6 Ways to Learn a New Language Without Picking Up a Book

When I was thirteen, I studied a mandatory year of French.

hated it.

My reason was simple and would have done my father proud: it just wasn’t practical enough. As a homegrown Kiwi who hadn’t yet developed an appreciation for travel and culture, I couldn’t fathom why students were forced to learn French of all languages. Logic suggested that Mandarin or Spanish – two of the most widely spoken languages in the world – might actually be worthwhile. Or even Maori, the native tongue of New Zealand. It was fair to say that I didn’t take to my lessons.

Seven years later, and my only regret from school was not properly studying a language. I both admire the cognitive capacity of multilingual people and yearn for the opportunities they earn from such an skill. I dabbled in languages here and there, but I always lacked the motivation to put in the hours. It wasn’t until I decided to travel to Spain in 2017 that I found a reason to commit.

My only previous exposure to Spanish had been from the sassy Hispanic women on Orange is the New Black (I’m cultured, I know). I also hadn’t really heard of anyone who successfully taught themselves a second (or third… or fourth…) language without enrolling in an expensive course. But I was determined that I wouldn’t fail this time around, and that when I arrived in Madrid, I would be able to order a damn paella.

Whilst I’m far from fluent, two months later I can confidently read and write basic Español. My listening and speaking skills still need some brushing up, but I no longer helplessly flail when I try to read a menu or ask someone for directions. The following six activities played significant roles in my self-tuition, and none involve picking up a language book. Most importantly, they are fun. To me, learning Spanish is a game rather than a chore, and as someone who maintains a love-hate relationship with linguistics, that is one of the most important things I could get out of such an exercise.

1. Download a Language App

When I first embarked on my journey to learn Spanish, I opted for Duolingo. I spent a couple of intensive weeks on this platform, but whilst I made considerable progress through the chapters, I struggled to retain words longer term. Around this time, a friend recommended I give Memrise a go… and I’ve never looked back.

Memrise is fantastic because it takes management over making you practice the old content till you nail it before moving on to the new. It also exposes you to new material in a logical and easy way so that even as a beginner, you still have the important areas covered. By introducing personal stats to the mix, you are able to compete against and challenge yourself 💪

2. Change Your Phone Language

Admittedly, this is a bit of a risky one. But, if you can stick it out, you will reap the rewards.

By going into your settings and swapping your native language for your new one, words that you have come to be familiarised with through social media or apps will be replaced with others. This helps you to make connections between the known and the unknown in a habitual context. For example, most everyone is used to seeing that ‘Like’ button when they log into Facebook. When I changed my phone language to Spanish, I soon grasped that the equivalent was ‘Me Gusta’.

Tip: Make sure you know exactly where to change the language back to English (or whatever be your mother tongue) so that in emergencies, you can still operate your device. It’s all fun and games until warnings start flashing on your screen and you have no idea what your phone is trying to tell you.

3. Find a Language Buddy

The thing about learning a foreign language is that simply being able to read and write is a whole different ball game to actually listening, speaking and interacting in general. If you are teaching yourself, then the chances are that there are not many people in your social circles who also speak that language.

Well, it’s time to make friends! My Spanish exponentially improved once I began conversing with native speakers. I made these connections by using Couchsurfing, the social travel website I mentioned in this and this blog post. I stayed with hosts in Madrid who were more than happy to invest time in going through exercises with me and helping me understand and correct my errors. It was a win-win situation; these people were also bushing up on their English, so we were both getting something out of the interaction.

4. Immerse Yourself in the Place

Granted, this is easier said than done. Depending on where you are based, access to a country where your chosen language is widely spoken may require large financial sacrifices. For me, it was no painless manoeuvre to get to Spain all the way from the antipodes of New Zealand, but this only motivated me all the more to commit to my Spanish once I did arrive.

By physically being somewhere where the locals speak what you are trying to learn, the level of absorption compared to that from a book is incomparable. You soak in so much raw linguistic information; it feels like all the synapses in your brain are dancing frenetically. From the road signs to the shop windows to the supermarkets – everything just makes so much more sense. Context is key to this process, and language apps inevitably fall short in this area. Put it this way: are you more likely to remember that watermelon is sandia in Spanish through looking at a picture of the fruit on your screen, or by ordering watermelon soup in a Spanish café? (Yes, that is a thing. And yes, it is the best thing I have ever eaten).

