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Who Teaches Me Languages Abroad

Updated: May 30, 2021

Basically everybody and they mama 😂

Everybody I meet becomes my teacher because every conversation in another language is a learning opportunity. Hearing a different accent, new vocabulary, slang, speed, etc. It's always an opportunity to add to my skills. And you know what they say about practice.

When I was teaching English as a foreign language, I also had a unique opportunity to learn the language of the countries I was in. When teaching English I sometimes needed to know the translations as well. For example, when teaching younger students or vocabulary I often would make a cheat sheet for myself. If I was teaching the word dog I would tell the students the translations as well. This would allow them to make the initial connection to the new term in their own language.

In Korea, I also used this when teaching different letter sounds. Being able to connect a new sound with one you're already familiar with can be a major help when learning a new language especially with a different alphabet. When I was learning Hangul, the Korean alphabet, I wrote down the character and right next to it the letters in English that would make that sound. This helped me with sounding out words and being able to read things during my year in Korea.

My students also become some of my best teachers. When teaching high school students in Italy and Senegal, each lesson would end with me reversing the roles of the classroom. I would take on the role of the student and my students would become the teachers. We would take words and phrases from the lessons and they would teach me how to say it in their language. This often resulted in me butchering pronunciations and fumbling at the mouth, but it was a learning experience for me. It also was a way for me to show my students that even I, the teacher, make mistakes.

Even though my job was to teach English I also want my students to know that their language has value. Too often people think that their own mother tongues aren't important and even go as far as being embarrassed to speak it outside of their inner circle. That's not and will never be the vibe in my classrooms. I said it once and I'll say it again... language is a big part of culture. When you try to minimize your language you're also minimizing your culture, roots, and traditions. Stop it.

I have to shout out my friends and coworkers too. They take their time with me and don't mind my millions of questions. Conversations can be going well and then a grammar lesson. Or clarification on vocabulary. For example, in Kreyòl, there is one word for she, he, it, and read. I first learned it to be he or she. Then, I heard it used for the word 'it' so I had to ask questions. Later on, I was trying to tell someone I was reading a book and thought the word might be lir (because it's lire in French), but nope. Li again. Having people that are willing to explain the ins and outs of their language is definitely a major advantage when learning a language.

The last one is strangers. People I don't even know. People I encounter from daily life activities like grocery shopping, going out to eat, asking for directions, etc. These interactions are really gold because, depending on where you are, people will assume you speak the language. A lot of things can factor into this like the country, culture, and how you look. For instance, in Korea, it was not surprising for people when I didn't speak Korean, but, in Haiti, people assume I speak Kreyòl 😅

When you live in another country you are bound to have interactions with people outside of your circle and that don't know you. Being able to negotiate with a street vendor in the local language can be the difference between getting a deal and getting ripped off. Imagine getting in a cab and not being able to tell the driver where you're going. Yikes. Talking to strangers is really the ultimate test to see if you really know the language because once you start, most of the time, they'll assume you can keep it up which isn't always the case.

One thing I've learned from traveling and living abroad is that, in general, people are kind. When you make an effort to meet someone halfway in their own language it is much appreciated. Don't be that guy in another country mad that nobody can speak English. You went to THEIR country. You should be the one trying to learn the language of where you are. Whew, let me not even go too deep into that because that really grinds my gears.

At the end of the day, the struggle is real, but what did J. Cole say? There's beauty in the struggle. And, in this case, I couldn't agree more.

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