BEN FOGLE ON THE POWER OF IMMERSION

Ben Fogle arriving for The Sun Military Awards 2011 at the Imperial war Museum, London. Photography by Steve Vas / Featureflash.

by Lauren Pitts

WHEN LEARNING A LANGUAGE, YOU’RE MASTERING A NEW FORM OF COMMUNICATION. WE’D LIKE TO INTRODUCE YOU TO BROADCASTER AND ADVENTURER BEN FOGLE, WHO’S SHARED WITH US HIS EXPERIENCE OF IMMERSION INTO A NEW CULTURE AND HOW LANGUAGE SKILLS INSTIL A NEW LEVEL OF CONFIDENCE WHEN IT COMES TO EXPLORING THE WORLD.

Ben has written nine Sunday Times bestselling books and is the United Nations Patron of the Wilderness. He climbed Mount Everest, rowed across the Atlantic, raced across Antarctica to the South Pole and crossed the deserts of the Empty Quarter in the Middle East.

Somehow alongside all of that Ben has also presented numerous programmes for the BBC, ITV, C5 and Discovery, including the hit series New Lives in the Wild. If that wasn’t enough he’s fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, Ambassador to WWF, Tusk and Hearing Dogs for the Deaf and Patron of The Red Cross and United Nations.

Thank you so much for speaking to us today Ben! Your background in language learning combined with all your experience around the world, putting yourself in challenging yet inspiring situations, makes a truly motivational story. We’d love to find out more about your adventures, your interaction with different cultures, your language learning experience and the skills that have helped you throughout your endeavours.

Why did you choose to study Spanish and Latin American studies? Was the decision influenced by your future plans, or were your plans influenced by your studies?
I spent two years living in Latin America after school. I loved Central and South America and it soon became apparent that I would need to understand the language if I was going to maximise the experience. Travel is nothing without communication. When I returned to the UK, I had a pretty good working understanding of the language but I wanted to learn more.

When studying in Costa Rica, were you taught in English or Spanish? How did this influence your experience?
I was taught in Spanish. There is nothing like immersion to really learn. There was no shortcut.

What was it like learning and living in Costa Rica?
I loved it. It is a very ‘safe’ place. It is one of the most westernised places in Central America. If I’m honest there were other countries that excited me more but it was great to spend a year getting to know a place and the people.

How important was it for you to speak Spanish? Was it a very bilingual culture when you were there?
Although English was widely spoken, away from the city, Spanish was essential. It enabled me to forge real friendships.

Which Spanish phrase has been most useful to you over the years?
Pura Vida. It doesn’t get much more Costa Rican than that. It basically means have fun and enjoy life.

You’ve done a lot of travelling and global activism work. Can you explain the relationship between your language skills and confidence in travelling to unknown places?
I often travel to places where there is a language barrier and I always find the experience a little disappointing. Nuances are lost in translation. It is much harder and slower to form a real connection. Having Spanish has given me the confidence to travel in a huge part of the world.

Has the discipline and focus needed for learning a language helped you in other areas of your life? For example, in your sporting endeavours?
My language skills came from immersion. I struggled in school. My Canadian father wanted me to be bilingual in French and sent me to the French Lycee in London when I was 8. The problem was that I straddled two worlds. The French one during the day and the English one at night. I hated it. There was no immersion and I dropped out after two years. Today I speak only a little French. I think you really need to want to learn a language.

When you were taking on the huge challenge of climbing Everest, you must have come into contact with lots of different people from different cultures. How did you find that your language skills contributed to this amazing journey?
I have mastered communicating with others when there is no common language. Everest was a melting pot of languages. Sign language and gesturing are an amazingly effective way to communicate. I learnt that when I was 18 and I spent a month hitchhiking down the Amazon River with no Portuguese phrasebook. It was talk or die.

Your work has taken you all around the world, to places like the Sahara, the South Pole and Botswana, to name just a few. Can you tell us what you’ve observed in such places in terms of communication between people of different cultures and the role language plays here?
I am fascinated by communication in all its forms. When you come from an English speaking nation, you tend to defer to the hope and assumption that others will speak English. It can make us lazy. I think it’s important to show you are trying.

Did you experience places where communicating in English was deemed very important, or where it was devalued at all?
I think there are some places where speaking English can be interpreted as laziness. There are of course many cultures and places where they place great value on learning English and plenty of people have used me as a sounding board for the English they have often been self-taught. You’d be amazed how many people around the world learn language through television and watching English or American shows.

Sign language and gesturing are an amazingly effective way to communicate. I learnt that when […] I spent a month hitchhiking down the Amazon River with no Portuguese phrasebook. It was talk or die. 

The new series of your TV show, New Lives in the Wild, is all about people moving to unknown environments. Do you think language plays a role in integrating into a new community?
Definitely. It’s key to being accepted, valued as part of a wider community. There have of course been people who have failed to learn the local language but the majority of people have tried.

What would your top study tip be for people learning a language today?
Immersion. You need to want to learn. Friendships are one of the best ways to practise. Watch films and TV shows and read books and newspapers and online content in the language you are learning.

Would you encourage people to learn a language and why?
It’s such a beautiful way to experience a place, people and a culture from an honest, pure, undiluted perspective.

Do you encourage your children to learn languages? If so, how?
Indeed. My wife Marina is Austrian and fluent in German. They are all learning. They have a German-speaker who comes to the house once a week and plays with them. They can do as they please. Paint. Craft. Read. Play games. Anything as long as it’s in German. Immersion. Immersion. Immersion.

If you had one piece of advice in Spanish, what would it be? (and tell us what it means in English!)
La fruta más dulce proviene del árbol más alto.

The sweetest fruits are in the highest trees.

Thank you Ben, that’s a great sentiment to finish on. Learning a language is a challenge (a few branches will get in the way), but it’s certainly rewarding. The world is a fascinating place, so… Pura Vida!

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Lauren Pitts. Marketing Executive, Cambridge University Press. The World of Better Learning blog.

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