People go to foreign countries for various reasons – to experience different cultures, taste regional cuisines, learn about ancient traditions, enjoy beautiful sceneries and admire unusual architectures.
As soon as I find myself in a foreign country, particularly a non-English speaking one, my attention is immediately drawn to its linguistic landscapes. By linguistic landscapes, I mean everything related to the language or languages used on the spot.
For example, it gives me great pleasure to decode the street signs and graffiti I bump into and to look for similarities and differences with languages I already know.
I thoroughly enjoy eavesdropping people’s conversations on trains or buses, even if I have no idea what they’re saying. I absolutely love watching people’s gestures and I’m totally thrilled when I finally catch a familiar word or two. At that moment, I realise how exciting it must be to learn a foreign language outside the classroom, in natural surroundings.
If only I could wander the streets and listen for as long as it takes to learn to communicate in the new language. I don’t know how much time I’d really need, but I know I’d finally make it – all on my own. What a great feeling it would be to know that I’ve learnt a language the way a child learns their mother tongue – slowly, step by step, just by watching, listening, imitating and interacting.
I also like to zoom in on how people relate to English. I notice how difficult or easy it is to approach somebody in the street when I’m speaking English. Will the people be willing to respond to a foreigner or will they be reluctant to communicate? If so, what’s the reason for their reluctance? Is it their patriotism or the lack of confidence to speak a language other than their own? How proficient are they? Is the respondent’s age important, i.e. is it safer to address a youngster or an elderly person if you need help? And in which professions are you likely to find somebody reasonably proficient in English?
I also like to see people’s reactions when I start using my mother tongue. Do they become suspicious? Does it make them friendly or hostile? Some tend to confuse Czech with Russian, others are totally puzzled. Some of them are curious enough to ask, others remain oblivious.
Finally, how do the people address me if they hear me speak an unidentifiable language? Do they ask in their mother tongue, hoping I speak it too, or do they automatically try English?
One way or another, the teacher in me is always alert and never stops asking questions: How could I make use of my observations in the classroom? Should I stop focusing on grammar? How should I sequence the vocabulary I teach? What do my students really need to learn first? Is listening more important than speaking or reading? What makes people confident to use a foreign language? How can I increase my students’ motivation to learn English? What methods could I use to make learning more authentic?