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When it comes to survival, an often overlooked but seriously critical skill is language. You might be thinking, how is a language going to help me survive? It may not be able to start a fire, but let’s look at how language is the spark that ignites teamwork, a critical component of survival.
First, if you’re not leaving the country, how can a foreign language help you survive? What if you’re lost, hurt, or need help from a stranger who doesn’t speak English? Or stuck in the middle of a large-scale disaster and good folks around you only speak Spanish? Or if someone is conspiring to steal from you, and you’re linguistically oblivious to their intentions?
Even if you have no plans to travel internationally, language skills at home could wind up being critical to saving your life or helping others. Think of the predominant cultures concentrated in different regions of the U.S. Throughout the country, Spanish is the best foreign language to study, as it has the highest potential for use. But if you’re in Louisiana or the Northeast near Canada, French will serve you better. On the West Coast, Chinese might be another survival language to study. Ask yourself where you’re headed and examine some of the U.S. Census data to determine which languages have a strong presence in various areas of the country.
Familiarization with a second language for international travel is also an important survival skill. Overseas, not everyone speaks English or is willing to use it even if they know it. In this case, asking for a lighter in the native language of wherever you are could indeed help you get a fire started — touché!
Most people who study a foreign language get discouraged quickly for one main reason — time. Teachers operate on the logical premise that you want to become fluent, which requires a strong foundational base and a lot of time. They start with the alphabet and grammar rules, and it could be months or years before you get to really use the language.
As a former Green Beret, we were often deployed on short notice to strange locations around the globe. Usually, no one spoke English, and we rarely had an interpreter or linguist on the team. Without a translator, and back then with no software or apps, we faced a lot of challenges and misunderstandings. Sometimes the results were hilarious. Sometimes, not so much.
After a few of these short-fuse missions, I realized there was a pattern of what components of language were actually used. I wrote them down on paper and saw a pattern of how to speak in a purely functional manner. It wasn’t perfect, but it was mostly grammatically correct. I certainly didn’t sound like a native, but I wasn’t trying to. Often, I spoke like a simple child, but all my thoughts could be conveyed and my mission could be accomplished. And that’s the survivalist’s way of learning a language on the fly.
Learn it the guerilla way — focus on the stuff that matters. Analyze your own vocabulary in the course of a normal day with family, friends, and coworkers, and you’ll find you typically only use about 200 words. Focusing your early effort on learning basic vocabulary allows you to communicate basic needs and maybe understand the gist of an overheard conversation.
Even basic vocabulary building still requires time and effort, but it’s not hard and you can start functioning on day one. By week one, you can communicate the basics. There are many books, apps, and other learning aids available to help you learn the language info you need.
We’ll skip basic grammar and head directly into which words are the most useful. Let’s break it down by familiar parts of speech.
Nouns: people, place, and thing. Make a list of key nouns you’ll use in tough situations such as food, water, and help.
Verbs: to need, to go, to do
Adjectives: good, bad, big, little. Start with one, and learn its opposite.
Adverbs: well, poorly, quickly, and slowly. Again, learn one and its antonym.
Prepositions: in, out, above, below, etc.
Conjugations: Start with two: I want and you want, for example. Many languages have a root verb that changes according to who says it. For example, I want versus she wants.
Time: now, later, today, tomorrow, yesterday, before, after
Interrogatives: Who, what, when, where, why, how, how much
Courtesy: If you open every time with please and close with thank you, no matter how badly you hack their language, you’ll know you’re trying and you’ll score points for politeness.
Salutations: hello, goodbye, my name is, what’s your name
So, putting it all together, it may look something like: “Hello. My name is John/Jane. I need water. Where, please? Thanks.”
Bam! Day one, speaking and communicating. Now, pick your language, and we’ll look at some tools to help get you there. An hour a day is a good start.
Books: A dictionary is key, but start with a youth version, as it’ll help you learn how to pronounce and conjugate, while utilizing simpler words. A phrase book showing the language, your language, and phonetic pronunciation is vital to quick learning.
Music: Buy some slower music, even children’s music, as a great way to help your ear and brain adjust to the language and pick up words. Stuff like “Old MacDonald” and other common nursery rhymes will turn what you’re already familiar with into a new form. You can download them onto you phone, tablet, or computer and listen whenever time allows.
Media: Watch children’s shows in the target language. Buy some DVDs or watch some shows online. Download them so you can watch when traveling or not connected to the net. Try not to start with movies you know by heart, as the speed and complexity of the spoken language with plot subtexts is often not quite right in the translation and you may learn some things wrong — and for sure you’ll be overwhelmed.
Also, if you have satellite radio or TV, try to find programming in your desired language. You can watch with subtitles, which always helps, but without is still OK. The more you’re exposed, the more you’ll begin to pick up the basics. Bottom line, self-imposed immersion is a proven method. So listen and watch, with or without subtitles — it all goes in. Even if it sounds like machine gun rapid fire, the more you listen the more your brain gets attuned and reprogrammed to pick it up.
