Just like my fancy Philips UV-C box, sometimes, the biggest leg-ups to our language learning come from unlikely sources. So it is with community volunteering as a kind of social training, which, as a shy linguist, is something I try to throw myself into – sometimes against my kicking-and-screaming inner child – at every available opportunity.
This week, I had another opportunity for just that. In April, Brum is hosting the Union Cup, an exciting, international and inclusive sporting event that has been a couple of years in the waiting after Covid disruption. After last year’s Commonwealth adventures, it was a no-brainer to volunteer. A chance to showcase the city, support communities and get some valuable exposure therapy when it comes to interacting with lots of people. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that there’ll be speakers of lots of other languages around too.
It’s all an antidote to a very specific language learning problem I’ve experienced. It’s that reluctance to step forward and speak in a situation where I can use my languages. I’ve felt it at home and in my target language countries. It’s a complex beast, with several components: fear of making mistakes, looking silly, feeling a nuisance or a bother, and such like. Most of us feel these things from time to time, but there’s nothing like a foreign language to up those stakes!
But the social training that volunteering offers is almost perfectly suited to target all this. For one thing, in many roles, you’re almost constantly dealing with people face-to-face. And you never know what to expect. Sometimes you’ll get the whole spectrum of moods – good and bad – in the course of a morning. Someone might ask a question you have no clue about. Something might happen that requires you to think on your feet.
In short, it’s a social training that focuses on coping with the unpredictable. And if there’s anything that typifies using language in the wild, it’s unpredictability. What else, for something as varying as its human hosts?
So, into the fray we step for our social training. And even for shrinking violets like me, people work can get addictive. I now count amongst my friends serial volunteers who go for everything that comes along. Of course, it doesn’t have to be volunteering. I have a polyglot friend who is getting lots of people exposure from bar work, which he unexpectedly loves, and is thriving on.
On that note, fellow shy polyglots – and even those not-so-shy ones who want to keep their oar in – volunteer! It’ll be so good for you – and your community, too.