Taking advantage of being in-country

This is a room for the discussion of travel plans or experiences and the culture of places you have visited or plan to visit.
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Taking advantage of being in-country

Postby sctroyenne » Fri Apr 13, 2018 7:25 am

For many who are learning languages this is the ultimate dream: getting to be immersed in the country or region where the language is actually spoken: for a short or a more extended vacation, spending a year or so with a study abroad or working holiday program, or even moving there permanently or semi-permanently. Yet being there doesn't magically improve your language skills through osmosis a la Bart Simpson. I know in my own experiences I worried at times that I could be doing more and that I was wasting a golden opportunity. I thought it'd be nice to have a thread compiling ideas and techniques as inspiration for those currently immersed or planning to be for making the most of time spent to improve language, enhance understanding of the culture, make interpersonal connections, and grow personally. This last point is especially important, I think. Articles have been floating around the internet that you can almost gain a new personality by learning a new language. Learning a new language while also immersed in a new culture is a good opportunity to start pushing yourself out of your own comfort zones and trying out completely new things you may have never thought to do at home. It's part of what I like living outside of my home country for: you take the little mundane things for granted a lot less since everything is new and different.

I've plugged this before and I'll do it again here: one of my favorite sources of inspiration for making the most of immersion is In the Name of the Fada with comedian Des Bishop who went to the Gaeltacht to learn Irish through a mixture of classes, homestay, and special projects. I feel that what made the experience so successful for him was the projects and goals he came up with along the way such as performing a stand-up routine in Irish, translating and performing "Jump Around" by House of Pain, getting an appearance on long-running Irish soap Ros na Rún, and auditioning to be a voice over actor for the Irish dub of South Park. He also enhanced his experience along the way with homestays, visits with Irish speakers, joined an Irish-speaking rugby league, went to immersion camps and interacted with people in Irish, etc. He later did a similar series in China which I haven't yet seen.

Some other experiences I or people I've met have had or have thought about:

Live with local roommates, use Couchsurfing, rideshare platforms (as in actual sharing, not Uber), AirBnb where you stay in a room in the home of the host, hostels, etc for lodging: A great way to meet other people even if you can afford to not share a living space.

Do a homestay or get invited to someone's home for a dinner or party: Family/home life is a whole other area to explore. And if you're alone in the country it can get really lonely, especially around major holidays (I remember getting off a train in the countryside and seeing all the grandmothers waiting for their kids/grandkids on the train platform wishing I had a French grandmother to greet me). Sometimes if people hear you're alone for the holidays and whatnot they go out of their way to invite you to dinner. If not, there may be techniques for nudging people or coming across the types who will (any suggestions?).

Volunteering: I've volunteered at cultural festivals allowing me to have tons of interactions with festival staff, fellow volunteers, and the public with perks such as getting to attend lectures/panels, films, concerts, etc. You can also volunteer with various other kinds of charities and non-profits which at the very least should allow you to meet people. In addition to regular volunteer opportunities, if any kind of minor or major disaster happens in your area, there may be a sudden call for volunteers to help with relief. I've also had someone suggest volunteering for political campaigns. There are also various community organizations and coops that allow you to get involved locally. If you ever attend an event that you like, you can contact the organizers and see if they're ever looking for help.

WWOOFing: I met someone at an Irish workshop weekend who learned conversational Irish to an advanced level by WWOOfing in the Gaeltacht and staying with a family who insisted on only speaking Irish.

Check out travel sites and books geared towards locals: Many people who go on vacation travel within the country and locals might have different destination preferences than international travelers. See where they like to go and even go on organized tours with them or on walking tours in the local language.

Teaching or taking classes: One person in my Paris study abroad group was a dancer and fitness buff. Soon after our arrival in Paris she approached a dance studio and proposed teaching a Hula class and was accepted. I think to this day she still teaches dance and fitness classes and has met a lot of people that way. You can also take those kinds of classes on a regular or as a one-time basis. Attending as a regular will allow you to potentially make friends, though. I've learned a lot about not only music and French musical terms but also Quebec French by taking private music classes.