5. Embrace Subtitles

Most – if not every – paid streaming service provides access to subtitles. I like to think of subtitles as the lazy person’s approach to learning a language; although it’s not an altogether passive activity, you can still afford to kick back, relax and enjoy the show.

Subtitles are especially effective if you are watching something you are already familiar with. I enjoy searching for clips of my favourite stand up comedy acts on YouTube and locating the Spanish versions. I know the jokes off by heart, so instead of trying to both process the original content and then link it to the words scribbled below, I can focus my energy on simply the latter. It’s fun. Try it.

6. Collect Children’s Picture Books

Okay, I lied. The title of this blog post promised that I would offer six ways to learn a language without picking up a book, and yet my final method includes just that. But bear with me.

When I was staying in Madrid, I went to the most amazing bookstore in the world: La Centrale. There, I purchased a beautifully illustrated children’s picture book depicting the life of Frida Kahlo. The catch? It was written in Español.

I find resources like this are really indispensable tools to practicing a new language, especially if you are already familiar with the content in the book. The visuals make it a really attractive way to study, and they’re always entertaining to read to someone who is well versed in that language so you can laugh and try again when you f*ck up. Similarly, if you are at more of an advanced level, you can find translations of your favourite novels online. I myself downloaded Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal – you can find a link to the PDF here.

Photos taken at Plaza de España in Seville, Spain.

I’d love to hear your tips and tricks for learning a new language without chasing a traditional path. Moreover, if you’re like me and fascinated by language and culture, you might find yourself poring over these blog posts from the archives: the Pocket Guide to Kiwi Slang and 8 Untranslatable Words to Bring You Joy.

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Flying Premium Economy with Cathay Pacific… Worth It?

If you’re anything like me and regard flying with a special abhorrence, then there’s a decent chance you have considered paying that little bit extra to buy a ticket in either Premium Economy or Business Class to try and make the long haul just that little bit more bearable.

I’m kidding. It’s not a ‘little bit extra’. On average, upgrading from Economy to Premium Economy costs at least an additional NZD$1500. Do you know what you could buy with that? Another Economy ticket.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to fly Premium Economy from New Zealand to Spain with Cathay Pacific. I wasn’t looking forward to the thirty hour journey in the slightest, but knowing I didn’t have to budget for a return ticket — and considerable family generosity — motivated me to splurge on a deal I had found.

Photograph courtesy of Cathay Pacific

After making my way to New Zealand’s largest international airport, my trip saw me flying from Auckland to Hong Kong, and then Hong Kong to Madrid. Both of these were long-haul flights, and to say I was mildly excited would have been a severe exaggeration. Nevertheless, I was curious to see what forking out for a Premium Economy ticket would add to the travel experience.

For the flight to Hong Kong, I was seated front right in the Premium Economy cabin. For those unacquainted with the layout of airplanes, this meant that I was next to the window with nobody in front of me. This last piece of information is vital; being at the foremost part of the cabin ensured that I had all the legroom I could ever want. The journey felt spacious and light, and I emerged from those first twelve hours feeling optimistic from such luxury, and giddy from the complimentary champagne I had indulged in over the course of the flight. Premium Economy had certainly ticked the box for me.

However, the fight to Madrid did not run as smoothly. A series of unfortunate events foreshadowed the success of the following journey: the flight was delayed due to a busy runway, the plane had to return to the terminal due to a passenger experiencing a medical emergency, and an air hostess refused to give me water during take off despite my choking on a sleeping pill (🖕). None of these had anything to do with being in Premium Economy per se (nor were they all the fault of the airline), but they still didn’t make for an ideal start.

