Going local with the lingo
comment 1 Written by on December 11, 2008 – 9:00 pm

I’ve just spent a week in Santiago, living with a friend of mine, hanging out with her mates and generally getting a feel for Chilean life. People would pay a lot of money for that sort of language immersion. But for me, it was free. Xili was a contact from Couchsurfing.com.

Xili (pictured far right) and I met earlier in the year when was visiting her hometown, Panama City. She had listed herself on Couchsurfing as willing to show travellers around town and her profile carried an abundance of glowing references. We ended up spending the best part of two weeks together and got along so well that we vowed to meet up again in Santiago, where she was heading to study.

Our reunion was a testament to how travel-networking can accelerate language learning. The first time we met, back in March, we spoke almost entirely in English. This time, the tables had turned. I’d been travelling across South America pretty much ever since, hanging out with locals, and generally doing my best to get off the standard Gringo trail. All the while, my confidence and vocab have been growing.

For the past week, we have conversed entirely in Spanish, which is hugely exciting progress for me. This doesn’t mean Xili’s English isn’t still far superior to my faltering efforts in her language. For example, I still have a tendency to speak in uncertain, approval-seeking questions when using the past tense – ie “I saw? the film”, “I had? lunch already”. However, ever-patient, she gave nods of encouragement where appropriate and ensured I retained confidence not to give up.

What I love most about learning Spanish in Latin America is that people are delighted when you have a go and are ultra patient, even when you make a mess of it. I remember it being rather different when I lived in France, where I’d often get “Quoi?” barked back at me, accompanied by a semi-disgusted wrinkling of the nose. I’m a big fan of French people, but it was tough at times and it took much longer to feel comfortable communicating. Although, the fact that I was a self-conscious 18-year-old may have been a factor too.

Spending the best part of this year hanging out – and, in some cases, living – with locals has worked wonders for my Spanish. It goes without saying that it’s far better than learning it from a book or even in classroom setting – where, as soon as you get into the “real world”, you often seize up. Or at least I do. When I first arrived in France – after seven years of lessons – I may have been able to discuss the films of Franรงois Truffaut but I didn’t have a clue how to say “You’re welcome”.

I’d highly recommend travel-networking sites to keen linguists as a way to learn how a language is used on a real, day-to-day basis. Couchsurfing.com, for example, clearly shows you which languages members speak and many specifically use it to get extra practice with native speakers. So, you might find yourself in Milan, speaking Italian with your host over your morning cappuccino and then switching to English when you take an impromptu shopping tour.

My only criticism is that Couchsurfing.com insists on dividing competence levels into just three categories: beginner, intermediate, or expert. I’d argue there’s a big leap between the upper two levels. Could they not slot “fluent” in between? Fluent is a much better description for those who can communicate effectively, but would never claim perfection.

There are a range of travel-networking sites you can use to meet local hosts. Or, if you’re rooted to the spot, why not have people come to you? When in London, my Couchsurfing profile specifically states that “patient French and Spanish speakers are particularly welcome”. Alternatively, if you’re feeling particularly shy, you can do it all via your computer with sites such as MyLanguageExchange.com, VoxSwap.com and Babbel.com (incorporating what was Friends Abroad). Many of these also offer “voice chat”, providing invaluable conversation practice.

You could also meet with a group of other enthusiasts through MeetUp.com. (Michael Muszlak runs a great Anglo-Franco get-together in Paris every Saturday night.) Or you could try a skill exchange via community sites such as Gumtree.com. Last year, Luz Marina became my Spanish teacher in London, thanks to Gumtree; this year, I visited her in her native Bogota.

Recently, in a gringo-friendly cafe in Sucre, Bolivia, I saw a good-old fashioned noticeboard request. “Looking for someone to practice English with. Nothing weird. I’m just planning to move to the US.” My Couchsurfing contact in the town, Laura, noticed it too. “I used to do that,” she said. “Until I discovered Couchsurfing.”

I think I might try the old-fashioned note in a cafe when I get to Buenos Aires, or I’ll revisit the local Couchsurfing group. I’m also hoping Xili will come and visit me while I’m there. That way I can finally return some of her hugely appreciated hospitality.

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One Response to “Going local with the lingo”

  1. Thanks to Martin Drury for linking to this on his blog, joinmartin.wordpress.com. Martin’s challenged himself to learn as many languages as he can in one year and is encouraging other budding linguists to get involved too, whatever your ability. His blog is a great resource for beginners. Check it out.

    By Vicky Baker on Dec 31, 2008 | Reply

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