Interviewing for jobs and working in the target language: You'll feel like a million bucks the first time you manage to make your way through a job interview in your target language regardless if you actually end up getting hired. For lots of quick practice, attend a job fair or networking event. I've attended some networking events geared towards immigrants and what was really neat was being in a big room with a bunch of people from all over the world with all different kinds of backgrounds with one thing in common: the French language. For me it was really powerful realizing the world that was opened up to me just because I decided to learn and become fluent in French. Also, try seeing if you can do various odd jobs and side jobs even if you have a regular career job. It can be hard to meet people as an adult otherwise and sometimes work can be your best option for making friends. In the States I knew immigrants who had side jobs in restaurants and bars not only to make extra money but also to meet more people. You'll have lots of interesting stories and experiences as well.

Taking care of administrative stuff, going to the doctor, setting up services, visiting apartments, etc: Not necessarily the most fun part but necessary and you'll feel good when you're using language for something highly practical (though sometimes the person you're dealing with is an asshole and they'll make you feel bad unfortunately). Depending on your issue you may need to look up some vocabulary (I realized my injury/illness symptoms vocabulary wasn't very large and had to look up some words before going to the pharmacy). Afterwards you'll be able to commiserate with locals about dealing with administration and bureaucracy.

Get a haircut or other salon-type treatment: You can pay someone to interact with you!

Meetup and other platforms for meeting strangers: Depending on where you are and the type of people who are in your area, there may be online platforms that bring strangers together for activities and outings. Meetup is a common one though various Facebook groups seem to be replacing it and other countries might favor different platforms (in France the most popular among actual French people was On Va Sortir). Try to find really unique activities and events that you wouldn't necessarily associate with the local culture. Going to Celtic music/dance nights in Paris, for example, allowed me to meet all kinds of different people who don't conform at all to the stereotypes of French people and Parisians. In the physical world some places may be good for introducing strangers to each other: board game cafes, hobby groups, and sports leagues for example.

Using the internet to interact with locals: This is different than Meetup et al in that you can use social networks and forums on the internet to interact with locals whom you can later meet in real life. Check out locals on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook groups, LinkedIn, Reddit, Tumblr, blogs, etc. You can also use the conversation app HelloTalk to find locals (and I assume iTalki as well).

Dating: One of the frustrations with the above is that it can be challenging to form new deep, meaningful, platonic relationships in adulthood. People just get really busy so it's common to not see friends all that often. That makes dating in many ways an easier way to meet and see people on a regular basis. Comes with obvious downsides, of course, but it makes life interesting.

Go to bars: Not everyone likes bars but they can be great for meeting people (cafes might be okay but I find it's more rare to find strangers interacting with each other at cafes). Usually you can talk to the bartender at least and you can often have conversations with the bar regulars. I find the best time to go if you're alone is earlier, before and during happy hour, on weekdays. During peak times people tend to be out in groups and less likely to talk to you so you may feel more out of place (it all depends of course). Bars also often have activities and events such as trivia nights (though if you didn't grow up in the area there are certain categories of questions you'll be useless on - for me here that's hockey trivia). Try to establish a bar (or cafe) as your regular spot, even (or especially) if you're just on vacation. Once people start to recognize you they'll be more likely to want to talk to you and it's nice to have conversations where you don't have to start at the beginning each time ("Where are you from?" "What are you here for?" "What do you do?" etc).

Take up smoking: This suggestion is pretty tongue in cheek and I'll never do it. But I envy how smokers have more opportunities for socializing and bonding. It also seems like *everyone* smokes in France and here in Quebec. If you don't want to harm yourself for the sake of chatting with more people, it seems that having a dog and/or a baby invites a lot of interactions with strangers and socializing possibilities (maybe you can borrow one?).

Watch regular television: Not just films and episodes of TV series but just have the TV on and discover their commercials, their local news, their game shows and variety/talk shows, reality shows, all the trash TV, etc.

