“What is language for? It’s not just the naming of things, is it? It’s the lifeblood of a culture, a people.” JRR Tolkien, in the film Tolkien.
We all have different reasons for learning a language: for some, a job or an opportunity might have brought them to a country where they don’t speak the language; for others, it could be an effort to learn more about our own ancestry; and still for others, it could be to build intimacy with your spouse’s family. But for many of us, our diverse reasons source from the same common goal - we want to build inter-cultural relationships and understandings.
Regardless of how we approach it - with books, courses, teachers, online, language partners, grammar resources, etc - learning a language is inextricably tied with a journey of understanding, getting to know, or even becoming one with a culture. Insofar as these two journeys are linked, it follows that as your language skills advance, the social and cultural situations that you are exposed to advance as well.
These 8 social situations, ranked by difficulty, will most certainly be encountered along your language-learning journey. For me, they provide stepping stones for that journey, and in my opinion, they must be overcome in order to truly master a language:
- Buy a coffee at a coffee shop.
- Order food at a restaurant.
- Ask somebody about their day, and ask them at least one follow-up question.
- Explain to somebody why you are learning their language.
- Learn a song by heart.
- Tell a joke that somebody laughs at.
- Get into a political or philosophical debate.
- Tell a joke that somebody laughs at in a group conversation.
I chose these 8 social situations for very specific reasons. Read on to find out why…
1. Buy a Coffee at a Coffee Shop
This is level 1. You’ve just arrived to a new country, and you need your caffeine! You require just some basic vocabulary and grammar; you don’t even need much in terms of listening comprehension skills. It also helps that you’re basically paying the cashier to listen to you :P (Note: this social situation works just as well with beer, soda, or water).
2. Order Food at a Restaurant
This is similar to buying a coffee at a coffee shop, but it’s a bit more complicated. You’ll need to be able to read and understand a menu, and you’ll need to have a bit deeper of a conversation than you had with the cashier at the coffee-shop.
3. Ask Somebody About Their Day, and Ask Them At Least One Follow-up Question.
Things are starting to get interesting now; you can be understood by cashiers, waiters, and waitresses, and that’s no small feat. So people can understand you, but can you understand others? This social situation is the first step towards building relationships in your target language. In order to do so, you need to be able to listen, understand, and respond.
4. Explain to Somebody Why You Are Learning Their Language.
When we meet people and unexpectedly speak to them in their mother tongue, they are almost always pleasantly surprised. And so, one of the most common questions we get asked is an excited “hey! why do you speak Portuguese/Hebrew/German?”.
Answering this common question will force you to discuss your background, your story, use multiple verb-tenses, and use vocabulary that is probably quite important to you (e.g. vocabulary about where you’re from, what you do, important relationships, etc). This is your first step to constructing long-form speech, and is the second step for building relationships in your target language.
5. Learn a Song by Heart.
Yes, I know, this isn’t truly a social situation! I had to include it, though, because learning music is a great way to learn a language, for so many reasons:
- You learn the unique way that the language gets mapped to rhythms and melodies. For a great example of how different languages map to different rhythms, check out the famous song The Girl from Ipanema, which has both Portuguese and English lyrics; in it, you can hear that the Portuguese lyrics have many more syllables than the English chorus, and if you speak both Portuguese and English, you’ll note that the Portuguese lyrics are decidedly more effusive.
- Textbooks will teach you the important English phrases “want to” and “going to”, but only music, in its slang and melodic speech, can teach you the important phrases “wanna” and “gonna”. And you need to learn “wanna” instead of “want to” if you ever want to understand native speakers, and even one day sound like one.1
- A song can have many cultural concepts baked into it - the approach to work, to gender identities, attitudes towards punctuality and age, and much much more. As such, just one song can teach you a surprising amount about your target language and its culture.
Beyond all the things you’ll learn from learning a song by heart, doing so also gives you a great way to practice your language all the time - you can sing to yourself while you’re walking, while you’re doing the dishes, or while you’re cooking. You might even find yourself in situations the the song comes on at a party, and you can sing along just like all the native speakers.
Committing a song in your target language to memory requires a moderately advanced level of listening comprehension… do you have what it takes?
6. Tell a Joke that Somebody Laughs at.
What is a joke, really? A joke - whether it derives its humor from pun, word play, irony, or sarcasm - is, by definition, a non-conventional usage of language. When you tell a joke, you’re testing the limits of a language, purposefully using it incorrectly.
Whenever I’ve told a joke early on in learning a language, the person I’m telling it to usually corrects my speech: “actually”, they say, “you wouldn’t say it like that”; to which I invariably say “I know… it was a joke”; to which they force out a laugh and a “oh, I didn’t realize!".
To hear your joke as the true joke it was intended to be, and not just as an incorrect usage of the language, the person you’re telling it to must already subconsciously feel that you can speak completely, correctly, and comfortably. If they don’t, then they won’t even be able to hear your joke.
As the adage goes, you must learn all the rules before you can know how to break them; having somebody laugh at your joke indicates that you’ve mastered all the rules, and are beginning to learn how to artfully break them in your own unique way.
7. Get Into a Political or Philosophical Debate.
Conquering this social situation requires two particular aptitudes in your target language: fluency, and cultural assimilation.
In the early days of learning a language, you learn vocabulary like “book”, “to buy”, “to drink”. Once you’re approaching fluency, however, you learn vocabulary like “vote”, “paradigm”, or even names of the local political parties, and teachings of great thinkers and writers who are pivotal to the culture of your target language.
To have a political or philosophical debate requires that you can ask thought-provoking, engaging questions in your target language that are culturally assimilated.
8. Tell a Joke that Somebody Laughs at in a Group Conversation.
This is the boss level. Group conversations can be hard enough in your native language, let alone in a foreign language–when do you enter the conversation? Are you talking too much? Are you not talking enough? Is it appropriate to make a joke here?
Beyond the skills necessary to tell a joke, this social situation requires that you can follow the tempo of a group conversation. It requires a number of language- and culture-specific skills, including tone, body-language, and knowing when it is and isn’t okay to interrupt someone; interrupting alone can mean different things in different languages, from demonstrating interest in Hebrew or Portuguese, to exhibiting disrespect in Northeast US English. It requires that the language flows seamlessly through you; it requires that the language has become a user of you, and not only that you are a user of the language; it requires fluency.
You might note that the last three social situations are outcome-based goals, rather than action-based goals. And this is intentional! Back when I was learning Portuguese, people would often ask me “are you fluent?”, to which I would turn to my Brazilian friend and say “do you think I’m fluent?”. The best judges of whether or not you’ve mastered a language will always be the native speakers.
These are my 8 steps to learn a language, and I’ve used it to learn Spanish, Portuguese, German (for which I’m working on goal #6), and Hebrew (for which I’m working on goal #5). How you move from social situation to social situation is up to you!