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Any language anywhere hack 3: Helping tourists for free language practice

| 25 comments | Category: learning languages

In my current language mission I’m trying to prove that you can speak any language in the world anywhere in the world. So far I’ve mentioned how you can search social networks for nearby speakers, and take culturally relevant classes in the target language.

There are actually infinite ways to practise your target language without travelling, several of which I’ve outlined in the Language Hacking Guide. But here’s another of my many ideas that I hope some of you will apply: being friendly with tourists.

You don’t have to travel to meet tourists. As long as you live in or near any major city, you will find them.

Tourists are awesome

I’m all about attempting to have an authentic experience, and avoiding speaking English and having almost all local friends is one way I do that. However, I do want to make it clear that I am not an anti-tourist.

If anything, I find anti-tourists way more irritating than a loud Bermuda t-shirt wearing oblivious tourist with an SLR camera around his neck ever can be. Anti-tourists have their ridiculous rules of actually avoiding the most interesting aspects of travel just to prove their worth. If anything, call me the anti-anti-tourist.

I think tourism and tourists are great. It is the backbone of what makes travel so easy nowadays and a very noble industry to be a part of.

In fact, I talk with tourists as a major part of the way I maintain languages not spoken in the country I currently live in. This is generally why I not only choose to live in major cities, but why I also try to live close to the “touristy” centre (right off Váci utca in Budapest, a short walk from Copacabana in Rio etc.) I actually want to have easy access to the tourists.

The reason is simple: there are usually so many of them that you will almost certainly find some that speak your target language (presuming it’s a widely spoken language) and it’s very easy to spark a conversation with them.

Time to be friendly!

One way to meet all of these tourists is to work in the industry. I’ve done that a few times – as a receptionist in a youth hostel and tour guide a few times too. But even not doing that, you’d be surprised how easy it is to meet them and spark up a conversation. They are almost always thrilled to see a local speak their language and will be very patient with you as you try.

So how do you do it? Well, here in Medellín I go to Parque Lleras (a very touristed square) or in Berlin I’d hang out in Alexander Platz. I find a café to sit in, or a nice bench and start reading/studying, while keeping an eye on what’s going on around me. If I’m walking around I always have a nice smile on me to look as friendly as possible.

The opportunities to engage in conversation with these “strangers” is unlimited. I usually carry some random items with me, especially those that are helpful. I also just look for a situation that presents itself in which I can be genuinely helpful.

After initiating the conversation, you can go from there with small talk or answering any other questions they might have and take advantage of your chance to speak the language.

Here are a few suggestions to get the conversation started:

  • People are taking photos of one another. I walk up and offer to take a shot of the whole group. When near a landmark, simply wandering around for a few minutes will have people asking you to do this anyway, but I prefer to be more active and offer help.
  • Someone has a cigarette in their mouth, but doesn’t have a light or is asking around for one. I swoop in with mine (I can’t express enough how much I hate how people smoke, but carrying a lighter around with me has helped me make so many friends). I also carry tissues (Kleenex) in cold weather to help people sneezing and a pen in my pocket and a tiny notepad they can take paper from for when it’s clear someone wants to write something down.
  • Any time people are holding a map and looking confused or lost I walk up to them and offer my help. Since I live in the city I can generally point them in the right direction, or at least do a quick search on my smartphone for what they need.
  • I listen to what they are saying and if they ask one another what this is (looking at something), or where they should eat then I give them a quick tour-guide style summary or a tip for where to go next. You might think eavesdropping is rude, but when the purpose is to be helpful you’ll never get angry responses. Some cultures (Americans for example) seem very apprehensive about this, but pretty much all other strangers I’ve joined into a conversation with half-way through have welcomed the addition. Tourists outside of their country are especially more open to new entries into their normally closed social circle. This is not something I could do beforehand due to my shyness to talk to strangers, but lots of practice of social skydiving has deprogrammed me from the bogus attitude of NOT being open to helping new people.
  • When I see tourists struggling to understand a local salesman, I step in and offer my free interpretation services between both of them.
  • Here’s my favourite one: I have no excuse whatsoever to talk to them and just say “Lovely weather today, isn’t it!” or “Man, I love this city, don’t you?” or whatever comes to mind. I have never ever been brushed off by any tourist when I do this cheerily and genuinely.

