Language hacking ≠ language love

How will you hack your language to help others?
How will you hack your language to help others?

When I first saw Benny the Irish Polyglot’s TEDx talk, I was inspired. Here was a guy who suffered through language-learning in school with no success. Then one day he decided to just start learning on his own in his own way, and he made huge strides. Not only did he discover that he could learn languages, but he loved learning them. He “hacked” the language-learning process.
He created a very successful blog and YouTube channel. You get to see him struggling through the language-learning process as he has conversations with young folks all over the world. You follow his life in great locations like China and Brazil.

Living the dream, he inspired others. Lots of other young folks like him wanted to go live in exotic locations and hang out with cool local people and learn languages in the process. Other YouTube channels were generated.

Aspiring digital nomads (compulsive travelers whose work happens completely on the internet) got on the bandwagon. They wanted to go to exotic locations. Whether their internet connection comes in Bankok, Brasilia, or Barcelona, they could live anywhere—and learn the local language.

The digital nomads became the digital colonists. They came to take advantage of cheap rent—sometimes pricing locals out of whole neighborhoods—and “exoticness” for their own excitement. Rather than try to become part of a local community, they stay until the place is less exciting and then follow their Wanderlust.

Rather than inspire people to become more moral human beings, Benny’s “language hacking” gave people the tools to exploit more people in more countries—and have fun doing it.

It inspired selfishness. Not love.
Why loving language

Six ways to get out of the expat bubble

I bet you could practice your language with someone here!
I bet you could practice your language with someone here!

When you go abroad to learn a language, how do you make sure that you’re learning the language? Many people travel with the hope that they will “absorb” the language, and then find that this process does not unfold by itself. Many people get lonely and make friends with the folks they have the most in common with: expats. They quickly get stuck the trap of speaking their native language while abroad rather than the language they’re learning.

How do you get unstuck?

When I visited Spain in college, I had a chance to visit Pamplona for the Sanfermin Festival (the “Running of the Bulls”). In one bar I met a local girl, and we chatted in Spanish. She told me she spent a year in the US—yet she never tried to speak English with me. Surely after a year in the US, she would speak better English than my self-taught Spanish, right?

“Where did you live?” I asked.

“Miami,” she replied.

That explained it! She lived in the US without speaking English.

What could she have done differently? What can you do differently while abroad?
6 ways to get unstuck

Language Training Helps the Careers of Expat Spouses

Cross-cultural connection
(Photo by *** Harold R ***)

An expat assignment can derail a spouse’s career path making the whole family unhappy.  In a recent study described in this article, expat spouses have expressed that training to help their career during the expat assignment would have helped.  On the one hand, many spouses accompany the employee as a support.  The spouse runs the household and directs the education of the children.  On the other hand, other spouses have invested professional and emotional energy into a career they enjoy.  In an earlier post, I explained how language-training would help spouses of the former group.  Employers could do more to support spouses in the latter group.  Expat spouses desired employment assistance, and this article presented a few different areas of assistance.  Among the responses given, spouses most desired networking assistance.  Here I will present ways in which language-training lays the groundwork for networking, and so enables spouses hoping to continue–even enhance–their careers.

Networking requires the ability to make a good impression and carry on a pleasant conversation, and language plays an essential role in communicating.  Even if I speak mostly in English when I network, the fact that I try to speak and display my willingness to learn, I leave a great impression.  I spent a few days of my honeymoon in a small town in Morocco, called Laarache.  After I spoke to a few people in the local Arabic dialect, people approach me as the “guy who spoke Arabic.”  Networking happened without any effort for the next several days.

Communicating in the local language will help any career.  The above study showed that some spouses wanted to find a job, while others wanted to start a business.  You will need to network to find a job with an existing company.  Finding a job, though not easy, poses fewer problems than starting a business.  Entrepreneurship involves more paperwork and laws in some countries.  The bureaucracies of some countries baffle Americans.  Navigating these without a “native informant,” can end one’s hope to start a business.  When you can speak the language, you can speak more easily with government offices and more widely with locals who understand the process.  Often, knowing the rules does not help as much as knowing the individuals who enforce those rules.  In these cases, starting a business requires networking.

