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Genius Loci: Location, Language and Learning

Genius loci - what could you learn here?

There’s a guy in this town that I see quite a lot. On a sunny day, I’m almost certain to find him at a table outside a Starbucks, smoking and talking to strangers – playing his guitar, sometimes, and singing.

He’s a curious guy. And his presence – the constant, dependable presence outside the coffee shop – is comforting. If I ever wanted to borrow a cigarette, have a chat or learn more about Reiki (told you he was curious) – I’d know where to go.

This little story, along with hundreds more like this, make for a more coherent image of the place I’m at. Today, I want to take a closer look at the role of places in your language study. I want to show you how you can improve your learning and enjoy your language more, simply by studying your environment for a while.


“We Do Things Differently Here” – How New Places Can Break (Or Make) Your Style

There’s a brilliant back story to “Asterix in Britain“: the only reason Julius Caesar is able to make any progress in conquering the British is that they stop fighting for five-o-clock tea and during the weekends! This example is clearly an exaggeration, but if you think about it, any place you visit can result in a surprise.

That’s the reason so many people suffer from culture shock. That’s why Paris Syndrome exists. And that, in a nutshell, is why your language study may not really be so useful after all.

I have often found that I had to re-learn my English abroad: people spoke a different language in Yorkshire, different still on the outskirts of London – and a whole new kind in Wales.

The surprising thing, and good news for your study, is how much your location can influence your learning.


Soaking it Up: Genius Loci and the Power of Immersive Learning

Wrocław: the Genius Loci is strong in this one.

Genius Loci is probably one of the least likely learning resources you could think of. After all, if someone told you that “a protective spirit of a place” can help you learn your language better, you wouldn’t think too much of it, would you?

Let’s take a step back and think of genius loci as a metaphor for something else – less metaphysical, and more helpful.

Consider this scenario: you’re coming to Wroclaw to learn Polish.

If you’re lucky, you will find a flat within walking distance of the Rynek. Pretty soon, you’l find out where the English-speaking expats go (and discover how much people can charge you for a watered-down Guinness). You will also discover places where you want to hang out, go for lunch, unwind.

Before long, things will begin to make sense. You will find out about free Polish lessons in a library, and you may be surprised (pleasantly) at how well people speak your language. You could even start a few language exchanges with people in one or two cafes.

Sure, you would do this anyway. But each place you would go to would require you to do it differently. What’s common about these places is the way they bring it all together: your experience becomes total. This is when awesome things happen to your language, and your fluency goes through the roof.


Polyglot Ghost-busting: How to Go Looking for Your Genius Loci

This is not something you will find in your Lonely Planet guide (although it’s a good place to start). Obviously, depending on where you go, your mileage will vary. It’s a good idea here to stick to your learning objectives. The checklist below covers the most important and salient points: feel free to fish out the more subtle ones yourself!


  • Find and join a local library.
  • Find an information office and make acquaintances with the staff.
  • Find a friendly cafe, restaurant and / or pub. Make sure you become a “local” quickly (the fewer people speak your language, the better).
  • Find a free local newspaper (many cities hand them out in public transport).
  • Find out which cinemas show films with subtitles in your language.
  • Find out museums with guided tours in several languages.
  • Find out if your place has an online classified ads page (Gumtree is a popular alternative to Craigslist in Europe). Consider a language exchange.
  • Find out which places are best avoided, and where it’s OK to wander.
  • Find organisations which need international volunteers, and join them.

How did genius loci help your language learning? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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