Melodi Grand Prix 2018

Living the language learning dream

I’ve written recently about learning a language through your interests. By binding your life’s passions with your learning goals, something special ignites. Living the dream as a language learner is all about throwing everything into it, about living life to the max, but through the language. And this weekend, I got the chance to do just that in Oslo.

I’ve always loved music, big arena events and the excitement of live TV. Add languages to that, and it’s no surprise that Eurovision has been a fascination of mine from an early age. Some countries are closer than other when it comes to sharing this love. Fortunately, for me, one of them is Norway – pretty handy for a Norwegian learner! So, what better reason to come to Norway than a couple of tickets for Norway’s Eurovision preselection show, Melodi Grand Prix?

Slice of life

It’s no longer just about the songs, of course – nine out of ten of the entries this year were in English, not Norwegian. But being part of such a big event of national interest drags you straight into the centre of the Norwegian microcosm. You see a real slice of life, being a popular family event; surrounded by cheering, proud citizens of all ages and backgrounds gives you a lovely feel of what it’s like to be a part of Norway.

More importantly, there’s the chance to chat. There’s something about a concert that breaks down barriers, and it was easy to swap opinions and discuss favourites with people sitting nearby. In fact, it was pretty unavoidable, once your cover is blown as an utlending (foreigner)… Everybody wants to know what you think of their national songs!

Melodi Grand Prix 2018 - a major part of living my Norwegian learning dream!

Melodi Grand Prix 2018

Dip in, dip out

Unless you are moving to a country to live, it is hard to embed yourself fully in social and cultural life. But this kind of intense dip-in, dip-out relationship can be a real shot in the arm for language learners. With Norway, of course, high costs dictate that visits (for now) are generally short weekend trips like this. But it’s enough to feel part of something, to keep passion alight, and to make friends that will slowly fasten you to your target language lands.

Choose your dream – and live it

This is what living my language learning dream looks like. Now, seek out what you love about your chosen cultures, and throw yourself headfirst into it. You will construct deep and rewarding connections that will last well beyond you have reached proficiency in a language.

The weekend inspired me to reflect on my experiences as a shy learner of Norwegian. Hear my thoughts below!

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Berlin, where have you been all my life?

Language learning isn’t finite; it’s a lifelong process, and isn’t meant to have an end. As such, languages never count as ‘finished’ or ‘learnt’, but require upkeep and maintenance.

With this in mind, I’ve been planning some exciting mini-trips to German-speaking towns over the past few months. Since graduating from university, I’d taken my German for granted a bit. As my first, and strongest foreign language, it was a bit of an oversight that needed some correction. And, looking in the right places with the right tools, you can unearth some real bargains, and make maintenance breaks a regular thing.

Bremen was my first German weekend of 2017, back in May. It was a great way to ease back into travelling the country – an intimate, friendly and compact city well served by budget flights. I loved every minute of it, and it left me ready for the big boss of German cities: Berlin.

Why Berlin?

As a student, I’d shunned Germany to focus on Austria and Switzerland. The southern German-speaking countries had a special draw to me then, with my fascination of dialect. (Germany is just as rich in dialects, though – something I overlooked as a student!) Berlin was a chance to redress the years of negligence, and really get to know this icon of Germany.

Zip in and around with ease

Berlin is an excellent place for a weekend hop-over or short stay. For a start, many low-cost carriers serve the city. From the UK, I flew in to Tegel for £40 (FlyBe), and am flying out of Schönefeld for £30 (EasyJet). From the US, although obviously more expensive, there are still budget options such as Wow Air.

What’s more, connections from the airports to the city are easy and excellent. The Berlin public transport system (BVG) is comprehensive, fast and good value. A Tageskarte (day ticket) for all zones A, B, and C – including the airports – is currently just €7.70. And that covers local trains, trams and buses. (For most of your full-day activities, a ticket for zones A and B will suffice, making it even cheaper.)

All this makes Berlin the perfect candidate for zipping into and around if you have a limited budget and a short time.

A Berlin for everybody

The huge selling point of Berlin is its diversity of attractions. There are museums, exhibits and sights that will appeal variously to all kinds of interests. And entry fees are, on the whole, very reasonable! Pretty impressive for a major city (and welcome to a Brit suffering from a weak pound!)

Traditional museum buff with a love of antiquity? The Pergamon Museum is probably top of your list. Like showcase architecture and spectacular views? Then head to the Fernsehturm (TV Tower).

