One way that you can really stretch yourself linguistically is to put yourself in situations that are uncomfortable.

In comfortable situations you usually use vocabulary you know well. Only spending time with friends can leave you relying on their familiarity with with your style of speaking, rather than on your accuracy.

It’s also easy to treat speaking your target language as a performance that you’ve prepared in advance: you’ve chosen the subject, memorised the relevant words, and now you’re demonstrating that knowledge to someone who you feel relaxed in front of.

Making yourself understood by strangers, in higher pressure situations, is a whole different ballgame. Your choice of words and style of communication become really important because the listener doesn’t have relational history to lean into as they try to follow what you’re saying.

Go get rattled

Although I’d practiced this while living in Jordan, I hadn’t really reflected on it’s benefits until I read Nathan Field’s blog post, 20 strategies for becoming a fluent Arabic speaker, a really useful post that he’s currently converting into an ebook. In his post Field says:

the key to really getting good at spoken is making sure a huge portion of your 250 hours take place outside of your comfort zone. You want: To be in situations where you are nervous [and] To be in situations where you are “rattled,” if not embarrassed.

He describes two situations in which car trouble (a blowout and a collision) forced him to speak, and where adrenaline and the ‘muscle memory’ of his studies “took over”:

The Arabic words just came out.  I didn’t think.  I reacted and spoke effectively

Taking up the challenge

Yesterday I put this principle to the test using the other language that I’m learning: Swedish. I’ve recently returned to Sweden, and decided to visit Arbetsförmedlingen, the official body that assists job seekers.

I had an appointment, and decided to use only Swedish during it, even though I knew the person I was meeting probably spoke pretty good English.

Beforehand I was much more nervous than I would have been going into an English-language meeting, but the decision payed off. The two staff members I met with were happy to stick to Swedish, and I understood almost everything they said. There were two moments when I reverted to English because I didn’t know the right word, but we returned to Swedish afterwards.

I left the interview excited and invigorated at what I’d just achieved, and exhausted from the amount of focussing I’d had to do!

Tips for getting uncomfortable

Here are a few of the ideas that Field gives for getting out of comfort zone language practice:

  1.  Take 5 minutes to research terms related to vacuum cleaners or some other device that you need to buy. Then Go into a department store and ask for the pros and cons of the vacuum cleaners they have on stock. Only in Arabic. Preferably with a queue behind you.
  2. Intentionally “get lost” in a neighborhood in the Arabic city you are studying.  Then ask for directions in Arabic back to the spot you know and find your way back home.  If anyone tries to help you in English,  say you are from a country where no one would know the language: Mongolia.
  3. Phone calling – so much of communication is conveyed by body language, seeing each other and that is often a crutch for Arabic students: just call a restaurant to order; call the department store to ask about stuff etc.

Read Nathan Field’s blog here.