In these days of the world becoming gradually smaller and the use of English becoming more and more widespread throughout it, some question the need for us Anglophones to broaden our linguistic horizons. ‘Ah sure we don’t have to,’ some will lazily say. ‘Everyone speaks English there anyway.’ Indeed, short holidays or backpacking expeditions that involve hopping from country to country are unlikely to necessitate the use of, or allow sufficient time to learn, the local language. My own four-night stint in Slovakia left me with two words of the native tongue, pivo and d’akujem meaning ‘beer’ and ‘thank you’ respectively. (Yes, it is all about getting one’s priorities in order.)
However, you can only really scratch the surface if you settle for getting by in the world’s favourite second language. Despite its prevalence amongst any who work in jobs which might involve dealing with tourists, not everybody speaks English, nor will they all appreciate the assumption that they do. If you want travelling to consist of more than mere snapshots, and truly see another country and another culture in detail, speaking as the locals speak opens doors that will forever remain closed otherwise.
As crucial as language learning is to anyone who wants to reap maximum benefit and maximum enjoyment from an extended stint abroad, by no means does it necessitate enrolling in a course or working your through a tedious text book before you go. My experiences as both a language teacher and language learner over the last three years in Italy and Spain have seen me acquire an advanced level of Spanish and a messy but nonetheless communicative level of Italian without ever having attended formal classes in either. Here are some unorthodox but highly effective methods of learning to speak a language, all of which are easily doable if you have a significant period of time to spend in the country whose tongue you are hoping to pick up.
Live or stay with non-English-speaking people
The vast majority of hotel, hostel or campsite receptionists these days are likely to have English-speaking capabilities in their arsenals, making it highly improbable that Anglophone tourists will be pushed out of their comfort zone. Having journeyed to Italy on many occasions as a child and teenager I only really learnt to navigate a menu. It wasn’t until I spent three weeks working there, and most importantly, staying with Italian families, that some of what they passionately shout at each other started to make some sense to me.
Even if host families, or at least some of their members, do take advantage of your presence in order for them to practice their English, your ears will have no shortage of immersion when they converse with each other. In one such home that I had the fortune to stay in, my bilingual host mother would translate everything I said for her husband, thus adding to my Italian vocabulary as I listened to her translations. When I conversed with him without the aid of his wife and interpreter I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could just about make my way through a slow-moving conversation.
When I first moved abroad to Burgos in northern Spain, I didn’t live with Spaniards, but with two other foreigners. Such an outcome is quite likely for anyone renting a flat in another country, as the locals are unlikely to be looking for flat shares, an activity more common amongst language teachers like myself or Erasmus students. My flatmates were the latter, hailing from France and Germany respectively, but luckily for me neither showed any signs of English-speaking tendencies. With my sub-basic level of French and my complete lack of any German, I was left with no other alternative than to converse in the language I had only just started to teach myself and in which both of them were already at an advanced level. It was extremely difficult at first and did sometimes make me feel as if I were constantly making a fool of myself, but the progress made in my Spanish made the blows to my pride and ego worthwhile.
Join a club, society, or group doing something of interest to you
An avid runner, I was in Burgos less than a week when I noticed a large congregation of people wearing sports clothes and looking like they had just been through a tough workout. Using the little Spanish I had, I approached them to inquire about training times and subsequently joined them for a run a few days later. Before too long I was a fully paid up member of Club Deportivo Tragaleguas, rigorous Tuesday evening training runs were part of my weekly routine, and an abundance of races saw me put myself to the test over many a 10km circuit as well as taking on my inaugural half marathon. In addition to keeping the fitness in good nick, every light jog, warm-up routine and lift to and from races involved conversations that became progressively easier as the year went on.
After leaving Burgos for the sunnier climate and more distinctive accent of southern Spain, one of my first arrangements in Huelva was to find a flamenco guitar teacher. Having been plucking six strings from a young age, learning to play flamenco was something of a long-held dream, and the benefits included those of a linguistic as well as musical nature. Keeping the Spanish in practice through individual classes, group conversations were also enabled by sessions dedicated to accompanying singers in the fandango, Huelva’s very own local sub-genre. After all, there is hardly a more authentic way to learn a language than through the simultaneous learning of a local tradition.
Learning to accompany fandangos! (In the photo, I’m second from right, the only left-handed guitarist whose instrument points in the opposite direction from everybody else’s!)
Whatever your cup of tea happens to be, there will undoubtedly be opportunities to engage with it and with the local people and language wherever you are. Dedicating oneself to a passion results in the acquisition of the native tongue without even being aware of the learning process, as well as providing the opportunity to converse with people of similar interests.
Change the settings on your phone, and add people on social media
For better or for worse, a lot of us spend far too much time idly scrolling down our touch-activated screens these days. With a few simple alterations, even this super-easy act of procrastination can be of benefit to anyone learning a language. Merely changing the phone’s language settings will result in small-but-constant reinforcements of vocabulary, and will make the transition to thinking in a foreign tongue that bit easier when short snippets of it are constantly materialising in your hand-held device.
Furthermore, once you’ve met some residents, adding them to your Facebook friend list will result in reading phrases and paragraphs in their mother-tongue every time you casually scroll through your News Feed. You may even be lucky enough to be added to a WhatsApp group or two, causing your phone to vibrate with some more foreign vocabulary and expressions at regular intervals. Simple but effective.
The aforementioned predominance of English as the second language in so many places, especially amongst younger generations, can be a disadvantage for those of us hoping to learn to speak like locals. Some café, bar or restaurant staff members, as soon as they hear a foreign accent, will jump at the opportunity to switch from their language to ours. Whether it’s down to eagerness to try out their English, willingness to help or a patronising assumption that we’re not really able to get to grips with their dialect isn’t always clear, but whichever it is it can be bloody annoying. Having been frustrated by this reaction to my accent on many occasions, I’ve learnt that the best approach is to persist with (in my case) Spanish, stubbornly refusing to revert to type.
Accept that you don’t know everything yet
As previously mentioned, my first conversations with my flatmates often left me feeling somewhat out of my depth. In fact, a month before I moved to Spain I had about six words to choose from. However, this is a phase that one must go through in order to get beyond comprehending a menu and toilet signs. When people tell me that they don’t want to do something or other, or attend some kind of event, or even try their chances in another country in the first place due to their lack of linguistic confidence, I can’t help but feel that they are preventing themselves from ever progressing.
For anyone who considers such excuses, let me ask you this: When you were a baby and you saw older people walk, did you think to yourself ‘Oh, it would be great to do that, but I wouldn’t have a clue how to because I’ve never walked before’? Or did you struggle to your feet and slowly but surely obtain sufficient balance to remain upright, not worrying about all of the falls and stumbles you had to go through to get to that glorious point? If your answer had been the former, you would in all probability still be spending your life pushed around in a pram. You didn’t care then that you would stumble as you tried to walk, when you started speaking your own language you didn’t care if your command of the present continuous or the past simple wasn’t always 100% accurate; you shouldn’t care now if you stammer, pause for thought and litter your sentences with errors in a foreign language.
Yes, you can travel anywhere in the world with English – but only for a holiday. To travel and live – that is, to truly experience another culture rather than merely catching a glimpse of one – learning to say it their way is both a necessity and an immeasurable means of gaining an insight into the authentic local way of life. As for the learning methods, my experiences of teaching English whilst learning Spanish and Italian have shown me that the most unorthodox techniques can often be the most effective.