Photograph courtesy of Traveller

Once we were finally in the air, I adjusted to my new quarters. Unlike the last flight, I was now positioned smack bang in the middle of the Premium Economy cabin with passengers in front, behind and to the sides of me. Whilst the dimensions for Premium Economy are somewhat more generous than Economy, I wouldn’t exactly say they’re worth the extra thousands. As someone quite tall, I still experienced the cramped claustrophobia from severe lack of legroom.

I also wasn’t expecting the sheer quantity of children in these upgraded classes. I estimated that roughly 60% of those flying in Premium Economy and Business Class were under the age of ten. I don’t note this because they impacted on my experience at all – they were really well-behaved and I was impressed by their self-control over the hours – but I was nonetheless taken aback by how much it must have cost to pay such money for passengers who likely wouldn’t have appreciated the advantages of Premium or Business class. (If you’re interested in the controversy of whether young children should be admitted to these cabins, you might like to read this arguably contentious debate. I’d be eager to hear your thoughts.)

Photograph courtesy of Cathay Pacific

There was one incident that particularly stuck out for me during the flight from Hong Kong to Madrid. Around three quarters of the way in, I was seized by a sudden need to go to the bathroom. I had been asleep for most of the previous journey, and had not emptied my bladder since arriving in Hong Kong Airport. Disorientated from the sleeping pills, I staggered to my feet and stumbled towards the Premium Economy toilets, only to discover that they were out of order. Great.

Busting, I made towards the Economy cubicles at the very back of the plane. It didn’t take very long for me to realise that a line of probably eight to ten people had formed a queue per loo. Furthermore, the breakfast trolleys were right behind them and lethargically making their way up the plane at a snail’s pace. I worked out that it would take probably forty-five minutes for the trolley to pass before I could even join the queue. Exasperated, I marched to the front of the plane and asked if I could please use the Business Class toilets seeing as they were the only feasible option left.

The Cathay Pacific air hostess physically blocked my path. I communicated that I was in a lot of discomfort and would likely wet myself if I didn’t pee soon, but she just flashed her teeth and explained in a patronising manner that those toilets were reserved for Business Class only. Infuriated, I recounted how the Premium Economy toilets were not functioning and that I couldn’t access the Economy toilets until a) the breakfast trolley had crawled its way up the plane and b) the enormous queue had died down. I also pointed out that there was both Business Class toilets were unoccupied and that a majority of the passengers were fast asleep. The air hostess just motioned aggressively for me to leave the cabin. Fuming, I retreated to the very back of the plane to stand in burning pain for first the breakfast trolley to pass, and then to queue for the cubicles.

I waited over an hour.

Photograph courtesy of South China Morning Post

That was pretty shitty service, Cathay Pacific. I understand that if you pay more for a Premium Economy ticket, then you should be entitled to more privileges than those in Economy. Likewise, I understand that if you pay more for a Business class ticket, then you should be entitled to more privileges than those in Premium Economy. But those standards should only apply when basic services are functioning normally. When the Premium Economy toilets failed, those passengers should have been permitted use of the Business Class facilities when Economy wasn’t readily available, not penalised for something that wasn’t their fault. If the Economy toilets had also broken down, would the airline have made everybody who wasn’t in Business Class wait for the entirety of the long-haul flight before landing in Madrid to access a bathroom? I was rightly pissed at the rules — and the apathy of the air hostess at my physical discomfort — and that incident unfortunately tainted my experience for that second flight.

It would be wrong to deny there aren’t any perks to flying Premium Economy with Cathay Pacific. You have the chance to board first, you have a greater luggage allowance, you receive a complimentary amenity kit and your cabin has its own bathroom (hahahaha). Plus, the vegetarian meals I received extended beyond mere vegetables (I’m looking at you, Singapore Airlines). But all it takes is one negative episode to contaminate the whole experience.

Photograph courtesy of Cathay Pacific

So… was it worth it?

Yes and no.

I know, I know. That’s not the answer you just trudged through this entire article to read. But I experienced two very different flights in Premium Economy, and thus experienced two very different reactions.

If I had the money, I would very happily cough up the extra to fly Premium Economy with Cathay Pacific again if I could ensure I had a front row seat. As I wrote above during my flight from Auckland to Hong Kong, that seat made a world of difference.