Companies who relocate employees, ought to provide training for their employees and their spouses that includes learning the local language.  Expats will make better, deeper, and more meaningful connections if they attempt to learn the local language.  These connections will help their career and personal fulfilment.  Spouses, whether they are functioning as support for an employee, or pursuing their own career, will flourish with this training.  Ultimately, as I mentioned in my earlier post, the company saves money if the expat family is happy and enjoying their overseas adventure.

Relocation Succeeds with Training for Spouses of Expats

Seventy-five percent of expatriate assignments end before the projected end date, according to this article, “Training: The Solution to the Expat Challenge,” which comes from the periodical, Training.  According to the same article, these assignments end often because of the spouse, not the worker.  While the company likely vets and trains the employee, the spouse likely has not been examined for his or her ability to work in and adapt to the new culture.  This article suggests that training for the spouse could improve the employee’s–and the company’s–chance of success.  I agree, and I see a potential for personal growth and learning for the spouse, if the trainer tailors his or her training for the life of the spouse.

Companies tend to offer more structure for the employee, while the spouse does not begin with this advantage.  The employee enters a world of work similar to what he or she experienced back home.  Coworkers are prepared for a newcomer and the have likely worked with foreigners before.  They will be friendly towards their new office-mate.  Often the employee was chosen for this assignment because of success at work, so the feeling of success begins the job.  The spouse, however, stays at home, away from this helpful structure.  Moreover, the spouse will be in charge of children and their education and activities.  No one provides a familiar structure or friendly people; the spouse must find it on their own.

Training spouses can create a positive, affirming structure in completely foreign surroundings, equipping them for a creative social adventure.  First, training will teach them about the culture and about the sorts of questions to ask to understand one’s surroundings.  While employees are trained on how to make a deal in the new country, spouses need specific training to know about philosophies about gender roles and child-rearing and typical children’s activities.  For example, do families typically have one or two employed parents?  Do children take gymnastics in this country?  Do kids play all afternoon by themselves, or do they participate in structured, adult-led activities?  In Eastern Europe, children typically spend much of their time in unstructured play outside, while in East Asia children may spend much time in music lessons.  With this knowledge, the spouse can structure a more American or more “foreign” life for the family, depending on comfort level.

Through the experiences of managing the household and children’s education, spouses will have unique opportunities to learn the local language.  They will experience more linguistic success through proper training, they may even enjoy advantages over the employee in this pursuit.  The employee may spend much of the day in a set schedule, speaking English much of the time.  The spouse will likely interact with bus drivers, housekeepers, bank tellers, or sales people.  He or she could set up language exchanges to learn the language, or can volunteer.  When we lived in Ukraine, my wife volunteered to work with developmentally-disabled teens and helped them with crafts.  She quickly learned to say in Ukrainian, “Beautiful!” (“Harno!”), “Good job!” (“Molodets!”) and “beads” (“bisery”).  The spouse has more options about with whom he or she socializes and so has more means for learning the language, and some linguistic training only improves the spouse’s chance for success.

Second, training can teach spouses about their internal tendencies in dealing with new situations and about using them to succeed overseas.  Since life is less structured, the spouse must adapt quickly to unexpected situations.  A neighbor of the opposite sex stops by: is this OK or is it weird?  The child of the expat got punched on the playground.  Was this an affront to a foreigner, a bully, or an everyday event?  Training cannot help plan for every specific situation, but can help spouses use interior tendencies and abilities in the most positive way.  Spouses draw from their confidence that they can solve any problem as they make mistakes and learn.  Unfamiliarity with new situations will challenge one’s abilities, but these situations will strengthen these abilities.  One can draw from these abilities in the future to solve problems more confidently and successfully.

The new situations faced by ex-pat employees are new versions of their old job; those of the spouse are entirely new.  When the company trains the spouse on what sorts of problems he or she may face, and how he or she can draw on internal resources to overcome them, the spouse learns and flourishes and the company wins.  In the end, the spouse has not only successfully navigated the new culture with its unfamiliar linguistic and social landscape, but permanently possesses the strength and character the experience has provided.