Why Travel-Volunteering is Every Language Learner’s Dream

How does volunteering help language learning? We asked Cambridge University examiner, language school owner and Workaway host, Jane, from the U.K. on why we should save a fortune on Language School fees and opt for an even more effective method: Total Immersion!


The idea of having to “do time” in a language class and pay dearly for the “privilege” is not very appealing, especially as many would argue that acquiring a language is far more effective than studying one.

A classroom is an artificial setting for a process which could be learned naturally. Studying or analysing the theoretical aspects of how a language is constructed is in many ways the antisthesis of what language is all about– the impulse to communicate with another person. It’s a bit like learning to drive by analysing how an engine works, rather than ever being behind a wheel and negotiating traffic. Really one is theory and the other is practical knowledge, awareness and skill.

Linguisitic scientists, such as Noam Chomsky and Stephen Pinker, believe that the ability to pick up a language is innate, we just need to be exposed to it enough and, after an “incubation period”, we’ll get a feel for how it works. A child applies the “rules” of grammar without ever having studied it. In other words our brains are receptive to recognising language patterns and can instinctively start to use them in a fluent and natural way…far more so than attempting to follow study notes.

There are four factors which are key to successful langauge learning, none of which can be offered in the classroom:

    1. The first stage of language aquisition is to be surrounded by it, or exposed to it, so that you become familiar with both its individual sounds and intonation, or melody.
    2. As merely listening to the language is not enough, it is also necessary to engage with what you are hearing, and to be motivated to decipher what is going on. At first you may feel bombarded, however with time your ears will recognise key words and taking into account the “context” of where you are and other visual clues you will start to interpret meaning. This is how children learn their native language… and it WORKS!!
    3. Having a need to communicate in a real situation (as opposed to an artificial “task” set by a teacher to practice certain aspects of language) not only encourages you to experiment with language, but also brings with it a huge amount of satisfaction at each and every breakthrough! Learning this way, you set your pace and your limits, in contrast to a classroom situation where you are spoonfed specific language structures according to your “level”.
      The step-by-step approach may seem logical, but arguably language becomes memorable when it is relevant to a person’s life. A native four year old could say “I’m getting much better at running, aren’t I? and yet this type of construction would be viewed as too complex to introduce in class until at least 4 + years of studying English!! There is a lot to be said for learning a language as the need for it presents itself…rather when a teacher says that it is time.
    4. Learning by doing: Rather than studying languages in the classroom where the focus is often on grammar and verb tenses (which tend to generate stress and mental strain, neither of which is very conducive to positive learning!!), it is possible to learn a langauge whilst doing something else…something that engages your attention or entertains you.
      You could learn by cooking, gardening, playing sport or any other collaborative activity which involves following instructions, asking for advice and social interaction. The chances are that the language heard and used will stick in the mind much more readily than if they were taught in class.
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Inspite of running a language school and teaching English, if a student comes to me with an urgent need to learn English as quickly as possible…I tell them that nothing beats going to an English-speaking country to live and work. Forget Intensive Language Courses, this is the most effective form of accelerated learning.

What would normally be achieved over a number of years “studying”, can be achieved in a matter of months if the person takes full advantage of their time away. Volunteering is an excellent way of doing this.

If you like travelling because you enjoy challenges and don’t mind launching yourself into new social situations, take it one step further and learn a language along the way.

Here are some tips:

  • Going alone so that you are more likely to communicate with the locals
  • Carefully selecting hosts and working environments that provide opportunities to develop your language skills. Make your hosts aware that language learning is a priority for you, so that they can help and encourage you.
  • Leave shyness at home, be prepared to try out any new languages inspite of your initial limitations. This requires patience and persistence.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously and realize that there are no such things as “mistakes”, just opportunities to learn and improve. Be willing to experiment.
  • Remember that anyone who puts in the time and energy can learn a language and that it is much more about attitude than academic ability.
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A language has a lot to do with its culture: its food, its music, its attitude and way of life. When you move away from home and encounter a new language within the context of its environment, it all begins to make much more sense.

You mentally embrace a new life within new circumstances using a new language…they all go hand in hand!

Hans always had a dream of settling in France, however he didn’t know enough about the language or the culture to feel confident about moving there. Staying with a host family gave him a good grounding in French so that he could fend for himself, as well as an insight into how things are done there. The hosts, knowing that he wanted to work on his language skills, were very supportive and even suggested that he come along to the theatre with them! When he did decide to relocate to France from Germany, he found that his time spent volunteering had given him a great advantage.

Then there is the accidental language learner! Robin and Helena spent a month teaching English at a village school in Cambodia. They shared a house with a local family and even though they never expected to learn Khmer or Cambodian, they found that just by being surrounded by it and with the routine of everyday family life and mealtimes they began to pick it up without even trying to! “By hearing the certain words repetitively, collaborating in the preparation of meals and sharing family jokes, we began to understand more and more…and even make up our own jokes using Cambodian words!”

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About Jane

Jane is another regular blogger who has been involved with Workaway since its birth back at the start of the century!! She has travelled extensively and has both volunteered and hosted travellers over... show more...

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