However, if I knew in advance that I would be situated in the middle of the cabin, then perhaps I might have wanted to rethink that ticket. Sure, there are perks to flying Premium, but they’re not worth the extra thousands.

At the end of the day, the time is going to pass anyway. Whether you’re in Economy class or Premium Economy class, it’s twelve hours of your life that will eventually be over whether or not you’re sipping champagne.

Photograph courtesy of Cathay Pacific

P.S. I have only ever flown Premium Economy with Cathay Pacific. This review applies only to that airline. Perhaps the Premium Economy experience contrasts with other airlines. I’ve heard Air New Zealand is well worth the money… am I biased? Probably.

Writing this article got me thinking about how airline seating reflects class inequality. Something tells me I’ll be writing an article on that in the near future.

Furthermore, if you have a trip on the horizon, check out my No-Bullsh*t Guide to Surviving a 12-Hour Flight! Or if you want to read more of my uninvited opinions, maybe Why I Hate the Word ‘Wanderlust’ will be your cup of tea.

 

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Postcards from Madrid

“I love thee as I love Madrid”

Ernest Hemingway

The bronze statue of King Philip III in Plaza Mayor, the main square of Madrid

The view from the Bella Artes rooftop bar

Beautiful tilework at a traditional Spanish café

Palacio de Cibeles during Pride Week

Instituto Cervantes

Looking after my waistline with a ‘freakshake’ at Tommy Mel’s🍦

The view from Parque de las Tetas

Reflections of the Egyptian Temple of Debod

Stunning street art in the suburb of Lavapiés

Architecture in the streets of Madrid

“I declare war upon this way of dying.”

Stay tuned for the upcoming Spain Vlog on the Ginger Passports’ YouTube Channel 📽 and if you didn’t catch my post last week on the World Pride Parade 2017 in Madrid, be sure to check it out here!

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The Pride of Madrid: World Pride 2017

I booked my flight tickets to Madrid, Spain, on a whim. A seven-days-in-advance-whim, to be exact.

So you can imagine my delight when I turned up at Madrid-Barajas Airport to discover that I had landed just in time for World Pride 2017 🌈 (because if there was ever an appropriate time to use the rainbow emoji, it’s now).

I first found out about the celebrations fresh off the plane when I was navigating the metro on my way from the airport to my accommodation. I was huddled in the corner of the carriage, hugging my suitcase to my chest, when a friendly couple sat down next to me. I wasn’t eavesdropping (spoiler alert: I was totally eavesdropping), but I recognised that they were speaking English. Hungry for a conversation that didn’t require me to butcher the Spanish language, I introduced myself.

“Did you know it’s World Pride this week?” the woman asked in a lilting British accent. I responded with a look of excitement.

The city looked like a Skittles monster had just vomited all over it — and that’s no exaggeration. Everywhere you looked were rainbows. Rainbow flags swayed from buildings, rainbow pastries lined the bakery shelves and people danced around the streets wearing the entire colour spectrum. Everyone was participating in the celebrations, and the sense of camaraderie had me quite lost for words.

Madrid is a trailblazer when it comes to LGBTIQ equality and rights, what with having been the third country to legalise same-sex marriage in 2005. This festival was the 40th anniversary of the first LGBT demonstration in Barcelona, so was all the more momentous.

The theme for World Pride 2017 was Viva La Vida; live life.

“… celebrate that we feel alive, alive because we are different, because we are unique, free… happy.”

The crescendo of the week was unmistakably the Pride Parade. Over three million people were expected to have attended – three million! No big deal or anything. That’s just a little under the population of New Zealand.

Having the opportunity to walk in the parade was indescribable. Standing wedged between a troupe of Brazilian carnival dancers and a marching band, I felt simultaneously invisible yet significant all at once. As a gender studies student – and a human – seeing so many people from all walks of life come together to celebrate diversity and identity brought tears to my eyes.

“In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality. The ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint or obligation.”

Simone de Beauvoir

Stay tuned for my Madrid Vlog – featuring more inspiring footage from World Pride 217 – which I shall upload to the Ginger Passports’ YouTube Channel in a couple of weeks time!

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