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Survival Linguistics: The Benefits Of a Language Survival Kit

My first pocket knife saved a cat’s life.

I got it from my grandpa, and whenever I had it with me (I still do, sometimes), I had this warm feeling of being prepared. Cutting up sticks for marshmallow-baking? Opening a bottle of Coke? Bring it on.

(Yes, this post is still about learning a language.)

Fast forward to the end of 2011, and my brief encounter with John “Lofty” Wiseman’s book “SAS Survival Guide: How to survive in the Wild, on Land or Sea.” The book is widely regarded as one of the most influential survival guides. One chapter in particular made me think: it was the one about the survival kit. Wiseman lists all the useful ingredients of such pack (small enough to fit into an Altoids tin), and rounds it off with a recommendation: “Make a habit of always having it with you – do not get separated from it.”

This little sentence was not really the point of the chapter – even I was more interested, then, in finding out the ingredients and benefits of a pack like this! But a few days later, I remembered this sentence, and as I started thinking about the similarities between survival and language learning, three things came to my mind. Here they are, in no particular order.

1. It’s always the little things that make the biggest difference. Everything that fits into that small box, Lofty says, “can be crucial in the fight for survival.” It’s comforting for those hikers and travellers who happened not to splash out on the biggest, flashiest gear – what they have in that little tin might actually be more useful. And if you’re a language learner, the thought brings solace as well: the tricky and difficult beginnings, the first steps and successes, the little words like “I”, “but”, “go” – these turn out to be crucial in any language you learn.

2. Having tools does not equal expertise. I can instantly think of two embarrassing situations here. One of them would involve a show-off traveller, cutting his thumb with his brand-new, kick-ass knife. The other one would involve bringing an iPad to a language class, ostensibly to make notes and translating words – and making a messy job out of it. You’ve got the tools? Great. Now learn to use them well.

With the minimalist survival kit – or with a minimalist approach to language learning, exemplified by Tim Ferriss and Benny Lewis – this concern is a bit less important. Since you’re only dealing with the bare minimum, chances are that you will actually be able to use it well – or at least not get yourself into a lot of trouble. Is it spectacular and impressive? Not really. Will this help you to get by in every situation? Hell no. There’s a reason these kits (and language philosophies) are called “minimalist.”

3. Never underestimate psychology. A small tin filled with a tiny collection of stuff – that doesn’t amount to much, doest it? Neither does a handful of words and phrases in a foreign language. But if you actually found yourself in a situation where these would be called for – if you had to survive on your own in the wild, or communicate in a foreign country – these count for more than just what they appear to be.

The difference between a person with a survival kit and the one with absolutely nothing is exactly the same as the difference between knowing absolutely nothing and knowing a few words and phrases in a language: it’s confidence. That’s why John Wiseman advises you to carry that box with you wherever you go. That’s why I believe there are words and phrases you should know in as many languages as possible. It’s not that these things solve all problems. But they make you feel like some problems can at least be tackled. And that’s a long way from feeling that you can’t tackle anything at all, isn’t it?


Language Survival Kit

These are actually easy to do in this day an age. Here are just a few suggestions:

  • – A phrasebook. Oldie but goodie.
  • – A good translating app for your phone. I’ve gone through some Android goodness here.
  • – A custom cheat sheet with the word
    s / phrases you most often use.
  • – An “emergency sign” written beforehand and shown to people when you’re in trouble; for example, telling them who to contact and what to say.
  • – A notepad with your words list – for the perpetual power learner. You never know when inspiration strikes you!


Any other ideas for language survival kits? Let me know in the comments!

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