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!