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Any language, anywhere hack 2: Dancing, painting and cooking your way to fluency

| 26 comments | Category: travel

What are you doing with your target language? Reading? Listening to Podcasts? Watching movies? That’s nice, but why should everyone else be having all the fun and leave you to be nothing more than an inactive spectator?

It’s time to get active with your language and/or travels! This doesn’t just mean finding ways to meet people, it means incorporating the language into your every day activities.

Active learning as a means of cultural exploration

One aspect of my travels I always aim for, other than speaking the local language, is to be able to DO something that is unique to the country.

Many travellers enjoy experiencing other cultures passively, and will create more beautiful photos than I ever can, or be able to tell you interesting facts about that place, but sometimes I wish they would go beyond slide-show mode and bring something other than gift-shop souvenirs back with them.

And when learning the language: even when it isn’t culturally relevant, doing something not related to languages, but in a foreign language, will have you thinking on your feet and create a much more interesting and practical context to help you improve your conversation and understanding skills much quicker.

Uno dos tres, cinco seis siete…

One thing I love to do to learn more about a culture is to learn one of its dances.

Two years ago I was living in Buenos Aires and made the effort to genuinely learn how to tango. Rather than take just a couple of classes (which pretty much all foreigners do), I devoted time every day to getting intensive lessons or going out to practise.

There is something to be said for actually doing this yourself that thousands of hours of watching or reading about its history can never give you. You can see my tango experience below:

You can also watch this video in Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto and Irish.

Putting aside cultural discovery for a second, there are so many other benefits of learning how to dance. By going somewhere to get lessons, you will meet equally minded people and expand your social circle – it breaks your daily routine and gets you physically active – my mood always improves after a dancing session from an otherwise dull day of sitting down working.

And of course, if you are lucky enough to find someone to teach it to you in the language you are learning, you can finally get out of this bogus academic view of a language and use it in a real-life situation.

So many other ways to get cultural and linguistic immersion!

Maybe dancing isn’t your thing. So many travellers brag to me that they try all the local foods (which, as a vegetarian, I do less of), but almost none of them can prepare these themselves!

If you want to take something home with you, rather than physically bring a local food, or a “story” of trying a local dish, why not actually learn to cook it yourself? This way you can take it with you around the world and prepare it for your friends when back home.

Even with my more restricted diet, I still make a point to learn how to cook local foods that I would be able eat myself. For example, there’s a technique in making a Spanish Omelette that involves flipping it at precisely the right time, which my flatmates in Spain helped me master. So I am happy to bring that piece of Spain with me everywhere.

When I was in Brazil and was still getting a foothold with the language, I decided to take some windsurfing lessons in Portuguese. Windsurfing isn’t an especially “Brazilian” thing to do, but boy did I ever improve my Portuguese in those classes! When the pressure is on and you are being yelled at to pull back or change the position of your feet, you have to apply what you hear immediately or you’ll fall off and into the lagoon.

Active involvement in the language

This involvement in the language meant I had no choice but to understand as quickly as possible. This lack of pressure is one reason those focused on a more academic approach see such a slow rate of progress. I’m not smarter than any of you – the difference is I’m in higher pressure situations that don’t allow me to not improve.

This isn’t about being in a country, it’s about doing something in the language.

Seriously, I don’t have a choice! If I were to put all my time into studying, then not improving would be an issue of me not focusing correctly or not having an efficient enough memory technique. There are too many ways that you can fail in this situation. But by getting out of the house and speaking with people or doing something active with others that involves the language in some way, and doing it regularly, I have to improve my language skills.

It’s necessity rather than pure desire. I have no doubts that everyone reading this “wants” to improve their language skills and cultural understanding, but ask yourself if you really NEED to. Without putting yourself in real situations, you may never have the push you need to get you going in the right direction.

So if you are a traveller, get a dancing / cooking / painting lesson in the local language!

If you are at home and can afford it, try to get a private lesson from a native speaker experienced in one of these (rather than getting a language lesson), or if you are on a budget offer them an exchange for another skill you have.

A “language exchange” doesn’t always have to be simply about talking. DO something! Be active and use your language in other ways!

My salsa lessons

Here in Medellín, I’m getting daily lessons in salsa. I even have a goal I am aiming for: My last week in Colombia (in December) will be in the city of Cali – the “capital of salsa”. I’m hoping to go out every night that week with some of the most experienced salsa dancers in the world.

