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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:
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.