Language Learning and Survival

By Poppy Wright

I’ve heard a lot of people say things like “I’m not a language person” or “it just doesn’t work in my head”. While I understand that different people take to different skills more easily than others, I do believe that anyone can learn a foreign language. When I say ‘learn’, I mean fluently, or at least well enough to survive in a country where that particular language is spoken. Survival is key!

How did you learn to swim? (this is relevant I swear, bare with me)
Did you dip your toes in for a few weeks first and only progress to sticking a whole foot in when you felt your toe was comfortable? Chances are, that’s not how it happened – though if it is I’m not here to judge. When children are taught to swim, they tend to be entirely immersed in water. Usually there is some kind of floatation device involved at the beginning, however the full immersion is quite important towards the end result. By being in the water the learning process is made quicker and easier because it basically becomes a necessity. If someone is thrown into a large body of water, their thought process will quickly become “if I don’t learn to keep my head above the water quickly, I’ll drown”. Nowadays it’s more like “if I learn to keep my head above water quickly, I won’t have to have these armbands digging into my upper arms”, but the point still stands: when learning is seen as a necessity, some kind of survival instinct seems to be triggered, which makes the process much faster and simpler. Sticking your toes in for ages first may feel more comfortable, but getting in the pool is more effective – and once you’re in, it’s not actually that scary.

I think the same principle can be applied to language learning. Although exchange programmes are becoming increasingly more common, sitting down and meticulously learning the grammar and rules of a language is still seen as an extremely effective way of learning. For some people, this works fantastically, but to those who are “not language people”, it isn’t very effective at all.

When I was 17, I moved to Istanbul for a year as part of an exchange programme. The only word I thought I knew was “hello”, which turned out to be wrong anyway. I spent the first few weeks completely lost, in every sense of the word. Physically lost, because I didn’t know how to ask for directions (miming isn’t particularly effective in this case), and mentally lost because I never had any idea what anyone was asking me or telling me, so I just used to nod. All the time. This led to some interesting experiences like ending up walking ten kilometres in a forest as a day out, as well as having to eat a whole plate of sheep entrails because when asked “do you like sheep entrails?” I’d heard gibberish, panicked, and nodded happily. I also gained a fair amount of weight because nine times out of ten, the indecipherable questions people were asking me were actually offers for food. I’m sure people wondered why this strange girl was saying yes to a third slice of cake, but they kept offering. Anyway, after about two weeks I’d started to pick up essential survival words, the most important of which were “I’m full” and “No, really, I’m full”. After the first few words started to make sense, everything clicked really quickly. It didn’t take very long for my brain to realise that it had to start figuring Turkish out, or I would either end up lost in the Bosphorus or with severe diabetes. At the three month mark, I was fairly close to fluent, and I never really sat down with a grammar book. I had a few lessons early on, but the vast majority was learnt through just listening and talking.

I do truly believe that the reason it made sense so quickly and why it stuck so easily, even though it was completely different from any language I’d learnt before, was that it had to. The mind is a magical little thing, and it’s very good at keeping us going. If you’re in a situation where your only choice is to be able to communicate with a new language, then it’ll come to grips with it pretty fast.

So although I’m not really sure I should be giving anyone advice, if you’re someone that identifies as “not a language person”, why not try and go away for a while? A week, two, or more if you have the means could make such a huge difference to second language learning. Go somewhere where people don’t speak English, turn off your 3G so Google is beyond your reach, let the survival brain kick in, and you’ll be chatting quicker than you thought possible.

That’s my theory anyway. I take no responsibility if you fly somewhere, get lost in the underground station and are forced to eat goat testicles.



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