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Learning Foreign Language at Work

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At Work Best Place to Learn Foreign Language

I was fortunate this summer to have worked on a farm with El Salvadoreno — who is, yes, from El Salvador. No context had ever taught me a foreign language quicker and more efficiently than while working.

When you are on the job and receiving your instructions in a foreign language you MUST understand it — somehow. It is a matter of learning by compulsion.You have no choice. You can not just nod your head and say, “Si, si, si,” when a coworker makes a request of you. No, you have to figure out what they are saying, somehow.

Inertia — taking the easy way out of a challenging conversation —  is the arch enemy of one who is trying to learn a foreign language.

Learning a foreign language while working is 100% through direct association — through real circumstance — there is no messing around, no imaging future scenarios:

You are IN your learning.

So the visuals that are connected to unfamiliar words and phrases are seamed together perfectly flush.

In my experience, it is far easier to learn a language through visual association than by studying words on a page, it is more effective to learn a foreign language as sounds for things rather than sound substitutions for a previously understood words.

Ecuador - where I first began learning Spanish

Ecuador - where I first began learning Spanish

When El Salvadoreno tells me to go and cut the mesclun I do not think, “mescla” is the Spanish word for “lettuce” but I think of the field of lettuce and the knife I use to cut it. In this way, the sounds take on meaning in and of themselves, without the crutch of a mental translation.

To study language through books is a system of abstraction: you read a sentence and then try to imagine it in real life, or you read a Spanish word and then try to substitute it with Spanish. To learn a language in real life — through direct association between phrases and scenes — is to cut out the middle man. There is no translation necessary: the Spanish word just becomes a new sound that represents a thing, just as in your mother tongue.

This is fun.

There is no imagination necessary when El Salvadoreno yells at me to go and get the hose. In an instant, I learn the word for “hose” and “bring to me” and it somehow lodges itself permanently in my head, especially as context decrees the verbal directive anyway. Hmm, I suppose “maguera” means hose. Good to know.

If I were to read in a Spanish book a similar scenario of how a character was told to go and fetch a hose, I would be hard pressed to take these constructions and apply them in real life. I could remember all of the words easily enough but to bridge the dichotomy between book learned language knowledge and the normal speaking/ listening environment is difficult.

It has always been awkward for me to try to move information from the book learning parts of my brain to the language usage areas. It is my impression that the synapse trail between these two zones is long and full of weeds — or so it seems.

There is the paper world and then there is the real world. One can come to represent the other, but there will always be a divide between the two. Reading a Spanish lesson in a book and imagining a similar circumstance happening in real life is a sluggish way to learn a language.

Though I still use books to back up parts of Spanish that I learn through experience or have questions about. Yes, I consult the textbooks when I am stumped or befuddled in conversation — I find doing this to be good reinforcement — but I can no longer rely on textbooks to help me excavate the ruins of Spanish: the results are simply too dead for the living world of the language.

It is my impression that the logical ways of learning can only go so far in facilitating language acquisition. I am becoming ever more convinced that the human propensity for language is buried far deeper than the navigational seas of the mind.

Languages are learned down deep in the mind, perhaps even as deep as the the dark pit of experience and emotional bookmarks. To learn a language, you need to stuff it down deep by living it, making errors, and just finding out what happens — by speaking, listening, asking questions over and over and over again . . . and never nodding your head blankly when you do not understand.

Modern languages are for using, and using language means dancing with it. Soon enough, you will find that your feet begin finding the beat on their own accord.

My ability to use Spanish has increased dramatically in two months, only because I had to use it everyday as I worked, only because I had no other option but to dance to its beat. The first thing that I am going to do upon arrival in Central America this autumn is find a place to work. Because work is perhaps the best place to learn a foreign language.

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Studying Foreign Language
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Filed under: Language, Work

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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