I’ll record a video at some stage to show you how I’m doing.

Even with an hour a day for the next month and a half, there’s only so much I can progress. I don’t think I’ll impress them with how amazing a dancer I am (I got a great start on tango as seen in the video but am far from an expert), but maybe I’ll get deep enough into these places to appreciate an aspect of Colombian culture not seen by the majority of other foreigers.

And even if I don’t, it’s great fun! :)


So stop thinking of a language in terms of vocabulary, grammar and syntax and get out and use it! Or try to discover an aspect of the country you are so interested in by being able to DO what they do, rather than just experience it from a distance.

Any thoughts? Share them in comments below and help spread this post on Facebook!


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If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.

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  • Damian Gryski

    When I was living in Montreal, my French improved _dramatically_ when after I signed up for a course at the local cooking school. The course was a bit unnerving at first — lost to listen to as the instructor shouted instructions. But, there’s nothing like having 3 hours to cook 6 complicated French recipes *and* having to communicate with your partner (“I’ll trim the leeks. That pan should be over lower heat. Where’s the oil!”) to help you get over your fear of speaking!

    • Benny the language hacker

      Absolutely! The fear of speaking is tied into what you’ll talk about and most people think that’s just the weather or saying how many brothers and sisters they have when they start off. If you use the language in a real situation with pressure, as you did, you’ll always progress quickly :)

  • Jason

    Great post about learning by doing.

    During my time in Brazil I didn’t do any wind surfing but I sure but I trained BJJ, and taught English in favela Vidigal. Brazilain Jiu Jitsu equaled instant social group and teaching English meant 8 hours a day of interacting with children who make a big game out of teaching you their language.

    Abraco irmao,

    • Benny the language hacker

      Children have taught me a lot in local languages :)

  • Ronaldo Howard

    Nice post, Benny. What a fun way to experience Colombia! ¡Muévete y sigues el vaivén! La vida es para vivir y saborear- en cualquier idioma.

  • Luda

    Great post! I live in Germany I’ve done a first-aid course, a dance class and have had a completely German speaking workplace for months. That first-aid course (Lebensrettende Sofortmaßnahmen am Unfallort..) was certainly a challenge but I learnt some great vocabulary, expressions in addition to learning some really useful skills. Going to try out a beginner’s course in Dutch and a cooking class. Such classes, or taking up a hobby, are such great ways to improve your language skills and meet people. It really takes your language skills to the next level, from someone who has just learnt the language in a classroom to someone who has really lived the language. It’s getting to the stage where I feel much more comfortable talking about my job in German and I’m not really sure what some words are in English.. Keep up the good posts and enjoy the salsa classes!

    • Benny the language hacker

      Thanks Luda – great to see your hobbies bringing you ahead in your languages :)

  • Randy the Yearlyglot

    It’s a real tragedy that after 24 hours you’ve only gotten 4 comments. Maybe the title didn’t draw people in… I don’t know. There are hundreds of ways you could elaborate on this particular thought, and I really hope you do, because this is perhaps one of the most useful bits of language learning advice I’ve seen anywhere.

    • Benny the language hacker

      Yes, I was surprised too. This is actually my worst commented post in a year! :P This is something I consider quite important, but perhaps the title isn’t grabbing enough. Before elaborating on this I’d have to figure out how to get people to actually read it… I have other ways of presenting this that I’ll get to soon enough though.

      • Randy the Yearlyglot

        I’m looking forward to seeing more of it. Good stuff.

    • Ghj

      I fully agree with your comment Randy! Great piece of advice.

  • Benny the language hacker

    Glad you liked the video Jason ;)

    Please note that this mission is showing people how easy it is to speak any language any where.
    I just did a search for Japanese in Beijing and got **197** results!! Some of these are Beginners, but scrolling down slightly shows me a bunch of Experts. Perhaps you had restricted your search to those with a couch available or something – the only criteria should be city name and language name. Please look again and see how many opportunities you have!

    More suggestions on the way later ;)

  • Ramses

    Actually, I learned both how to dance AND to appreciate Spanish food while living in Spain. Some Spanish friends of mine went to Latin America, came back crazy about dancing, dragged me to clubs and bars to dance with them (they first had to teach me, of course), so I ended up as a decent dancer.

