Why Social Risk-Takers Are Better Language Learners

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
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Why Social Risk-Takers Are Better Language Learners

I made a slight cultural boo-boo two days ago that prompted me to write this very important post on how important it is to be a social risk-taker.

Right beside my apartment here in Korea is a small, family-run convenience store that I go into every day to buy food and I usually try to practice a little bit of a Korean with the kids who work there after I finish work.

Using hand gestures and broken Korean, I try to elicit new language from them, repeat cash amounts after them and point to things in the shop saying, 이거 뭐예요? [ee-go mwo-ye-yo] (What is this?).

I always learn a lot from our brief exchanges. 🙂

Now, I’ve really wanted to get to know the parents who own the shop because they’re there more often and they seem really friendly so I tried to initiate some chit-chat with the mother by asking her – using the polite form in Korean – what her name is.

Harmless enough, right? Not here it seems.

Her response to my question was pretty apprehensive.

Now, everywhere else I’ve been and lived in the world it would be strange not to ask questions like this when you meet somebody but here in Korea there are layers of social hierarchy that the society takes seriously. She was much older than me and therefore, as my Korean friends explained to me afterwards, it was impolite of me to ask that of an older stranger.

If she had of been a younger woman it probably wouldn’t have been an issue (although a young woman might get other ideas). 🙂

I did manage to clear it up by explaining that I’m learning Korean and just want to talk to people which she was happy about in the end, and she eventually introduced herself.

I learned an important cultural lesson but I make no apology for being a risk-taker

I’m not sorry for making this mistake.

Part of the reason for my success with other languages is due to the fact that I put aside my fear of making mistakes – language and cultural – and just put myself out there. You’re never going to get anywhere if you let shyness, introversion or fear of what other people might think hold you back from giving it a try.

Sure, you might make some cultural boo-boos by saying something inappropriate or making grammatical mistakes but so friggin’ what? That’s part of the process of learning.

It’s bound to happen.

People can see you’re a foreigner making an effort and even if they do get pissed off and dislike you (highly unlikely), you’ll learn an important lesson for next time.

The results speak for themselves – risk-takers are far more successful at learning languages

When I was in Ireland over a month ago on a mission to improve my Gaeilge, I was harshly criticised in an email by another popular language learning blogger who was also on the same course because he saw me walk up to a group of people I didn’t know in a pub, sit down and introduce myself to them.

I was accused of being rude for doing this.

Now I’ll be honest – this did make me consider that maybe he was right. Maybe it was inappropriate for me to do that and I was the only one who didn’t realize it.

But after thinking about it for a while I thought to myself – hang on a second…

Putting aside the fact that where I come from this is perfectly normal in a pub, I came away from my time in Ireland with a lot of new friends who I met up with several times throughout my stay in different parts of the country.

We’re all still in contact and looking forward to the next course when we can catch up again. There were also enormous improvements in my Irish as a result (which attracted numerous interview requests from newspapers and radio stations) and I now have language exchange partners via Skype that I previously didn’t have.

It was a massive accomplishment – all thanks to being a social risk-taker.

Now, if I had the same attitude of the person who criticised me I would have sat in the corner of the pub not knowing anyone and I wouldn’t have come away with the experience that I did. Perhaps it was rude initially but the results of me taking that risk far outweigh anything else.

I also experienced the same kind of results in Egypt and Georgia where I came away with precious friendships as well as enormous gains in my language learning by putting myself out there.

If you’re not taking risks with every conversation then you aren’t trying hard enough

Today I’m giving you some homework.

Every time you have an opportunity to use your target language – whether it’s ordering food in a restaurant, talking to a friend, taking a taxi, Skyping somebody, or whatever – I want you to take at least one risk.

What do I mean by that?

I’ll give you an example:

When I go into a convenience store, the gym, a cafe or wherever here in Korea, rather than only using the language I need to do whatever it is I need to do (e.g. order a coffee), I push myself to go beyond what’s necessary. I’ll ask for a takeaway latte, use the necessary dialogue (simple request and thanks) and then I’ll talk about something – anything – that brings the exchange up a notch.

This could be something as simple as it’s really cold today isn’t it? How’s business? This is really good coffee.

Last week I was in a cafe and a song came on the radio that I liked the sound of (a Korean song). So I used Google to find the word for song in Korean (노래) and used to it as a conversation starter by asking a couple of people what the song’s called.

I say these are risks because anybody can walk into a shop, use a standard can I have…? request from a course book, ask how much, say thanks and then walk out.

