COMMUNICATING WITHOUT A TRANSLATOR
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.
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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