Seven Tips for Language Study Abroad: Talk to People

This post is for Kevin, who used to listen to the ol’ SpanishPod lessons.

If you’re going abroad to study language in an immersion situation, I have some tips for you.  The common theme is this:  you have to talk to people.  If you don’t talk to people, you’ve wasted your money.

Every human individual has a instinct to acquire language; that’s why we speak our first languages.  The instinct is triggered and fed by real, meaningful communication, with a little help from a) necessity, and b) your attention to form.  Once you fire up your language acquisition instinct, you will acquire language faster than you can consciously manage the new information.

If someone tries to tell you that real, meaningful communication is not the first, last, and most crucial part of your language learning, disregard them; they are at least sixty years behind modern linguistics.

  • Take a Language Pledge. Promise yourself that you will live your waking hours in the target language.  Don’t break when people try to switch you to English.  It doesn’t matter what level you are; you’ll get your point across and learn new words in high-stress situations.  On my last study abroad trip in Hangzhou, the language pledge I took was the single most beneficial aspect of any of my efforts.
  • Live a Regular Local Life (ditch the Americans).  Go to the market or the grocery store; don’t rely on someone to bring you stuff.  Go into town to do your laundry.  Find a bar or restaurants that locals go to, and make it your regular place while you’re there.  Get your haircut.  All of these activities are opportunities to talk to locals, all these activities will enrich your vocabulary.  You’ll get a chance to take what you learned in one place, and drop that knowledge on new people in an other place.  If there are Americans that want to speak English with you, ditch them, that’s what I do.  You can talk English to Americans when you get back to the States.  Besides, in my experience, most Americans I meet abroad are indecisive and slow.  Ditch ’em.
  • See the Sights (ditch the books).  Get out and talk to people.  Yes, take a class if you can, but don’t spend your days with your nose buried in a book, or drilling yourself with flashcards.  You can do that back home.  Besides, language is acquired by instinct, which is fed by communication.  Learn a few things in class, and then go out and use them; before long you’ll own them.  In Hangzhou they tried to get us to memorize 10 grammar points and 50 vocabulary words a day, because they are BACKWARDS.  What a waste of time and money. Don’t do that.  “No pain, no gain” does not apply to language acquisition.
  • New Vocab is Gold.  When you learn something in the wild, do something so that you’ll remember it.  For a lot of folks, that means jotting new words down into a little vocab notebook.  A lot of people don’t need even need to review the words they jot down; the act of writing is enough interaction with the word to ensure that they will recall it later.  Me, I didn’t have a notebook; when I learn something new, I tried to repeat it, use it, and recombine it immediately, enough so that if I forget it later and have to ask for it again, I’d feel bad about it.  That feeling bad usually burns the word into my memory.
  • Find Free Conversation Lessons You can pay someone by the hour to indulge you, but that’s no fun.  There are ways to get people to shoot the breeze with you for free, and often they are culture-specific.  In Spain, I found that bartenders were happy to talk to me, to the extent that they were pouring me drinks on the house so I’d stick around.  In Latin America, they have the tradition of the sobremesa, the conversation at the dinner table that lasts a half-hour or more after the plates have been cleared.  In China it was trickier, but I’d get free conversation from the neighbors, taxi drivers,  at the foot massage parlor, at the barbershop, and from my cleaning lady.  Alto tells the story about going every night to the security booth at the gate of his apartment complex to chat with the guards.  Another possibility is to find a target-language friends or better yet, a romantic interest.  This is a home run, actually, as sex and intimacy tend to generate a lot of opportunities for real, meaningful conversation.
  • Show and Tell I used to tell students to bring a scrap book or a photo album so that they could sit with their host families and talk about their favorite subject:  their lives back home.  Nowadays I find I can create hours of language learning just with the photos I have stored on my phone.  Seriously, I could develop an entire curriculum of all 14 verb tenses based on the 45 or so pictures I have stored in there.  The point is, as long as you have a self and a family, you have something to talk about.  Don’t forget to look at their pictures as well.
  • Make Mistakes.  It’s so, so important to make mistakes.  It’s called “trial and error,” not “fret and freeze up.”  They say to learn from your mistakes, but if you don’t make mistakes you can’t learn from them.  My friend E coined the term “idiot learned” because embarrassing mistakes are the ones you remember the best.  So it follows that the more embarrassing mistakes you make, the more you will learn.  Now listen, different cultures have different ways of handling error-making foreigner.  For example, Chinese mainlanders might repeat the same word you don’t know fifteen times and then walk away from you in disgust.  French people might get so interested in correcting every aspect of your utterance that they forget what you’re trying to say.  Italians might rephrase and rephrase in order to avoid the word you don’t know, so you’ll never learn it.  Filipinos will switch to English, even if you haven’t made a mistake.  Your job is to get your point across, and to pay attention to the form of the target, to the point where you can parrot it back to them, and reuse and recombine it later.
This post was intended to be seven short points, but I got away from myself, and we’re left with this wall of text.  I wish I could have provided a charming anecdote with each bullet point, maybe someday I’ll expand on this.

I’ll leave you with this thought.  A lot of people approach language learning the way they approach a history test: by cramming and memorizing.  But speaking language is not a history test.  Its better to think of it as a habit or a skill.  You don’t learn to ride a bike by cramming and memorizing; you get on the bike and ride.  You don’t learn to eat with chopsticks by cramming and memorizing; you pick up some chopsticks and eat.
And you don’t acquire target-language communicative skills by cramming and memorizing; you to  communicate in the target language.  If you’re lucky enough to get to study abroad, take advantage of it, because you won’t get a more acquisition-rich environment anywhere else.

Have a great time in South America, Kevin.  Big shout out to my ading in Costa Rica.

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