Now you have someone eager to help you practise your language

Even if you had zero interest in learning a foreign language, I’d still urge you apply the above suggestions as they have helped me improve my social skills immensely and frequently put an interesting twist on my day.

But of course, the huge advantage, and my major motivation for sticking so close to touristy centres, is that you can practise so many languages this way! After helping the person out, start a conversation. This is a great chance for you to practise your target language if they speak it!

As a polyglot, touristed cities are a goldmine of opportunities to practise ALL my languages. But even if you are focused on just one (as long as it’s one with a considerable population with the means to travel) you are likely going to find it, especially if you keep your ear open to hear when it is nearby.

Thanks to this openness to talk to tourists; in Budapest I gave some Brazilians I had just met a tour of Váci utca, gave a light to a French couple in Bangkok that led to me being invited to an entirely French party (yes, in Thailand), pointed out where Mauerpark is in Berlin to some Spaniards and actually joined them there and hung out for an afternoon, and interrupted an Italian couple giving in to have some crap coffee in Montreal and brought them to a better place.

As you can imagine, I have many more similar stories! Being helpful worked out for both of us – they got a hand in doing or learning something, and I got a free opportunity to practise their language.

I realise that this is harder in small towns, but even in my untouristed hometown I have engaged in conversations with foreigners off the beaten track and asked them how they like a “typical” Irish town. They were pleasantly surprised and eager to talk to me.

If you live in any major city, why not try hanging around the typical monument or shopping street and seeing the many opportunities that have been literally passing you by all these years?

Not only can you get some language practice – you can also help some wanderers in need of a hand.

Give it a try!

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  • Stealthanugrah

    Wow Benny this is awesome, all I can say is that you’re a genious! You are the ultimate social person.

    My problem is being a teen in NYC. http://news.yahoo.com/s/yblog_localnyc/stress-we-can-new-yorkers-are-the-most-on-edge-in-america-new-survey-reveals
    That’s a link that expresses the compltete truth of NYker life. NYC is really tough and rough (I’m originally from Oregon) and if you say things like hi how are you, it’s really um bizarre. But only an hour away in each direction the real America starts to show. NYC is really another country in America and is nothing like the rest of the states. So I’m going to have a hard time to start being outgoing like this. NYker attitude= what’s it gonna do for me? and minjaown business or fuhgeddaboutit!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Yes, it’s unfortunate that new yorkers are “tough and rough” – but that’s why I’m giving several different any-language-anywhere hacks ;) I don’t imagine ALL of them will work equally effectively with everyone.

      This won’t work for some people, but the Couchsurfing (social network) one would work excellently in New York, since the community is strong there and you can arrange in advance to meet that person rather than being skeptical if they approach you directly.

  • http://twitter.com/KianAmeli Kian Ameli

    Thanks for the encouragement Benny.
    I bought your guide a while back and haven’t acted on it, too busy, I don’t know enough – excuses. One thing that I’ve always been good at in english is talking to anyone anywhere, but for some reason talking in another language makes me uncomfortable. I’ve committed to sucking it up and giving it a go, the worst that can happen is I make an ass out of myself

    -Kian

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      It’s not even that bad. Making an ass out of yourself is in your head. The most likely “worst” that can happen is that the other person indifferently ignores you. You can decide that you are an ass from this, or that HE is an ass. If someone isn’t open to some friendly conversation, I go with the latter ;)
      Best of luck hacking your language!

      • http://twitter.com/KianAmeli Kian Ameli

        haha, so true. I recognize this my business, which requires me to talk to countless new people every day and I don’t see those interactions as making an ass out of myself. Even though there’s a higher social cost to those interactions than with friendly conversation.

  • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

    I stayed on La Rambla when I in Barcelona in August, and found several opportunities to use my Russian with people there, and even an opportunity to use the Italian I was still learning…. all while spending my days in Spanish and trying to pick up some Catalan.

    I totally agree with your thinking reasoning. Here in Chicago, we get a lot of tourism, too, and it’s really nice when I can give some help, even if it’s in my rather limited German, or even worse French! :) I still haven’t encountered any Esperanto speakers on the street here, though…. :P

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I find after spoken immersion in all languages (which you haven’t had yet in Esperanto, despite knowing the ins and outs of the language well) my ear becomes atune to picking it out. I never heard any Spanish or Italian in Dublin when I studied there for four entire years since I simply wasn’t used to hearing these languages as live ones. When I go back now I seem to hear more of those than English since I recognise them well.
      It’s the same with Esperanto. You’ll never randomly encounter Esperanto speakers, nor would you want to based on your experience so far. But simply being open to it will expose you to them. I have actually heard it spoken in the most random places several times when I least expected it. However, I’ll admit this is much less likely to happen in America.
      La Rambla is probably one of the coolest tourist hubs on the planet! I kept randomly running into people I knew from other countries there.

      • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

        That”s a good point about being accustomed to it. I’ve lived in the same apartment for almost 3 years now, and never knew that there were several Italian people living within 1-2 blocks of me until my ears became attuned to hearing it. Now I seem to hear it all the time. And by that same measure, I continue to be amazed at how large the Russian population is in Chicago.

        With the end of the year drawing close, I’m beginning to wonder what other culture has been hiding under my nose, that I will begin to discover next year… :)

      • Anonymous

        How did you manage to get an oppurtinity to use spoken immersion in esperanto and irish? That must’ve been quite hard to find an oppurtunity like that.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

          I’ve spent over a month of my life completely immersed in each language (two months total), where *everything* I did and everyone I talked to was just in that language. Please see my videos on irishpolyglot.com as I explain those immersion experiences there.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

          I’ve spent over a month of my life completely immersed in each language (two months total), where *everything* I did and everyone I talked to was just in that language. Please see my videos on irishpolyglot.com as I explain those immersion experiences there.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

          I’ve spent over a month of my life completely immersed in each language (two months total), where *everything* I did and everyone I talked to was just in that language. Please see my videos on irishpolyglot.com as I explain those immersion experiences there.

  • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

    I stayed on La Rambla when I in Barcelona in August, and found several opportunities to use my Russian with people there, and even an opportunity to use the Italian I was still learning…. all while spending my days in Spanish and trying to pick up some Catalan.

    I totally agree with your thinking reasoning. Here in Chicago, we get a lot of tourism, too, and it’s really nice when I can give some help, even if it’s in my rather limited German, or even worse French! :) I still haven’t encountered any Esperanto speakers on the street here, though…. :P

  • http://twitter.com/cmsadler cmsadler

    Hi Benny,

    Once again, you are inspiring! Me animas! These are great suggestions, some I’ve never thought of.

    To add to Stealthanugrah’s comment, I’m originally from Southern California, and I know the mindset is also prevalent to SoCal as well, not just NYC. It’s a mental toughness. I remember when I first moved to Austin, I was walking down the street and a man just said “hello” and I nearly jumped out of my skin!

    I’ve since acclimated to the more friendly environment here, and have softened up. :-)

  • http://twitter.com/cmsadler cmsadler

    Hi Benny,

    Once again, you are inspiring! Me animas! These are great suggestions, some I’ve never thought of.

    To add to Stealthanugrah’s comment, I’m originally from Southern California, and I know the mindset is also prevalent to SoCal as well, not just NYC. It’s a mental toughness. I remember when I first moved to Austin, I was walking down the street and a man just said “hello” and I nearly jumped out of my skin!

