbal communication. If someone shouts at you, are they shouting “hello,” “watch out,” or “F you, you dirty scumbag”? Chances are you can get the general idea of what they’re trying to say by their body language and tone, but when you operate in your own language you may not realize how much information you’re receiving from non-verbal cues.
You’ll also learn that certain countries are just louder or more expressive than others in general. Or far more reserved.
It’s great material for anyone writing about something other than their own immediate life. At least I think it is. We’ll see if that shows in my fiction writing. Someday…
(On a side note, I sent my novel to someone for edits and they made a post about something they were reading and being annoyed at a mistake this person was making and I got all freaked out that it was my novel they were reading right now and that I’m the one making whatever mistake it is that has the person pulling their hair out. Probably not, right? I’m perfect. Right? Right? Ah, well. You don’t know what you don’t know and the only way to figure that out is to have someone tell you you’re wrong. The joys of growing as a writer.)