RECOIL OFFGRID - - Front Page - By Mykel Hawke

When it comes to sur­vival, an of­ten over­looked but se­ri­ously crit­i­cal skill is lan­guage. You might be think­ing, how is a lan­guage go­ing to help me sur­vive? It may not be able to start a fire, but let’s look at how lan­guage is the spark that ig­nites team­work, a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of sur­vival.

First, if you’re not leav­ing the coun­try, how can a for­eign lan­guage help you sur­vive? What if you’re lost, hurt, or need help from a stranger who doesn’t speak English? Or stuck in the mid­dle of a large-scale dis­as­ter and good folks around you only speak Span­ish? Or if some­one is con­spir­ing to steal from you, and you’re lin­guis­ti­cally obliv­i­ous to their in­ten­tions?

Even if you have no plans to travel in­ter­na­tion­ally, lan­guage skills at home could wind up be­ing crit­i­cal to sav­ing your life or help­ing oth­ers. Think of the pre­dom­i­nant cul­tures con­cen­trated in dif­fer­ent re­gions of the U.S. Through­out the coun­try, Span­ish is the best for­eign lan­guage to study, as it has the high­est po­ten­tial for use. But if you’re in Louisiana or the North­east near Canada, French will serve you bet­ter. On the West Coast, Chi­nese might be an­other sur­vival lan­guage to study. Ask your­self where you’re headed and ex­am­ine some of the U.S. Cen­sus data to de­ter­mine which lan­guages have a strong pres­ence in var­i­ous ar­eas of the coun­try.

Fa­mil­iar­iza­tion with a sec­ond lan­guage for in­ter­na­tional travel is also an im­por­tant sur­vival skill. Over­seas, not ev­ery­one speaks English or is will­ing to use it even if they know it. In this case, ask­ing for a lighter in the na­tive lan­guage of wher­ever you are could in­deed help you get a fire started — touché!

Flu­ency vs. Func­tion­al­ity

Most peo­ple who study a for­eign lan­guage get dis­cour­aged quickly for one main rea­son — time. Teach­ers op­er­ate on the log­i­cal premise that you want to be­come flu­ent, which re­quires a strong foun­da­tional base and a lot of time. They start with the al­pha­bet and gram­mar rules, and it could be months or years be­fore you get to re­ally use the lan­guage.

As a for­mer Green Beret, we were of­ten de­ployed on short no­tice to strange lo­ca­tions around the globe. Usu­ally, no one spoke English, and we rarely had an in­ter­preter or lin­guist on the team. With­out a translator, and back then with no soft­ware or apps, we faced a lot of chal­lenges and mis­un­der­stand­ings. Some­times the re­sults were hi­lar­i­ous. Some­times, not so much.

Af­ter a few of th­ese short-fuse mis­sions, I re­al­ized there was a pat­tern of what com­po­nents of lan­guage were ac­tu­ally used. I wrote them down on pa­per and saw a pat­tern of how to speak in a purely func­tional man­ner. It wasn’t per­fect, but it was mostly gram­mat­i­cally cor­rect. I cer­tainly didn’t sound like a na­tive, but I wasn’t try­ing to. Of­ten, I spoke like a sim­ple child, but all my thoughts could be con­veyed and my mis­sion could be ac­com­plished. And that’s the sur­vival­ist’s way of learn­ing a lan­guage on the fly.

Learn it the guerilla way — fo­cus on the stuff that mat­ters. An­a­lyze your own vo­cab­u­lary in the course of a nor­mal day with fam­ily, friends, and co­work­ers, and you’ll find you typ­i­cally only use about 200 words. Fo­cus­ing your early ef­fort on learn­ing ba­sic vo­cab­u­lary al­lows you to com­mu­ni­cate ba­sic needs and maybe un­der­stand the gist of an over­heard con­ver­sa­tion.

Even ba­sic vo­cab­u­lary build­ing still re­quires time and ef­fort, but it’s not hard and you can start func­tion­ing on day one. By week one, you can com­mu­ni­cate the ba­sics. There are many books, apps, and other learn­ing aids avail­able to help you learn the lan­guage info you need.

Form­ing Com­mon Ex­pres­sions

We’ll skip ba­sic gram­mar and head di­rectly into which words are the most use­ful. Let’s break it down by fa­mil­iar parts of speech.

So, put­ting it all to­gether, it may look some­thing like: “Hello. My name is John/Jane. I need wa­ter. Where, please? Thanks.”

Bam! Day one, speak­ing and communicating. Now, pick your lan­guage, and we’ll look at some tools to help get you there. An hour a day is a good start.

Train­ing Tools

Books: A dic­tio­nary is key, but start with a youth ver­sion, as it’ll help you learn how to pro­nounce and con­ju­gate, while uti­liz­ing sim­pler words. A phrase book show­ing the lan­guage, your lan­guage, and pho­netic pro­nun­ci­a­tion is vi­tal to quick learn­ing.

Mu­sic: Buy some slower mu­sic, even chil­dren’s mu­sic, as a great way to help your ear and brain ad­just to the lan­guage and pick up words. Stuff like “Old MacDon­ald” and other com­mon nurs­ery rhymes will turn what you’re al­ready fa­mil­iar with into a new form. You can down­load them onto you phone, tablet, or com­puter and lis­ten when­ever time al­lows.

Me­dia: Watch chil­dren’s shows in the tar­get lan­guage. Buy some DVDs or watch some shows on­line. Down­load them so you can watch when trav­el­ing or not con­nected to the net. Try not to start with movies you know by heart, as the speed and com­plex­ity of the spo­ken lan­guage with plot sub­texts is of­ten not quite right in the trans­la­tion and you may learn some things wrong — and for sure you’ll be over­whelmed.

2011 Lan­guage Map­per Source: U.S. Cen­sus Bu­reau, 2007-2011 Amer­i­can Com­mu­nity Sur­vey, Ta­ble B16001

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