Scott H Young

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Looking Back at a Year (Almost) Without English

Monday, September 1st, 2014

A few days ago I came back to Vancouver, marking the end of this project Vat and I started over a year ago. Together we lived in Spain, Brazil, China and Korea, all while trying to speak as little English as possible.

In this post, I’m going to recap the successes and stumbles of the project, along with what I think it means for travel and language learning.

Side note: I haven’t forgotten about the final update for Korea. I was hoping on releasing that article first, but we hit some delays editing the interviews, so I’m switching the order and putting this one first.

Was the Project a Success?

There were three dimensions of success I was interested in throughout the project. The first, was simply how well we avoided speaking English—the namesake and primary constraint of the project. Second, what level did we reach in each language? Finally, what was the overall experience of travel, did not speaking English improve the journey?

Did We Go a Year Without English?

No. I would have liked to report that we went an entire year without speaking any English. The idea was that I could come back to Canada, having removed myself from having conversations in English and really experienced different parts of the world completely in the language they use there.

From the beginning, Vat and I made exceptions to our rule. I was allowed to call my parents (Vat’s speaks Hindi with his parents, so he didn’t need the exception). I could handle necessary business calls in English. The restriction applied only to speaking. My work is in English, so eliminating writing and reading in English would have been impossible without simply abandoning my career.

Despite these exceptions, life in Spain nearly perfectly matched our original goal of not speaking English. Neither of us spoke a word of it to each other from the moment we arrived. Every friend we met was in Spanish, and I took the further step of changing most of my media to Spanish.

Brazil was a bit bumpier at the beginning. We had zero preparation for Portuguese, so despite its similarities to Spanish, we needed to use English during the first couple days. After the initial hiccups, however, it too was near our original conception of the year without English.

China was a mixed bag. I had done more prior preparation than Vat, so upon arrival, I was able to handle the transition to only speaking Chinese within the first few days. Vat oscillated between using English and Chinese, and although we spent less time together than in the previous countries, that also meant I frequently had to use English with him.

Korea was much worse than China. Neither of us had adequate preparation prior to arrival, so our method of avoiding speaking English became avoiding speaking entirely for the first month. Later on, we did speak more Korean, but we frequently switched back to English both in our conversations and with other Koreans. Struggling to find Korean-only friends in the beginning, Vat and I decided to cheat and do language exchanges as a means of making local friends.

The main takeaway I made from all of this was: Asian languages are hard, and attempting full-immersion without sufficient preparation is usually not going to work.

Still, even though we didn’t meet the rigor of our initial standard in Asia, we still achieved partial immersion—having full, lengthy conversations in each language and making friends with whom we only spoke that language.

How is Our Ability With Each Language?

The major justification for going without English was language learning. That is, we could learn the languages faster and better if we weren’t using English as a crutch. How did we do on that front?

All of the languages fall into an intermediate level of proficiency. Spanish is my best. I can converse on any topic, read books and even watch television and movies if I pay attention. Korean is my worst. I can have conversations in Korean, but my topic breadth is more limited and I need to ask for clarifications more often. Chinese and Portuguese fall somewhere in between.

The only language that I did a formal exam to benchmark my ability was Chinese. For Chinese I passed the HSK 4. The organization that conducts the exam recommends two years of study before tackling the exam.

Overall I believe this aspect of the project was quite successful. When Vat and I initially made plans, neither of us were confident that it would be possible to reach a conversational level in any of the languages. The fact that I can confidently say I reached a conversational level in Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese, and a near-conversational level for Korean is far above what I originally thought was possible.

The no-English rule was largely what made the difference. Although there are many ways of learning a language, going for full immersion made it possible to learn what would have taken years in just a few months.

How Did Not Speaking English Change the Travel Experience?

This entire project didn’t originally start as a language-learning mission. Instead, we had decided to do a world trip and the idea of learning languages and filming mini-documentaries came later.

It’s worth asking whether the no-English rule added or detracted from the travel experience. After all, if you’re busy language learning, you presumably have a bit less energy and time for other things you might want to travel for.

The experience of the trip was incredible. Partying all night in Spain. Surfing in the rain in Brazil. Ascending to mountain temples in China. Wandering the old Joseon-dynasty palaces in Korea.

But more than places, I’ll remember the dozens of good friends I made along the way. We both really got to experience the culture firsthand. Discussing mandatory military service over soju and salted fish. Sharing tea and talking politics with a tattooed Buddhist from Tibet. Paragliding over the beach with a girl from Argentina. None of those people spoke English, so I never would have met those people if I didn’t learn these languages.

Some tradeoffs were inevitable. First, we opted to go for depth, not breadth, in each country. Meaning we visited far fewer places, choosing to stay in one city for all or most of the stay in each country.

Second, language learning meant we didn’t meet as many fellow travelers. We spent most our time with locals or people who were staying long enough to have learned the language. I actually preferred this, but it does change the travel experience because you’re meeting people who are just living their lives, not sharing an adventure with you.

Again, in Spain and Brazil, the costs of learning the language and not speaking English were quite minimal compared to the benefits. Looking back, I can’t imagine being in those countries not being able to use the language well. It would have held us back from many of the experiences we had.

In China and Korea, the language was so much more difficult that it took up a non-trivial amount of time just learning it. I wouldn’t opt for the approach we took for anything less than three months, unless you’re certain you’ll either be returning to the country for more time or have done a fair amount of prior study.

Learning in China I felt struck the right balance for me. I had learned enough beforehand that transitioning to no-English was difficult, but possible. The Chinese I learned also allowed me to interact with a lot of people who don’t speak English and have experiences I felt would have been inaccessible to an English-only traveler.

Korea was a bit too far on the underprepared side for me, however Vat managed just fine. This seems to indicate that at least some of the problem was trying to tackle Korean immediately after my intensity of learning Chinese.

One way of evaluating the experience of something is to imagine taking a magic pill, and forgetting everything that happened immediately afterward, would you still bother doing it? Since I believe I would still answer “yes” to this question about the trip using the no-English rule, I’d vouch for this approach to travel for anyone in the future.

Going full-immersion is more difficult than other types of travel. However, you also get a one-of-a-kind experience, really getting to step outside of your own culture and assumptions instead of just visiting a place and expecting people to step into yours.

What Does This Mean for Travel and Language Learning?

When Vat and I set out on this trip, we didn’t expect it to be a model for everyone, or even most people. Most people can’t take a year off to travel. Most people aren’t going to speak zero English. Most people don’t want to film mini-documentaries.

As with the MIT Challenge, the hope wasn’t to set some kind of standard for others to follow, but to tell a story that hopefully encourages other people to make up their own.

I think it’s also unwise to assume a single story can be all things to all people. Here’s a blog article encouraging people to learn languages more slowly. Why do you have to learn a language in three months? What’s the rush?

I actually agree with almost everything that was written in that article. But I’d caution, there’s always more than one perspective, and showing one needn’t detract from another. Just because we attempted to learn with intensity, doesn’t denigrate learning languages through slow, patient habit. Now that I’m done the trip, my language progress will naturally switch to the second, so I hardly see them as contradictory.

Similarly, just because we opted to learn the languages of the countries we visited, doesn’t detract from people who travel without doing so. There are many ways you can design an adventure, so I don’t want to imply ours was necessarily better.

What I do hope, however, is that hopefully the trip convinced a few people that it is possible to travel, immerse in the language and succeed, even without decades of prior study or years living in the country. Neither Vat and I were convinced of this before we started, so doing the project has, at the very least, convinced the two of us.


Posted by Scott Young on September 1st, 2014 in Personal Development | 1 Comment »