Attending TV tapings, radio broadcasts w/audiences, live theatre, live standup, improv: Standup shows in bars can be a really scary experience in case the comedian like to pick on members of their audience (I hate it when comedians resort to that unless they're responding directly to a heckler) and being a foreigner with an accent and/or less than perfect language skills might make you an easy target. If you're brave, though, go for it! Otherwise there are more formal shows where comedians perform a more pre-rehearsed routine on stage. Improv is great to watch as well but if you want a great linguistic workout you can try doing it yourself! I've also explored ways to sign up to be an extra for film/TV tapings but I've never actually done it. It's possible though!

Give talks, presentations, etc: It's not always easy to do, especially in a foreign language, but if you know quite a bit about something or have something to share, people might be interested in what you have to say and will want to talk to you. It's also a good way to overcome some social anxiety.

Whew! I think that's all I can think of for now. I feel like even after being here for a while I still need to think of ways to shake things up and try new things and find new ways to interact with the culture so I keep making new contacts and broadening my horizons. What are your suggestions and strategies? Anecdotes? Successes and failures?
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Re: Taking advantage of being in-country

Postby Adrianslont » Fri Apr 13, 2018 7:51 am

Good topic and awesomely extensive post.

I will add one idea, hire a car and driver! This is of course going to be ridiculously expensive in some countries but can be ridiculously cheap in others. Travelling in Indonesia I have hired a driver for as little as $40 AUD a 12 hour day - plus paying for parking and drivers meals. I got good practice as most drivers only have limited English. This compares very well with private language tuition
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Re: Taking advantage of being in-country

Postby Lawyer&Mom » Fri Apr 13, 2018 3:23 pm

Read trashy fiction. All those books you would never pay for and have shipped overseas? They are all available for free at your local library. Take advantage!
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Re: Taking advantage of being in-country

Postby Axon » Fri Apr 13, 2018 3:54 pm

Amazing stuff!

I've been lucky to travel and use almost all my languages in-country. My biggest trip was organized specifically to practice languages I knew and to make me learn new ones. I'm now in my seventh month living in Indonesia.

Read local newspapers cover to cover. There are so many local papers you might never find just searching for online papers in your target language. Even in my hometown in California we have several little local papers talking about art shows or community events or new restaurants - and one of them is bilingual in English and Spanish!

Go to small museums. You might be surprised how many small to medium museums only cater to a local audience and barely have any English. There's a museum in Flensburg, Germany, where everything is only in German and Danish. I spent about four hours there reading everything I could, taking pictures of text, and listening in on tours.

Find out what apps the locals use and use them. sctroyenne mentioned many but not WhatsApp, LINE, or WeChat - some indispensable apps for travelers to Asia. WeChat in particular is integrated into Chinese society in a way that has no parallel in America. Here in Indonesia the taxi hire apps are about a third the price of actual taxis.

Go into stores and ask about things. I stole this tip from Mike Campbell of Glossika. When he was learning Chinese in Taiwan he would go into little convenience stores and ask "what's the difference between these soaps" or "does this chocolate have nuts" or even simply "what's this called?" I go into minimarts about every day and I've absolutely done this before. The great thing about it is that you can just say "Oh, that's not quite what I'm looking for" and leave with no pressure. In Poland, on the first trip I took when I was really starting to get crazy about languages, I needed to buy nail clippers and there was no way anybody spoke English in the part of town I was in. Just by looking around at other things and labels in the store, I collected enough words to say "scissors for the tips of your fingers" and it worked perfectly. Smiles all around.

One of the biggest benefits of immersion (and being a curious person in that environment, of course) is that you will have unexpected language situations thrown at you all the time. That means even if you're not great at the language, you'll gain the ability to circumlocute like crazy in order to get things done. I once translated Indonesian to Mandarin in the hospital for an exchange student that had contracted salmonella. She informed me afterward that I had been using some rather uncouth terms I'd picked up from hanging around my girlfriend's little brothers. So much for a career in medical translation.

Edited to add: It turns out that living abroad is when you actually get to experience those boring parts of the phrasebook. Just traveling through a country for a few days, you might use "At the Train Station," "In the Hotel" and "In the Restaurant." But in the past few months I've checked off "At the Post Office," "Seeing the Doctor," and "Renting a Vehicle."
Last edited by Axon on Sat Apr 14, 2018 1:18 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Taking advantage of being in-country

Postby iguanamon » Fri Apr 13, 2018 4:35 pm

Excellent post by sctroyenne! One of the sources of frustration for some folks comes from people who go on holiday/vacation in a traditional way- to hang out at the beach in Spain, go to the touristy sites and vacation with their L1 speaking family or partner and then expect to get an "immersion experience". It's probably not going to happen.