As for me, I’m a political history nerd. Hungry to learn everything I could about the old East German regime, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a period the city has come to terms with through openness; the Stasi Museum (€6.00) and DDR Museum (€9.50) are intriguing, often disturbing, but ultimately extremely enlightening places to spend time. For the linguist, they offer tons of reading material in the form of short summaries of key events with each exhibit. These are in German and English, just in case you need some translation support!

Deciphering East German soldier speak at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

Deciphering East German soldier speak in an exhibit at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

History – and language – on every corner

The city is also full of symbolic, charged landmarks of political history, like Checkpoint Charlie and the restored Reichstag. To dig into the significance of each, I used the German language version of Wikipedia to do my planning beforehand. Additionally, public buildings have dedicated websites, like the Reichstag website – essential for booking the highly recommended (and free!) lift to the roof to view the cupola. The Reichstag reception also has piles of books and leaflets in German, all free to take away with you after your visit.

YouTube is a great pre-trip resource, with some excellent historical clips for fact-digging in the target language. I walked through the Brandenburger Tor, from East to West, after refreshing my own memory with German documentary footage of citizens streaming to freedom one November night in 1989. That made for a pretty special way to rei-imagine Berlin’s history.

The day-to-day

Besides the grand cultural experiences, there was plenty of chance to practise my more prosaic German. Berliners come across as open and friendly people, and it was easy to turn everyday conversations into a little bit more.

Being used to waves of tourists with little or no German, shop and restaurant staff seem more than happy to have a little chat if you want to go beyond “one piece of Streusel, please!”. Being curious and asking questions helps – “wie heißt dieser Kuchen?” (“what’s this cake called?”) was a simple but effective conversation starter in the bakery! Just the slightest hint of an accent will turn the simplest of questions into a chat about why you speak German, too.

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

In short, I don’t know why I left it so long. Berlin, where have you been all my life? Multiple trips back are a foregone conclusion; the charm of the city and the inexhaustible pot of things to do ensure that. As an affordable mini-trip for Germanists in maintenance mode, I can’t recommend it enough.

Context can help language learners in familiar situations abroad, like the coffee shop

Context has your back: Why it’s OK not to understand everything

I have a confession to make. I failed miserably in my foreign language last weekend. But it was still fine. Context had my back!

Before you feel sorry for me, it’s not as bad as it sounds. We fail in our native languages all the time, for lots of reasons. We don’t catch things, we mishear words, we don’t hear above the noise. It’s a normal part of comprehension not to comprehend everything at first.

Imagine the scene…

Here’s how it went down. I’ve just spent a quick, cheapie getaway weekend in Oslo to practise my norsk and enjoy one of my favourite countries. It was a real budget immersion weekend, with low-cost flights from and a free hotel stay thanks to air miles.

I threw myself into every social situation, ordering food and drink, going to a concert and even sorting out a free tour of parliament using my Norwegian. On the whole it went well, but there was one conversation that stands out from a coffee shop:

Rich: Er melkekaffe som en latte?
Servitør: Ja, ********.
R: Ah, jeg ville gjerne ha to melkekaffeer. Takk.
S: **** ******* spise **** ?
R: Nei, takk. Kanskje senere.
S: Åtti kroner.
R: Is milky coffee like a latte?
S: Yes,********.
R: Ah, I’d like two milky coffees. Thanks.
S: **** ******* eat **** ?
R: No, thanks. Maybe later.
S: Eighty kroner.

Yes, those asterisks are bits where I hadn’t a clue what the other person was saying.

It might have been nerves. It might have been background noise. The server might have had an unusual accent. But I found myself struggling to understand what I thought must be the most basic Norwegian.

Measuring language success as social transaction

So, success or failure? Well, I could beat myself up about not understanding every single word that was said to me. In fact, I felt like I barely caught anything.

But on the other hand – I got my coffee! There was no serious breakdown in communication. I guessed what was said to me, and didn’t get any funny looks when I made up an answer. As a social transaction, it was as successful as one I’d have in my native language. I’d filled in the uncertain bits by guessing from experience what was meant. In short: I’d winged it.

Winging it is normal!

This got me thinking about how I operate in English, and I realised that I rely on context in English just as much as I do on 100% comprehension! In a noisy café in Edinburgh, I’d be making the same assumptions and filling in the same gaps with context. I made myself understood, and I understood what was required of me in that interaction. No self-flagellation required!

