Language Unbleached: Talking Street

You're Screwed If You Don't Catch Up

Languages, as I've already said, are not limited to the crap you learn in school. Every native speaker contributes to his community's language. While institutions are busy doing what they do best -- instituting -- actual speakers of the language are doing what they do best -- speaking. This leaves you, the language learner, in a precarious situation. You can go the route of schooling, and learn the language that institutions approve of. Or you can go the route of acquiring the language that speakers actually use. Fantasdeck, PollyGot, and this blog are dedicated to the latter. Feel free to visit http://www.emptypromises.org if you just want support for your delusion.

How do I know if my language isn't just school-sanctioned crap?

To answer that, you need to challenge language institutions head-on. Try translating something like this into your target language: "Fuck that shit! You faggot-ass wannabes tryin' to hold a nigga back." If you failed, you probably only learned as much as schools were willing to teach you. You got screwed out of your money and out of some really important competencies.

Few things highlight this disconnect better than a post by the international Latin rock sensation Juanes when he posted an image of himself wearing a "Mexico Is The Shit" jacket. The problem? Spanish speakers got pissed. Why? Because many failed to understand American English slang. It took the intervention of Juanes himself to clarify the matter:

It's true. Mexico is the shit,
if you know what that means.
Hola! La chamarra me la regalaron en México y me gustó muchísimo. ["Mexico is the shit"] es una expresión que significa que "México es lo máximo", no es una expresión ofensiva.
→ Hello! They gifted me the jacket in Mexico, and I liked it a whole lot. ["Mexico is the shit"] is an expression that means, "Mexico is the best." It's not an offensive expression.
That fact, however, didn't stop the mamones from feeling offended. And, honestly, they can only blame themselves. They should have understood American English slang better.

This example illustrates why learning to talk street -- learning the language that people "on the street" actually use -- matters so much. You don't only avoid looking stupid on Facebook. You also gain a competence that separates you from merely book-smart language learners. Knowing the difference between book smarts and street smarts is your first step out of failure.

Okay, I've taken your red pill. Get to the resources!

I've described various resources (here and here) to provide you access to resources online. That said, there's not much more I can recommend. You'll have to start your journey of acquiring the rest outside of your mom's basement.

Wait! Does that mean I have to move?

Not exactly. People will tell you that your only path to full fluency is to move to speakers' native lands. Unfortunately, this leads many people to assume that foreign language skills flow from the plane ticket. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Consider this analogy: Suppose you want to be a great football player, so you visit your local stadium every day. Now, how much better do you suppose you'll play football after merely watching others play? Exactly. It's the same thing with language. Language is a game, but not a spectator sport. Attending an away game won't "immerse" you in any meaningful way. To play sincere language games, you have to be a sincere language player, and that means you'll have to face some uncomfortable realities.

When You Start, You Ain't Shit

You're not going to prance before a bunch of "foreigners" (abroad, you're the foreigner) and wow them with your language abilities right away. You'll need to start small. You'll need to learn your essential "survival language" first if you want to continue playing. But, that takes humility, and it's hard to be humble when you're too busy being frustrated.

So, the most important thing to adjust when you start is your attitude towards making mistakes. If someone's willing to correct you or complete your sentences, take it as assistance instead of criticism, even if they're being critical. Especially in the beginning, native speakers will be more frustrated with you than you'll be with them. After all, they have to decode your foreign-ass noises into some sort of meaningful message. Count each successful exchange as points toward your language game score. Over time, the "聽不懂's" and "no-te-entiendo's" will become less and less frequent, and you'll be able to approach more natives with fewer issues. That's the only route to approaching the richer language you crave.

Bilinguals Can Be a Crutch, But Don't Hobble Yourself

It's hard to resist not putting yourself at a disadvantage against another player in a language game, and this is where bilinguals are like sirens that beckon you to crash into the rocks. They can make you complacent, and complacency breeds failure. However, bilinguals are also useful, because they can guide you toward more comprehensible and native-sounding speech.

"No te pongas entre la espada y la pared."
"Don't put yourself between a rock and a hard place."
This puts you in a subtle balancing act. You need to weigh the urgency of communication against the drive to suck less. The problem compounds when you realize that bilinguals seek to use you to suck less, too. And, if you let them, they'll suck you dry. If a bilingual speaks to you in your native tongue, and if you can respond in theirs, it's best to do so. Doing anything else guarantees a one-sided language exchange, and I can't count the number of expats who venture abroad with high hopes of multilingualism, only to befriend people who cloister them into their own language communities.

Oh, to hear them bitch about self-inflicted impotence!

That brings me to my next pointer:

Don't Be a Bitch

I mean this in almost every dimension one can in English. 
  • Don't be a whiny bitch. Don't complain about what you don't know. Ignorance is your own damned fault, and complaining wastes time that you should spend learning to play your language game better.
  • Don't be a bottom bitch. Don't let people take advantage of your lack of knowledge. This is especially crucial in places like Mexico, where police officers have targeted me on a handful of occasions, hunting for infractions to score mordidas ("bribes"). If you're not fluent, don't put yourself in needless predicaments. If you are fluent (and also, from a dominant country and not committing any crime), enjoy the shakedowns and grin as their eyes widen in surprise and roll in disappointment.
  • Don't be a psycho bitch. Don't think that fluency gives you a free pass to talk shit to everyone. Men, particularly, have egos to defend and are desperate to play hero in front of women. Mocking people when it's genuinely funny is all well and good, but there's a fine line between teasing and cruelty.
Also, it's a good idea, as basic street smarts, to learn how to diffuse anger and to learn how to defend yourself if others decide to escalate matters. Never assume anyone abroad (not even a cop) has got your back.

I get it. Being a bitch is tempting to many of you, and it's mainly because:

Language Games Are Sisyphean


You either continue playing or you quit. There is no language endgame.

You can't treat language acquisition like a race, because doing so would be like chasing the horizon. No matter how many steps you advance, there's an infinity beyond wherever you're standing. The best you can ever hope for, even in your native language, is to know the terrain better.

I've been speaking Spanish competently since 2002, Mandarin since 2011. Not once have I thought, "I know all the Spanish and Chinese I'll ever need," because my goal has been to pass for a (linguistic) native. That means nearly automatic speech and no inhibiting lexical gaps. That means adapting my speech to regionalisms and slang. That means keeping apace with neologisms and cultural memes. How could there be an end? Why would you want there to be?

The shit that matters for those goals can't fit in a curriculum. They can't be assigned, but have to be explored. If that upsets your pet delusions, don't hate the players, hate the game. Better yet, hate yourself. Whiny bitches get no sympathy here. Players, on the other hand, get mad respect.

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