Hitchhiking and language learning
Many people hitchhike. It's nothing too special. And the main reasons for doing it are quite obvious I guess: It is exciting. You meet new and very different people. You don't pollute the planet. You don't have to spend money. You have someone to talk to while doing distances. Or you just enjoy the general randomness that accompanies #hitchhiking . All of these aspects are really great. But one big benefit is often neglected or highly underestimated: The option to learn and practice a foreign language. This doesn't seem too special as well. Practicing a #language, so what? The fact that you are exposed to different languages when travelling abroad is obvious. So sure, if you already know (the basics of) a language, you also get to practice it with the people who take you. Yet, lately I realized that there is much more to it. And I want to take the time to give the reasons why I think learning languages while hitchhiking is great fun (and probably the best way to practice a language).
I want to start with something I think many people do not realize: Entering the car of a stranger puts the both of you (or the three/four/five/… of you) in a very special situation. What makes this situation so unique is the fact that the conversation you are having is not forced. Once you are together inside the car it is clear that a conversation will happen. You might be curious who is taking you. And for sure your drivers are curious whom they are taking. Also the alternative to talking would be to remain silent. Which can happen for various reasons, but mostly it just comes natural that you have a conversation.
And that's the main point. Because other situations in life, like talking to someone on the train, come with doubts. On a train (or on the bus, on the street, at a party, in a cafe,…) it is much more difficult to know whether the person you just started talking to actually wants this conversation. Maybe they think you are hitting on them. Maybe they are just too nice to stop talking to you. And also regarding language learning: how do you know whether they can be bothered to listen to your bad level of the language? Sure you can mention that you are currently practicing and want to improve. But do they want to take the time and the effort to help you there? Who knows. At least there are doubts. And for many people these doubts can be inhibiting. This is what makes us not just start talking with anyone in so many situations. Well, fair enough, we also don't want to be talked to sometimes.
Back to our special situation: Hitchhiking. Two (or more) people stuck in a car. For a certain amount of time. So talking it is. But what else makes language learning while hitchhiking great?
Most drivers ask similar questions: Why do you hitchhike and not take the train? How come you know Greek? Where are you headed? What does your mother think about your lifestyle? Do you believe in Jesus? How often do you cut your toe nails? And usually one question leads to another. So initially, in the “getting to know”-phase you will answer similar things over and over again. Which sounds slightly annoying. And in your mother tongue it might be. But in terms of practicing a new language the constant repetition is just great. You get faster. You can slightly alter your phrasing. You can eliminate errors. Step by step.
You are the experienced one in the conversation: you are the one that is constantly changing cars and having new conversations. So you (might) also develop the skill to direct the conversation to topics where you feel comfortable talking about. For me I discovered that a phrase like “I am traveling around Italy because I want to practice Italian.” is a great way to start a conversation. Locals enjoy people showing a genuine interest in their culture. And language is a big part of culture.
Mentioning that you are eager to learn the language often makes the driver correct your mistakes. (Which is crucial for mastering a language.) This way you have a private teacher in the car. Also you can focus on a specific grammatical aspect you want to practice. Your driver might be happy to help you there. It's better than any tandem-like situation where you have these forced conversations: “What are we talking about today. Let's pick the weather.”
You have time. There is no need to rush. If you have a 2h drive you can take your time to say what you want to say. And also, and maybe most important, you (probably) won't see the driver again. So both of you don't care that much about the content of the conversation. So no need to switch to English. Sure, occasionally you have a driver with whom you connect, and you really want to exchange ideas, that you might not be able to transfer in the language you are currently learning. So there you'll switch to English. But that is not the rule.
If you are tired or can't be bothered to continue talking you can just say you have a headache from all the Greek you were just talking. (This actually happens in the beginning. It can be quite exhausting.)
If you have annoying drivers (racists, sexists, …) you can at least practice the language. Always look on the bright side of life.
It is quite likely that you are exposed to different dialects (that might be hard to filter in the beginning, but for advanced learners that is an interesting aspect to analyze)
At gas stations you have a much higher chance to find someone to take you if you speak their language. It builds trust.
It is just great to be able to speak with people. And not only have conversations with people who know English.
Some other aspects to take into consideration are:
Just hitchhiking around to learn languages (without any destination) might be a bit weird. Also you are in a car. There is always the possibility of a car crash.
Surely for extroverts the above mentioned aspects are much more easy to take advantage from. But if you are already hitchhiking you are not too introvert to talk in the car I suppose!
I want to finish with one of the points that made me think a lot about all this hitchhiking and language learning. Some time ago I asked a friend who spent a month in South America (with a friend) how many conversations in Spanish she had that where longer than 15 minutes. She replied one. And it was during some guided tour where she was in a car with a Spanish speaking person. It reminded me of myself when I was in South America (back in the days when I didn't know that hitchhiking can be a great alternative to flying. And that there are still many places nearby that I haven't visited.). I spent three weeks there, my Spanish level was low. We were travelling by bus. Sleeping in hostels. My first longer conversation was on the flight back. I sat next to a nice person from Guatemala.
I can tell from my experience of two months hitchbiking through Italy, that it was in cars where my Italian improved the most. I remember that in the first car I struggled a lot: How are the verb endings? All the mixing with Spanish. But with the second and third driver the flow began.
Sure you have to actually want to learn the language. But if the excitement is there, hitchhiking is the best way to practice a language. So maybe reconsider booking a four week intensive Spanish course. Just have a look at the grammar, learn the very basics and start hitchhiking around Spain (or any other Spanish speaking country).
Ah and in terms of starting to learn a language (not practice) I highly recommend the free languagetransfer courses on https://www.languagetransfer.org/audio-course (also on YouTube and Soundcloud).
For those who want to hear more about hitchhiking with a folding bike, you can follow me on Mastodon: https://mastodon.social/@HitchbikeRevolution