    I’ve since acclimated to the more friendly environment here, and have softened up. :-)

  • TJ

    Hey Benny,

    Is there a post on your site of when you made the decision or leap of going from shy to making a conscious effort to busting out of that?

    Would love to see/hear your experience. I usually use the workload of college to tell myself I don’t have time for people, but I need to eventually get out of this daze I’m in and start living life! Just seems hard at times to find the motivation, but I’m sure once I get rolling, it would be more like your experience.

    TJ

    By the way, Practise should be Practice. Just saying :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      TJ, please familiarise (not familiarize) yourself with non-American spellings. Practise is the standard spelling for most of the English speaking world for the verb and “practice” is the noun.

      This post might help: http://www.fluentin3months.com/scared-to-meet-new-people/
      But it’s a question I get a lot, so I’ll try to expand on my transformation away from shy in a future post ;)

      Using workload in college is a bad excuse. I studied one of Ireland’s most intensive courses, usually at uni for 12 hours at a time some days attending courses and doing experiments (that’s excluding study time or homework), but I still made the time to waste my life watching TV. There’s always time ;)

  • http://héctor.cl/ Héctor

    I hope it’s okay if I use Spanish here :P
    Una vez, por accidente, pude hacer esto y creo que es lo mejor que me ha pasado en cuanto a la práctica de un idioma no nativo, que en mi caso fue inglés. Siempre pude, y he podido, practicar mucho en Internet, pero no había tenido una oportunidad cara a cara o “en terreno” donde poder medirme utilizando el idioma. Fui a un lugar turístico en Santiago (Chile) buscando relajarme y terminé pasando algunas horas con unos turistas australianos que me confirmaron mi nivel de inglés, además de ayudarme a sentirme mucho más confiado a la hora de decir que realmente sé inglés.
    I think that something like this should happen to everyone who’s studying a language and hast’t got enough confidence yet. It really boosts the whole process! :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Absolutely, I was tell even those in South America or Asia that the thousands of opportunities to speak English are just a short bus ride away from them! Se nota que aprendes y mejoras tu nivel rapidamente ;)

  • Una Timlin

    I’m overwhelmed Benny. You continue to amaze me and to impress me. I’m going to try these techniques out in Paris and when I’m a language teacher I will definitely advise my students to do the same wherever they are. Thank you so much. Really.

    I don’t have to actually smoke to get the benefits of making friends through smoking! As much as I abhor the fact that people smoke, I sometimes feel a pang of jealousy of those that find it easy to meet people in the smoking area. I never realised that all you need is a lighter!

    I’m often tempted to offer to take a photo for people but I’m afraid they might think I want to steal their camera!

    If you spot someone looking confused, do you linger a bit beside them to guess their native language, or what language do you appoach them in? Do you avoid the English speaking tourists since you don’t want to speak English?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Aww thanks Una!! :)
      Please let me know how it goes after you’ve tried it!!
      I *never* linger a bit beside someone, I just walk up immediately and say hi. If I don’t know their language I’ll speak in English or the language of the country and usually their reply or accent tells me how to proceed. Lingering will make you look suspicious. Nobody has ever thought that I want to steal their camera because I wasn’t “observing” them for a long time

      Best of luck trying this out, and getting your students to do it too ;)

  • KCnDC

    Thanks Benny, you have been so helpful. Though I’m not exactly shy, I have hung back too much! I live near DC and THIS is the place to find every language under the sun!! So I’m game, next time I take someone to see the Capitol or the monuments, I will be thinking of you!
    Thanks…

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Excellent! :D Let me know how it goes! I can only imagine all the opportunities available in DC :)

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    In short: you can find native speakers for the language you’re learning anywhere, but you’re going to have to get off your butt and put in the effort to find them and initiate the conversation.

    Yup, pretty much. That goes for lots of other stuff, too: making work contacts, getting dates, making friends. You gotta work for it, and the more outgoing and proactive you are the better you’ll be.

    Dead on as usual.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Glad to hear it ;)