Maybe the biggest failure was that I unquestioningly paid £8 for two lattes in Oslo. *ouch*

Context is king

Context works when two speakers share the same common values or experiences. In my example above, it’s how a coffee shop works. Thanks to globalisation, that’s a pretty standardised environment these days. Whatever you think about globalisation and cultural imperialism, they definitely help when trying to speak a foreign language!

When contexts differ, then you can prepare yourself for speaking by observing how things work in the target language country. Just hanging back and watching / listening to people interacting naturally before you works wonders. You can also pre-arm yourself by researching attitudes and cultural traits before a trip; this article contains some very interesting points about context differences across several cultures.

Be kind to yourself

It’s important not to be too hard on yourself when you manage these ‘by the skin of your teeth’ situations. Remember that you’re probably doing it regularly in your native language, too. If you read a transcript of your conversation on paper, you’d no doubt understand it in almost all its detail. But you didn’t need to in order to get your coffee!

Having a conversation in a foreign language can be quite a feat. Never beat yourself up for not getting every word – context always has your back.


Language travels on a shoestring

Despite brill online face-to-face services like iTalki for practising and learning languages with native speakers, you can’t beat time spent in the country as the best way to immerse yourself in your chosen language. Seems like an expensive way to fluency, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t have to be, with a range of web tools for sourcing super-cheap travel to your target language country.

Top of the list, and indispensable to the travelling linguist, is Google Flights Explore. It’s not particularly well signposted online – in fact, it’s practically clandestine, and you have to be told by someone else ‘in the know’ before you can find it! Why the experimental extension to Google’s flight search is not promoted more is a mystery, but it’s second-to-none at sourcing cheap flight offers with very general search terms (and I mean very – you can pop in ‘Scandinavia’ or ‘Eastern Europe’, and it will check the lot!).

For instance, say you’re learning Polish. Enter your preferred airport of origin, then Poland as the destination. You can adjust the length of the trip if you like, but the default 3-5 days is a good short break duration if you’re looking for a cheap getaway to practise your language skills. You don’t even need to add a date, as when you select your start and end points, you’ll be presented with a list of destinations along with time charts of the cheapest flights to each. It will even order them, with the cheapest, on average, at the top.

The example below shows that I can get to Warsaw from Edinburgh for as little as around £20 return (USD$25, although prices in your local currency appear when you click through to one of the flights on the time chart).

Google Flights Explore example

Google Flights Explore

Switching to a traditionally more expensive flight destination, such as Norway, still yields great results; a quick search today threw out some £30 returns on London-Oslo routes. It’s just as handy for longer-haul flights, too; flying from New York, Norwegian students can get to the country for under USD$300 return in a sample search made at the time of writing.

But how to minimise costs when you get there? Accommodation will be perhaps the biggest expense on the tick-list. It’s no big secret that, for value, you can’t really beat private rental services like AirBnB. Combining with the sample Polish flight search above, you could add a private room in a shared house for just £11 a night at the time of writing. That amounts to less than £100 for a 5-night stay, flights and accommodation included.

But there are more benefits to using these services like this than low rates. For a linguist / cultural explorer, a private rental property will likely:

  • come with a direct contact, and so more opportunity to meet a local and practise a bit of language as soon as you’re off the plane
  • give you a more authentic experience of what it’s like to live in the target language country, especially as it’s more likely to be self-catering (think of all that shopping vocab you can practise!)
  • give you day-to-day, lived experience of the language if you’re in a shared property / room in someone’s home

Compare that to the often sterile, internationalised hotel reception experience, and private accommodation offers big boons for the language traveller!

There are ways to minimise living costs while you’re there, too. They may not be glamorous – buying food supplies at supermarkets rather than going out to eat, grabbing a cheap pølser i brød (hotdog) at an Oslo kiosk for tea – but again, they bring you into direct contact with the target language, rather than sanitising your experience through safe, familiar settings like restaurants.

It might seem an extreme measure – and, intuitively, an outrageously unaffordable one – to ‘pop abroad’ when you need some target language practice. But it needn’t be bank-breaking, if you know where to look. Commit to a cheap cultural scouting trip once every month, or at least couple of months, setting yourself a tiny budget and seeing what you can do with it. Your inner linguist will thank you!