I almost didn’t make my deadline (albeit self-imposed) for today’s post. I’ve spent a week volunteering with V.I. tennis at the IBSA Games in Birmingham, and I’ve only just packed up my uniform for the last time as the sun is setting on Edgbaston Priory.
It’s been six days of sweaty, hard and sometimes challenging work, but six unforgettable days of incredible experiences too. Not least of those is the great opportunity to use foreign languages – both my stronger, weaker and almost non-existent ones (my three words of Lithuanian, I’m looking at you). The IBSA Games being together athletes from over 70 countries, so it’s not hard to find someone, somewhere, who speaks something you know.
International events are such a perfect match for linguistically-minded volunteers. And that’s not just the social butterflies amongst us. Meeting, speaking and helping is golden experience for anyone fighting (as I do) with a natural shyness. It offers a good level of self-challenge, but with the safety net of structured interaction in short, manageable bursts. I call it people practice, and it’s worked wonders for my own particular flavour of social awkwardness!
It’s also an opportunity to enjoy the serendipity of polyglot opportunities. Nothing ‘in the wild’ is ever predictable, and that can throw language learners off when we throw ourselves deliberately, and often over-expectantly, into a single target language setting. On an international volunteering gig, you simply don’t know what will come your way. It might be your favourite language; it could be one you haven’t touched for years, and never thought you’d use again. It’s a case of let the opportunity come to you – and you’ll be nimbler of conversation for it. Personally, I never expected to speak as much Polish as I did this week.
If you at all curious to try it out, check out the NCVO or equivalent in your country. Also, keep an ear to the ground for big events happening locally. The best leads are often by simple word of mouth.
Volunteering is massively rewarding, in so many ways. It really is the ultimate in giving something of yourself in order to grow, as a linguist – and otherwise.