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Make sure this kid is not having fun. Image: Mike Incitti

Image: Incitti


The Inertia

Imagine yourself being in a foreign country, learning Spanish, French, English or Italian. Each morning you go to a class and then spend the afternoon wrapping up homework you’ve been assigned. Learning how to structure sentences, expanding your vocabulary, and practicing proper grammar begin to control your life and your free time. The problem is that being abroad while learning a new language is supposed to be fun, while this routine is not.

Several research projects have shown that exercise empties your mind, actually making it much easier to learn a new language. Scientists suggest that being active throughout the day while learning boosts a process called plasticity. Recently, one study compared the activity of two groups of Chinese students learning English. In one group, students took their standard in-class lessons while another group was sent to ride bikes for 20 minutes before lessons, then continuing their rides on stationary bikes while English words were displayed on a screen in front of them. When both groups were given quizzes on the day’s lessons, researchers found that the active students not only earned higher scores but they also consistently retained proper sentence structure better than the sedentary students. So aside from the combination of the exercise and learning simply sounding like a lot of fun, it turns out pairing a new language with surfing is actually beneficial.

So now imagine yourself in Montañita, a beach town in Ecuador. You’re there to learn Spanish but the fact that you can fit in a surf four or five times a week makes it much more fun. Coincidentally, there are schools that take advantage of this, offering the chance to study a new language in places you can also surf.

I’m a Dutchman who was struggling with English years ago so I decided to spend some time in Australia, making an effort to immerse myself in the language. The first 10 weeks passed by slowly and my English speaking wasn’t improving much. Then I was given the option to take a surf lesson. I teamed up with two classmates and we were all hooked right away. The surf instructor clearly had experience with teaching foreigners, and since the lessons were so much fun, we started enjoying speaking English while surfing. We started to see that once we came back to class we were having more fun with our English lessons. We were suddenly more motivated, wanting to improve our English so we could have better conversations with our surf instructor and pick up more tips that would get us into waves.

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A couple of years later I decided to take the same approach to learning Spanish. I didn’t need surf lessons anymore but I was eager to get out and have conversations in the lineups in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. I got to meet fellow traveling surfers, locals, and the whole experienced ended up boosting my learning curve for a new language once again.

After these two experiences, I can say that surfing doesn’t just help you free your mind. There’s a social aspect that will encourage you to learn and science that backs up your ability to take in a new language.

Note: You can learn more about the Surfawhile here, an online travel agency offering programs that combine surfing with learning Spanish in eight different countries, French, and Portuguese.

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