How To Learn Language Through Food

Travel and food go hand in hand, so incorporating the local cuisine into the language learning process is a great way to discover the traditions and culture of the native-speaking country whilst picking up new vocabulary and learning how to interact with locals along the way.

Plus, food is a vital part of life for us mere mortals, so integrating it into your learning schedule is very much a necessity.

Think about when you land in a new country for the first time; a country that you might not know the language of.  Chances are, you’re hungry and you want to grab a bite to eat.

What’s stopping you?

My guess is it’s the language barrier that’s holding you back from trying some of the local cuisine – or anything, for that matter.

You might be worried that you won’t be understood and end up with something you don’t like, or you might be embarrassed that the seller will laugh at your incompetence.

There’s always the point and hope method, but wouldn’t it be great to be able to order something native to the country with add-ons and everything and not be surprised when it turns up?

Food is often a central point in many countries; it’s there when families break bread together, it’s there at cultural events and festivals, it’s one of the best conversation starters, and it’s a great opening for learning about a culture and its language.

But using food as a language learning tool is not just a brilliant way to hone your conversational skills and delve into the customs of a new place; it is also a fun and sensory approach that will help you retain more information than a text or audio book.

Food activates all our senses

Food is one of the only things in the world that uses all five senses to engage people; touch, sight, smell, sound, and taste.

There’s the texture of fresh bread, the vibrant colour palette of Thai cuisine, the aromatic smell of herbs and spices in a curry, the sound of sizzling prawns on a hotplate and, of course, the explosion of all of these things in the taste when it finally touches your tongue.

Utilising all of the senses ensures that whatever it is will remain in your memory for longer than if you were to only use one or two because when one sense forgets, there is always another that leaps to recall when it is activated.

Have you ever caught the scent of something that reminds you of the past, something that instantly reels you back to another part of your life?

I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Our senses are more powerful than we think, and they create strong connections with the brain to remember the things we have touched, seen, smelt, heard, and tasted with vibrant accuracy.

Using food to revise vocabulary improves your chances of remembering it at a later date. Rather than trying to use one or two senses like sight and sound when practicing phrases, words, and sentences, use all of them; whilst reading one thing, eat a piece of cake and whilst reading another, have a spoonful of flavoursome soup.

By activating all your senses at the same time, you are instantly increasing the number of memory triggers. When you need to remember that word or phrase in the future, you can use your senses to take you back to when you revised it.

And of course this method is extremely successful when learning the vocabulary for different food products.

If you have a real-life version of the food in front of you and can touch it, smell it, and see it, you are significantly improving your chances are storing the word in your mind than if you were trying to memorise it from a list in a book.

Food is familiar

Food is something that connects everyone; it’s something that the world has in common.  Everyone needs to eat and everywhere has places to buy food, like restaurants.

Regardless of where we are in the world, restaurants tend to operate under the same method – customer chooses food, chefs cook food, customer eats food. Whilst there may be variations from place to place, the bare essentials are the same.

This makes food a beacon of familiarity in a country that might otherwise be completely alien to us.

We know what a restaurant is and what we are supposed to do there, which instantly makes us feel comfortable and more confident in what we are doing; two things that are necessary for progressing in a language.

And, because we are in a familiar setting, we will be able to make connections between words – which words are usually seen on a menu, for instance, like starters, mains, desserts, and so on.

We know where these are usually found on a menu, and can therefore begin to recognise them in the new language and start making connections with the foods listed below them.

Ordering food is a familiar action, too. Once you have learned the names of food using the sensory approach above, you can easily put them into a sentence.

Most conversations with a waiter go the same way – waiter asks what you would like and you respond with your order.

Once you have nailed the basics of this interaction, you can do it again and again which builds up confidence, plus you will learn different responses and questions in the process.

Reward yourself

Food not only helps you ingrain a language into your brain and gives you confidence in speaking, but it is also a great motivational tool.

If you find you are lacking the drive to do your homework or can’t bring yourself to practice conjugating verbs because you can’t stop thinking about that leftover Chinese take away in the fridge, use it to your advantage.

Tell yourself that you can eat it once you have done a certain amount of work as a small reward.

Giving yourself rewards makes you feel more confident that you are getting somewhere with the language and recognises that you have actually achieved something and, well, a food reward is never going to disappoint!

If this isn’t enough motivation to incorporate food into the language learning process, just remember that you will get to try delicious new food along the way!

And, if it’s not possible for you to visit the native-speaking country to feast on local cuisine, you will always be able to find a suitable restaurant near your home where you can familiarise yourself with the menu and, of course, try some new foods.

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