It’s only the risk-takers who see this as an opportunity to add some flavor to what they’re saying – even if it’s at a very basic level. It’s the risk-takers who use the small amount of language that they have to actively pursue friendships without being afraid of what others might think.

Don’t wait to be introduced to people – get out there and take some risks.

Then you can come back here and tell us all about the new acquaintances and friends you’ve made in the comments section below. 😉

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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Donovan, keep it up!! I'm a social risktaker myself and I was angry at the guy critisizing you. IMHO that is a hidden form of envy, probably the dude just doesn't have the balls to do it himself. From my own experience it really is funny how many people will try to put you down when you are a social risktaker with comments like "This isn't appropriate", "This is weird", "That's not the correct way of doing things." My advice is to just ignore them and understand as you wrote that the way to progress is by putting yourself out there and experiencing new things.



Completely agreed. This is also the key to picking up girls, but you likely know that.

Also, don't forget that you being a foreigner buys you a lot more leeway to commit such social faux pas than the natives have: take advantage of it. I don't mean that in a bad way, I don't mean take advantage of people, I mean use it to meet people and get conversations going in situations where a native wouldn't be able to because it would be considered rude (e.g. the situation you outlined above in Ireland) and they wouldn't be able to get away with it.




I like your "takeaway" example. It's pretty unlikely that most of us know that word in our target language, but, depending on our individual thought process, we can express it easily enough (to drink at home, not for here, etc.), which will elicit the right word. That in and of itself will usually be enough for the native speaker to start more small talk with us, at least that's been my case (Are you visiting for long?, How do you like it here so far?, Do you work around here?, etc.)

Susanna Zaraysky

Susanna Zaraysky

What's wrong with introducing yourself to people? I don't understand why that's rude. From my experience, Irish people are quite friendly.

Olle Linge

Olle Linge

I agree with what you say, but I also think that this is fairly obvious stuff. I mean, we need to make mistakes to correct our models of the language or culture and without experiments and risks, there will be few or no mistakes.

I think it's far more interesting to discuss how to achieve this. It's very easy for people who do this naturally. I'm not among them. I need a fairly comfortable environment before I take risks. I've found this particularly true after I reached an advanced level. If I know I can comfortably express something in one way and get my meaning across, I seldom try other variants in a real-life situation.

Still, I always promote the importance of making mistakes and I do experiment a lot, but mostly when chatting, writing or with people I already know. This is not only because I'm shy, but also because I think it's sometimes not a good idea to try new advanced stuff with strangers. There is no way whether my new language use was correct or not. That people understand is not enough in this case. Strangers often don't correct statements, even if they're blatantly wrong. Thus, I feel hesitant to try this with people I think are unlikely to correct me if wrong.

If I do the same thing in writing, when chatting or talking with friends who know I care about accuracy, though, it's much more likely that they correct my output.

Okay, that was a very long detour. I don't mean to say that I don't agree with what you say. I agree to a very high extent, but I think it would be helpful to focus more on how to get around this problem for people who aren't likely to take many risks on their own. I think this is one of the main tasks of language teachers (i.e. create an atmosphere where even shy people feel that they can take risks).

Hm. I should probably write something more comprehensive about this. :)



Thanks, Donovan. This is why I enjoy reading your blog: simple, practical tips that I can put into practice right away. Keep up the good work with your Korean!!



Donovan, great post as usual!
You are dead on about 'social risk-taking'. As time has gone by, I've looked at these sort of conversations more like little experiments. You make a proposition and, then, gauge people's reaction. While this is necessary in the language learning process, it is not very scientific because it is not very measurable. I've had many times in French where I've done a little experiment only to be left without a clear answer as to whether what I said was entirely correct.

In the end, I have concluded that the benefit of 'social risk taking' is not in being corrected by a native speaker, you can find far more efficient ways of doing that. In fact, the benefit is derived from simply making the mental effort to cross the chasm and force yourself to spit something out. I was born an introvert as well but after years of being in the military, where you sit around, wait and talk all day long, and living in a number of foreign countries, I have become so used to crossing the chasm and engaging in conversations that it is now natural.

The best tactic that I have learned in helping cross the chasm of 'social risk tacking' is to not take anything too seriously. If you say each 'experimental' phrase with a hint of humor as if you are telling a joke or being coy, with the beginnings of a smile on your face, people will invariably respond in a lighthearted manner. Playfulness is contagious.

What are your thoughts?



Thanks, mate!

Very true. Language learning certainly does boost your risk-taking/confidence overall.



