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Guerrilla Language Learning: A Very Brief Introduction

I meet a lot of language school owners and directors – and I’m constantly in touch with several language teachers. Recently, the recurring theme in our conversations is quite pessimistic. The way people say this always differs – but the thing they are trying to say is always the same:
“People don’t have the money to spend on language learning nowadays.”
Today, I want to tell you why this is good news – and how this sentence can be a beginning of an awesome learning adventure.

1. The Hidden Side of Crisis

You know that common belief that the Chinese character for “crisis” is composed of characters which mean “danger” and “opportunity”?
Well, apparently that’s not completely true. But one thing we can’t deny: economic crises are perfect moments to start something awesome. Of course the business is bad – of course the money is scarce. But there are hundreds of businesses that have started in tough times, and survived – and prospered in good times.
The main reason – and the common trait for many of these businesses – was that they were able to use their resources wisely, and to invest something else than just money into the business. Which brings us to…

2. Guerrilla Marketing – and why it matters to language learners

OK – if you’re not into marketing, this may appear off-topic. It isn’t, so bear with me.
Imagine a company like Microsoft. Their marketing budget is millions of dollars. They can single-handedly spend lots of money on big billboards and huge ad campaigns. And if that doesn’t work – hey, they can spend money on the next campaign which will hopefully be improved. Companies like that are like huge armies – like the Empire in “Star Wars.” They march on, gigantic and powerful, and don’t care about the cost of things.
Now imagine a small company. Maybe a one-man company. Its marketing budget is much smaller. Consequently, the company is going to think twice about every penny spent on marketing, invest time and effort instead – and use techniques which are too untypical for the big companies to employ. These kinds of companies are like guerrilla fighters – like the “Star Wars” Rebel Alliance: they are fast, creative and unpredictable, and that is their only chance.
There is a lot more to guerrilla marketing than this simple intro – and I encourage you to read up, even if you’ve never considered a career in marketing. (You can scroll down to the bottom of the page for some useful resources.)
Ultimately, though, it boils down to three things: money, time and effort.
Have a look at the chart below (click the image to enlarge):

The centre, as usual, is the “sweet spot” – the perfect language course, creating (and created for) perfect language learners. As such, it is a very rare thing, and we will not discuss it further today 😉
Intensive courses require lots of money and effort, but save you time. In other words: if you want results fast, pay up and knuckle down.
The second category – the one that costs you time and money – is the standard, long-term course. You’ve paid and committed to an investment. It’s going to take several weeks, maybe a couple of years – and you will be expected to pay regularly. This is how language schools view their bread-and-butter products: it would be nice to have students who put in the effort, but at the end of the day, time and money are what the schools plan and budget for.
And then there’s the third category.
You don’t need money to learn here. All you need is lots of time and plenty of effort.
This is the kind of learning that requires creativity and bright ideas. This is the kind you create, plan and design yourself. It is a course you take on the street, via Skype, on internet message boards.
This, in short, is the guerrilla language learning.

3. A Handful of Bullets: How to start guerrilla language learning

The beauty of this learning type is that each “incarnation” is unique. A person who learns Chinese in Beijing will have different means and options than a Chinese learner in Swansea, UK. There are several things, however, that usually work well:

– Language exchange. Find people who are willing to learn a language you know. Meet frequently and teach each other.
– Barter. Exchange a language lesson for something you can do. I would love to teach anyone sailing in exchange for a language lesson!
– Use the street. Conversations, signs, free newspapers – that is how I managed to pick up lots of Portuguese on my honeymoon. And I wasn’t even planning for it! Which reminds me:
– Plan and organise. With a paid language course, your syllabus and learning plan is set out for you. With guerrilla language learning, you organize your learning experience. Think ahead: what will happen in your day, and how can language learning be thrown into the mix?
– Stop thinking in terms of “lessons.” You will notice that I used the phrase “learning experience” above. A lesson is a unit of time, exchanged for a unit of money. Very useful when money changes hands. When it doesn’t – when all you’re left with is time and effort – everything can be a lesson, and “lesson” no longer means anything. You chat to a person who sells you vegetables. You try to decipher a text which your phone operator sent you. You get a leaflet in your post. There you go: lessons. Or, if you will, learning experiences.
– Measure and decide. After a while, you will find out what works well and what doesn’t. Since it’s your time and effort you’re investing, it’s only fair to stick to the effective techniques. Let’s say you’ve got two Spanish-speaking colleagues, but only one is willing to indulge you when you mangle his language in conversation? Stick to this guy for your efforts. You’ve got several chat-rooms where German is spoken, but only two of them are busy enough? You know what to do with the underperforming ones…

4. Conclusion and resources

Folks, there’s a lot more to this topic. I feel that when the times get tough, a new kind of language learning emerges – and that guerrilla language learning might be one of the ways out of a situation which me and my colleagues have been grumbling about!
Check out the links below to find out more about the guerrilla marketing and its connection with language learning:
– The official words of wisdom about GM: From Wikipedia and its official website.
– “Feet on the street” – a recent post by Seth Godin that brilliantly exemplifies what the movement is about ( inspiring for language learning ideas, too!)
– Some guerrilla language learning projects – nothing recent or inspiring yet – but let’s keep looking: Project 1, Project 2.
Got more? Willing to discuss it? The comments section can handle it all!


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One Responseso far.

  1. As you say, it is not necessary to spend much money on language learning. Time and effort are needed, as you say, however both of those elements can be looked at more closely. Can we use our time better?
    Can we make smarter efforts?
    Both of these questions are important because too often people spend a lot of time and effort and do not get too far. So it is important to find ways of learning that work more effective.
    This entails letting go of disempowering beliefs – such as “I am not a good language learner” – of letting go of practices that hold you back – like translating everything!- of taking on attitudes that have you looking for opportunities (and if you can’t find them, you make them!)
    And that’s just for starters! 🙂
    Main thing is ENJOY!