Going outside the box, and off the beaten path, is the way to go for a better language experience. I've had some good experiences hanging out in pubs/bars where the locals do. When I flew to Brasil, I flew on a Panamanian airline, Copa. My seatmates were Brazilian. They were impressed I could speak Spanish with the staff and spoke to me in Portunhol. I responded in Portuguese and was given a ride into the city center after the flight and then to my hotel. Later, we met for lunch and I got some great tips for things to do. I've had my glasses repaired in Portuguese and Spanish, asked for a pair of shoes when I didn't know my international size and had to get my feet measured in Brazil. I sat down on a park bench in Rio and struck up a conversation with my seatmate and was invited out to lunch and a home visit, later to a football match. I've been a guest at dinner parties in Portugal and Spain. I've had to ask for medications at the pharmacy in TL. I've negotiated a better deal from an airline in Spanish after being wronged by said airline. Opportunities are there, but you have to make them, or at least be open to them when they come your way.

As an aside, we should remember that we don't just represent ourselves when we are abroad. We also represent our countries. One of my friends here on the island is a bartender. She always remarks on the rudeness of the tourists who greet her with "I'll have a Heineken", or "give me a rum and coke". Here, local people have it drilled into them from birth to always say Good Morning, Good Afternoon, Good Night (the way to say Good Evening here) as the first words out of their mouths when meeting someone. It's just being polite and acknowledges the other person's humanity. Of course, it always pays to be kind, considerate and helpful. A smile, a greeting and some sympathy can go a long way, especially when it's sincere and, in a TL country, in TL.
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Re: Taking advantage of being in-country

Postby Systematiker » Fri Apr 13, 2018 5:05 pm

Another option is, if you are the type of person who is into it, faith-based communities or groups. If you can find one where you share their beliefs (even in broad strokes) or you're halfway interested, many of them will not only have a regular worship gathering sometime in the week full of people who love to see new faces, but also age- or interest-based groups that meet on or off-site (like, 20-30s for coffee, or something). This is true for pretty much any faith tradition to a greater or lesser extent, and I can certainly attest that the types that meet Friday-Saturday-Sunday will often have someone who is just so interested about you learning their language and culture and coming to the service that you might get invited out for lunch/dinner/whatever (obviously, this doesn't work in worship locations that are also tourist attractions, find something off the beaten path).
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Re: Taking advantage of being in-country

Postby garyb » Mon Apr 16, 2018 10:46 am

Great stuff!

I did a few of these during my travels last year (about 1.5 months in Spain and 3 in Italy). The "sharing economy" can indeed be a goldmine: almost all of my AirBnB hosts and BlaBlaCar drivers and fellow passengers were very happy to speak their language with me.

Couchsurfing (for finding accommodation or just meeting people) is more hit-and-miss: it tends to attract a particular "internationally-minded" demographic that is better at English and more keen to speak it than the average local, but there's a community spirit of sharing so people are often open to language exchanges. CS meetups can range from very open and friendly to quite cliquey and unwelcoming; sadly the ones in my city have gone from the former to the latter in recent years.

Hostels are again hit-or-miss since you'll mostly meet international travellers, but staff are often happy to chat and there are often guests who speak the language: in Italy I met some people visiting from other parts of the country, and in Spain there were many Latin-American travellers. In France however my experience has been that hostel staff are mostly volunteers from other countries rather than native French speakers.

I have great memories of going into a bar alone in Sardinia, making friends with a few people there, and hanging out with them afterwards.

Overall I think that my number-one tip would be to stay in one place or a few places for longer rather than travelling around, or at least use one location as a base for visiting others from. That gives you a lot more time and opportunities to apply all this great advice and meet people. If you move around a lot you mostly just end up having the same superficial interactions. Moving around frequently also gets very stressful as you end up spending so much time organising accommodation and travel. That's the mistake I made on my trip.
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