    And because I love good food, but never went out of my comfort zone (Dutch food, mixed with some “Italian” food you can get in Dutch restaurants), it was certainly a challenge to learn to eat snails and shrimps. But I did it, and afterwards I felt more Spanish and now I can truly enjoy some good tapas in some random village in Spain where there’s no ‘guiri’ (foreigner) besides me!

    Anyway, what you do is a great way to feel connected to your target language. You can learn all kind of things about the culture, speak the language like the natives do, but not until you actually participate in society and take over some customs, will you feel connected to the language.

    • Benny the language hacker

      Very true! Thanks for sharing ;)

    • Benny the language hacker

      Very true! Thanks for sharing ;)

  • Andrew

    Absolutely, far too many travelers are in what I call a “passive observer” mindset instead of a “participator” mindset. You’ll NEVER really understand a culture and the people unless you interact with them and, most importantly, do the stuff they do!

    Cook the things they cook, participate in the activities that they participate in, go to the social events they go to, date the locals (this one is huge!), play the sports they play, etc.

    Not only will this do far more for your language skills than anything else in far less time, but it’ll also do far more for your learning of and understand of the culture, people, and country that you’re interacting with and living in than anything else will.

    Oh, that and flashcards: you need lots and LOTS of flashcards!!! ;) :P

    Keep up the good work.


    • Benny the language hacker

      Yes, flashcards are very useful. You can use them to flick at an interesting looking person from a few metres away to get their attention. It’s like a poke on Facebook. They’ll yell “why the hell are you doing that??” and a beautiful friendship would have begun.

  • Benny the language hacker

    Glad to see you announcing it publicly ;) That pressure will make a big difference :)

    Best of luck in Spain!

  • Benny the language hacker

    Thanks! Glad “Why German is easy” is helping :D
    Keep up the good work ;)

  • Brianna

    This is excellent advice! I also remember your advice about hiring a private singing instructor, which is something I’ve been wanting to do as well. But these kind of private lessons seem like they’d be expensive. As a fellow budget traveler, how do you go about finding a local private vocal/dance instructor at a reasonable price?

    • Benny the language hacker

      How expensive it is is relative. It’s always too expensive for a local budgetter, but a traveller has a different budget. Right now for example I’m paying about €6 an hour for my private salsa lessons. So I’ve budgeted €200 or thereabouts to get a huge bunch of lessons while I’m here since Salsa is a huge priority.
      It’s the same with the singing lessons. That was a major aspect of other stays in countries so I decided to devote a part of my budget to it. It was basically the only thing I “treated” myself to. Even if it’s twice the price you can still budget for it if you are serious. If it’s something you are just casually interested in, then it’s not as much worth the investment.
      I find them through local or online advertisements only in the local language. Anything in English will give you a high price and you’ll be paying for that person’s ability to speak English rather than their talent in what they do. Ironically the more expensive ones are not the best ones…

  • New York guy

    Nice post Benny. I do think you should credit Tim Ferriss a bit for many of your ideas though, especially the tango in Buenos Aires:)

  • New York guy

    Nice post Benny. I do think you should credit Tim Ferriss a bit for many of your ideas though, especially the tango in Buenos Aires:)

    • Benny the language hacker

      Don’t be ridiculous – Tim wasn’t the first person to learn tango in BsAs and I hadn’t even read his book until around that time when I was going anyway.
      If you look at his site you’ll see the couple of posts he has written about languages are absolutely nothing at all related to what I write about. Tim has inspired a lot of people and I’ve met people whose lives he has changed dramatically, so I think it’s great that he has reached so many. But I was travelling long before his book or blog ever appeared, so I can’t credit inspiration for languages or travel to him at all. He has influenced me as a blogger in some ways, but that’s about it.

    • Benny the language hacker

      Don’t be ridiculous – Tim wasn’t the first person to learn tango in BsAs and I hadn’t even read his book until around that time when I was going anyway.
      If you look at his site you’ll see the couple of posts he has written about languages are absolutely nothing at all related to what I write about. Tim has inspired a lot of people and I’ve met people whose lives he has changed dramatically, so I think it’s great that he has reached so many. But I was travelling long before his book or blog ever appeared, so I can’t credit inspiration for languages or travel to him at all. He has influenced me as a blogger in some ways, but that’s about it.

  • Holly Bathgate

    Of all your hacks, I think this is the one that is most effective for most people. When I lived in Spain, it was doing activities like these that really helped my Spanish and of all my foreign friends, it was the members of sports teams or art groups that improved their language the most, not the ones that studied books at home!