Listening in on people’s conversations without them knowing (called eavesdropping or snooping) is one of the best ways to learn your target language, especially if you’re living or visiting where people speak the language. This is when you’ll hear native-speaking people naturally express anger, joy, sadness, and pride, among many other emotions, in their target language. What’s more, you’ll hear expressions used authentically in context -- not just as isolated words to learn from a list.
A great opportunity for this type of learning--although often very briefly--is when your italki teacher get disrupted during one of your lessons. For example, your teacher’s child may walk in during the class and settle down next to his/her mother. Yes, it may be cute. But listen to what your teacher says to her child. Chances are you’ll hear your teacher express a little irritation or embarrassment. Also, listen to how your teacher gets his or her child to stop the pestering (annoying behavior). You may hear a little scolding or a even a little bribery (promising “a reward” to get a person to stop or start doing something).
Here are some other great opportunities for you to hear your target language in action:
If you pay attention, fights and quarrels happen all the time, just as in your own language and culture. Often occurring in public places, fights enable you to hear and observe real emotional reactions, tension and body movements (hopefully, nonviolent) along with the words and expressions that accompany them. Listen inconspicuously (without being noticed).
Although this may seem inappropriate and rude to listen to other people arguing, it will do you a lot of good in learning real expressions in your target language. Here are a couple of common fights or quarrels.
Listen to a mother scold her child:
- Mother: “Where were you?! I told you to stay by me in the store. I was worried sick”.
- Child: “Sorry”.
Here’s another one, arguing with a waiter (or server) in a restaurant:
- Customer: “Excuse me, but my fish doesn’t taste fresh”.
- Waiter (or Server): I’m sorry, sir, but I can assure you that we only use fish caught during the day”.
- Customer: “Well, I still don’t like it”.
- Waiter: “I understand, sir. Would you like me to replace your dinner?”
- Customer: “Yes, I would. But I would like something else this time”.
- Waiter: “Of course, sir. Allow me to bring you the menu again”.
- Customer: “Thank you”.
There are some countries where bargaining is the name of the game (typically) when it comes to buying something. But this a tricky game, and you should observe it or go with a native-speaker before you attempt it on your own. Honestly, I hate bargaining. I find it so stressful, and I believe that no matter how low a price I get, I feel like I’m the loser in the transaction. But you may find it a fun challenge!
Here is a typical bargaining conversation about a pair of earrings that are marked for $100 USD.
- Seller: “Do you like those earrings? Here, try them on. They will be beautiful on you”.
- Customer: “They are very nice, but I can’t afford them”.
- Seller: "Yes, you can. Listen, for you I will give you a very good price. $80 USD".
- Customer: “Thank you, but they’re still too much for me. How about $50 USD?”
- Seller: Lady, you’re killing me. Half off? I make nothing on this. But for you, I’ll go down to $75 USD. That’s it. My best offer”.
- Customer: “Listen, I’ll give you $60. That’s my best offer”.
- Seller: “You have cash?”
- Customer: “Yes”.
- Seller: “OK. Take the earrings. I’ve made no money on this”.
- Customer: Thanks. I appreciate it”.
Man asking a woman out
Now, there is a big difference among cultures in the way men meet women. In some Eastern cultures, there are arranged meetings and marriages. This conversation only applies to cultures (mostly Western) where the man is the first to express interest. (I wish it was the other way around, but I don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime).
- Man: “Hi. I’ve noticed that you work in this building”.
- Woman: “Yes, I work on the third floor”.
- Man: “Wow, so do I! But I’ve only seen you in the elevator. What do you do, if you don’t mind me asking?”.
- Woman: I’m an engineer for the XYZ Company”.
- Man: “What a coincidence! I’m also an engineer. But I work for the ABC Company”.
- Woman: “That’s nice”.
- Man: “Say, would you like to have coffee or lunch sometime? We could talk about our work and other things we may have in common”.
- Woman: ”Thanks, that’s very nice. But I’m with someone”.
- Man: “Oh, sorry…”
- Woman: “No problem”.
- Man: “Well, nice meeting you today and see you around”.
Phone call between a college girl and her mother
Sometimes, you may just hear one part of the conversation, but you can probably guess what the other person is saying on the other side.
Daughter: Daughter clicks several numbers on her cell phone.
- Hi, Mom, it’s me.
- Yeah, it’s good to hear your voice, too.
- No, everything's all right here. Why do you always think there’s something wrong when I call you?
- That’s not true.
- Anyways, how’s everyone there?
- Uh huh. Well, that’s good.
- Umm, Mom?
- Can I ask you a favor?
- Well, umm, could you please put some more money in my account?
- I know, but there are a lot of expenses here.
- Well, I have to buy some more textbooks.
- I am telling you the truth. Have I ever lied to you?
- Well, that was only one time.
- Oh, thanks, Mom. You’re the best mother in the whole world!
- I know, I know. I’ll remember this when I have my own kids.
Daugher hangs up. Then she jumps up and down joyfully...at the mall.
Before you go to your target country, it may be good to ask your italki teacher what common expressions you may hear in different circumstances. Just remember a few rules when you’re eavesdropping on a conversation:
- Don’t look at the people talking.
- Don’t walk closer to hear the conversation.
- And never, ever, take photos or tape the conversation in any way.
And remember this: Someday when you’re fluent in your target language, there may be someone snooping in on what you’re saying. And consider that an honor.
Ilene Springer is a long-time italki teacher specializing in advanced language students. She is a writer and author of The Diary of an Expatriate (AUK, London). Visit her website Chocolate English.eu.