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Are You a Language Jet-Setter or Hitchhiker? Posted by on Feb 6, 2017 in Uncategorized

Some language learners are ultra-prepared and dedicated. Others are more passive, preferring to let the language find them. Which one are you?

In my experience, I’ve found there are two kinds of language learners: jet-setters and hitchhikers.

Jet-setters know exactly where they’re going, and they’ve packed exactly what they need to get there. Maybe they’re learning French to expand sales for their company in Marseille and Provence. Maybe they’re spending a year abroad from school in Japan and have buckled down for an intensive course beforehand, so they can hit the ground running when they arrive. Or maybe they’re revisiting family heritage – even though their own parents may not speak the language of the home country anymore, they’ve decided to revive it themselves. There’s a cultural connection.

Whatever their motivations and purpose, the language jet-setters are prepared. They’ve researched the best possible books, apps and online language learning services to suit their needs. They have blocked out a time every week or even every day to dedicate to the endeavor. They have a goal, and they want to achieve it. They’ve got their eyes on the prize.

Language hitchhikers go with the flow. They don’t have a specific goal, they’re just glad to be along for the ride. Maybe their global wanderings have taken them to a country where they end up staying for longer than they had originally planned, and it becomes necessary to pick up the local tongue. Maybe they’ve fallen in love with someone and found themselves immersed in the language and culture of their significant other. Or maybe it’s just that they’re fascinated with a certain country and people and end up absorbing some of the language along the way.

Where the jet-setters are active, the hitchhikers are passive. Their bags are full of all kinds of knickknacks, both useful and pointless. They let the language happen to them, wash over them like a wave. They’ll work at it minimally, like a drifter pitching in a few bucks for gas, but for the most part they just open their brains and soak it in.

And now you’re asking yourself…which one are you?

In actual reality, we can be both simultaneously. With German, I’m a jet-setter. I took intensive classes, studied industriously, and force my German friends to practice with me. I’ve got a specific goal in mind (even if I keep moving it), and I know what I need to do to get there. With Italian, on the other hand, I’m a complete hitchhiker. I never once took a class, and yet somehow I picked it up from my wife and her family and friends. It was slow going, but one day I just woke up and there it was – Italian! I know what I need to work on, but I’d rather just figure it out organically from listening and trying it out rather than studying, unlike German.

The smartest and fastest route is to make use of both: be active, know what you want and how to get it, and also be open to letting the language bloom inside you. If you can pack both a rucksack and a trolly bag, you’ll be ready for anything.

So…which one are you?

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About the Author:Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Eugene S.:

    If you really care about learning a language I feel you have to adopt both approaches, active and passive. If you’re truly engaged in the process that’s the most fun and effective way to learn .

  2. Donna Johnson:

    Similar to you, it depends on which language. But here’s my question, for you polyglots. How do you keep similar languages separate? For example- I’ve studied pretty intensely in Russian, and tho still in early stages, have a good sense of it including grammar. Now I’m adding Slovak, which has many similarities- but also many differences. What really throws me is sometimes I’m searching my brain for a word in those languages, and up pops Japanese- or Spanish! Thanks for any ideas.

    • Dylan:

      @Donna Johnson I learned Spanish to a degree of near fluency. Now im learning Catalan. The are different but similar. I guess it helps to focus on the differences, exaggerate them, for example if the spanish word ends in -ion the catalan word ends in -ió.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Donna Johnson It’s not easy. I myself mix up Spanish and Italian constantly. If anyone else has a good solution let me know!

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