For study aids, check out: Berlitz, Barron’s, Lonely Planet, Langenscheidts, Oxford, Fodors and Pimsleur. Find the ones that fit your style, needs, and budget. There are many free products out there; try those first and then invest more as you’re ready to get more out of it.
There are so many great mobile apps for learning languages. You can find free ones or pay for one. Usually, the premium ones are ad free and work better.
There are apps that use your mobile device’s camera to translate written language, and some that allow folks to speak into your phone and they’ll attempt to translate. These are awesome, but often slow, flawed, and, if not connected to the internet, they don’t work at all. Don’t become reliant on technology to do the work for you. You need to shoulder the bulk of the learning process in case you’re in a situation where technology isn’t accessible.
Google Translate is one of the best. You can type in passages and translate more than 100 languages when connected to the internet — about half that when you’re not. It can work with more than 30 languages when translating photos of signs, watching videos, and translating spoken language.
Microsoft isn’t quite able to match up to Google overall; however, its real-time language translator is simply the best one out there right now. SayHi is one of the better apps for speech-to-speech translation, and, in general, Speak & Translate as well as TripLingo are other excellent apps.
For Asian languages and their unique characters, some apps specialize in these and are really good for native European language speakers, such as Papago and Waygo.
There are also wearable translating devices, such as the iLi and The Pilot. They have limitations, but are way cheaper than hiring a personal translator.
Finally, there are some photo-translating apps that allow you to take a photo of a sign or billboard, for example, and then translate it. They require internet connectivity, so they have some limitations on their utility, but signs are often in a city or you can type the letters in your translator app when not connected and read your downloaded dictionary info to figure it out.
Gestures: A simple “OK” sign in America equates to calling someone an “a**hole” in other countries. Do your homework.
Culture: In some places, people can become highly offended if you stop and ask a woman for directions or show the bottoms of your feet, for example. Be smart.
Don’t assume you’ll get off the hook for these offenses because you’re a foreigner. And learn the common signs of other cultures if you plan to travel there; not every nation uses U.S. or EU-style signage.
Also, some cultures yell as a way of communicating — don’t take it personally. Yelling back doesn’t make them understand you any better, so don’t get frustrated and become the ugly American. Stay calm, expect mistakes, and have a sense of humor. You’ll get through it. You may make some lifelong friends along the way.
In the sidebar, we compiled a list of the top 10 phrases to learn. The first key to success in using them is to choose the easiest one for you to learn, remember it, and then use the heck out of it!
The next key is to maximize use of the interrogatives and always use polite words (please, thank you, excuse me, I’m sorry) to cover any mistakes you make with general words associated with kindness, as way to ensure the maximum willingness and helpfulness from those you query.
Spend a day writing down words in your target language and listen online how to say them. Then, write down how that sounds to your ears, commit it to memory, and you can speak in a day. Use memory keys or associations that help you remember.
For example, the Russian word for “key” is pronounced “clootch.” I associate that with “she uses a key to lock her clutch bag,” and I can always recall the word via that association in my brain.
For media, always start with kid’s stuff, and work your way up. Get as many things with subtitles as you can. It’s like studying a martial art, don’t try to get into the ring and fight competitively until you’ve mastered your own moves first. Slow is fast, fast is slow — you’ll learn bad habits (getting words and meanings wrong), and it’ll take twice as long to unlearn the bad and relearn them correctly.
Working in nine different conflicts over three decades, when we had to find translators in a place where almost no one spoke English, we mainly encountered two kinds — professors and young adults. It wasn’t hard to understand how the professors learned English, but when asked, the kids almost all said they learned English the same way — from MTV!
1. Hello. My name is _______. What is your name?
2. I need help or Can you help me, please?
3. Can, would, or are you able to show me, please?
4. How do I get there or do that, please?
5. Where is that person/place/thing, please?
6. When is that or this, please?
7. What is that? or What do I do, please?
8. Who can help? or Who is that, please?
9. How much is best instead of how long or how far, as you can always say how much time, how much distance, as well as the usual how much does something cost.
10. Thank you, goodbye, until later, go in peace.
Always repeat what you think someone said in the simplest way you know. They’ll respond either “Yes, blah, blah blah” and you’ll know you understood the gist or they’ll say “No, blah, blah, blah” and say more words, and you can then focus on key words. Then you can focus on listening for vital info like “go left” or “right,” etc.
Constantly listen and read, trying to understand everything you can. Listen when folks are speaking to hear how the language is used.
Challenge yourself by asking, “How would I say …” Then try to say it without learning aids. This way, you’re using spare time to do mental language training, converting passive vocabulary into active vocabulary and usable phrases.
Mykel Hawke is a retired Special Forces combat commander and former Green Beret sergeant in medicine, communications, and intelligence with a bachelor’s in biology and a master’s in psychology. He holds black belts in Aikido and Judo, and has ratings in seven languages. www.mykelhawke.com
For more survival tips from Mykel Hawke, read our Survivalist Spotlight interview from Issue 23.