Well, I did that briefly. I noticed that someone behind was having trouble reading an English Bible last Sunday She said Necesito una Bibla en español. So I turned around and told her in Spanish that there were some Spanish Bibles over there(across from where we were both sitting) I also told her that the church has translations of the second service again in Spanish



This is the hardest part of learning a language for me. I needed to read this. :-) I always stick to the language I know and rarely take risks during conversations I've had over and over again. Thanks for the inspiration!



I needed this today; thanks. I've been working on Korean for a year, and I have lately been quite daunted by the fact that Korean culture does NOT encourage chit-chat. It is a serious barrier to language-learning to imagine that the very act of opening my mouth might be seen as unwelcome familiarity by the very people I'm trying to learn from. You've reminded me that, at least to first order, I need to ignore that and just soldier on. 고마워요!

Sherbet and Sparkles

Sherbet and Sparkles

I've just found your blog today and I love it. I wish I could dedicate myself to langauges as much as you do.

I am a British girl, Japanese speaker, living in Germany. I have recently decided to put myself into social situations like this, to push my German. I go to random German facebook events, and do exactly as you say - go beyond the expected dialogue every time I speak German. It's scary. Really scary. But I know it's going to be worth it when I have German to add to my list of languages.



I appreciate this post Donovan. I've made a lot of cultural mistakes as I learn Russian but those mistakes are when I really learn something new. I always tell people that if you want to learn the language then you should be afraid to appear as a 3 year old.



Thanks for this great post! I am NOT a social risk-taker, though I know it would benefit me to work on that in order to improve my language learning. What was most powerful for me in what you wrote was "People can see you’re a foreigner making an effort and even if they do get pissed off and dislike you (highly unlikely), you’ll learn an important lesson for next time."

Even as a social NON-risk taker, I found that I made cultural mistakes that well, did teach me 'important lessons for next time'. Even though I was trying to do everything perfectly, I messed up. If that's going to happen, why worry so much about being perfect? If you're going to mess up anyway, put yourself out there knowing that--and maybe that'll help you have a sense of humor about it. That is a huge lesson I took from this today. Thank you!!

Ruth O Nwokocha

Ruth O Nwokocha

It's been really nice stumbling on your blog for the very first time and it's been an eye opener for a passionate polyglot like me though on a beginner level and all comments has been educating as well. I hope to join in on language blogging.
I totally agree to taking some "calculated" social risk you know why? It is riskier not to take a risk and you'd find out the outcome most times will be worth it.
Please keep up the super great work!

Ron Torrence

Ron Torrence

That is exactly how I learned the Thai I know. My wife, who is Thai, doesn't want to teach me Thai. I learned by speaking with people, going on Visa runs to Vientiane, at the market, and in restaurants. being an American here in Northern thailand is a big bonus, because they want to talk to you, and social faux pas are overlooked in foreiigners



I loved your perspective here. More often than not, I've found people warm up to me because of my self-deprecating humor/struggle in their native language (my target language). They know I'm at least trying.

Even though I'm aware of it in reflection and try to push myself to "add some flavor," it's still easy for me to fall into the trap of "let me impress you and pat myself on the back for getting an 'A' in ordering coffee," etc. (Get over yourself, Chris!)

Likely influenced in some way by my introduction to the language in an academic/high anxiety language-learning context, and only recently discovered the wonders of real-world language acquisition.

Thanks again.

Arkady G. Zilberman

Arkady G. Zilberman

Hi Donovan,
I received an email from you entitled “There's no such thing as being born good at languages.” I call such a statement “a sacred lie;” I use sacred lies too if I know that it will help a person to be uplifted and achieve his goal.

Of course, some people are born with the capacity to learn languages easily. A small proportion of adults (less than 5%) somehow preserve the ability to visualize both the written and the spoken word. These people preserve a child’s ability to learn a new language without reverting to translation to and from the native language. Most linguists come from this small category of people, and they are unaware of the cross-translation problem or of “the tyranny of the mother tongue” which most of their students endure.

You and I belong to the lucky 5% of the population and can easily learn any foreign language. This category of people can become successful even using the conventional methods which are obsolete. However, for 95% of adult people it would not work! They automatically comprehend the incoming information (in any form) only by cross-translating it into their mother tongue. For them to be successful in learning a foreign language they need a new technology of subconscious training English skills to become fluent in English as a foreign language in about a year.

Why I No Longer Bother With 'Progress Videos' For Language Missions

Why I No Longer Bother With 'Progress Videos' For Language Missions

[…] Greek aside, it’s been quite a while since I’ve taken up a modern language challenge with a goal of conversational fluency, so I’m really eager to do something completely new (social). […]



This article is pretty rich! I will have to become a Risk-Taker! Don't stop with the articles because they contain gold nuggets .

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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