Vanuatu is a country consisting of 83 islands between Fiji and Australia. It enjoys a relatively new independence: it achieved it in 1980 from France and Britain. The population is around 300,000 and they live surrounded by the deep blue waters of the South-Pacific ocean.
This is where our story begins. It is the story of a journey through cultures, languages, music and learning.
Growing up as a global citizen
James first moved to Vanuatu when he was 3. Before that Calgary, Alberta in Canada was his home. His parents (mum coming all the way from Rome) moved to the islands for work and a very young James came in contact with a rich, intriguing culture.
He grew up learning English and the local language, Bislama and used both to communicate for the following 8 years of his life in the archipelagos.
Not once did he feel out of place living in a community where he was the only fair-skinned boy. Where, when American or Canadian tourists visited, he ran with other Melanesian kids, his friends, asking those people coming from another land for candies. Despite the curious looks of the tourists, “I did not see colors. I just saw other people and children as me. I did not feel separated or different from them.” James says.
At 11 years old, his family and he moved back to Canada. Returning to the place where James was born was quite the rollercoaster ride. Quickly, the western world caught up with him. He struggled with bullying: sarcasm was not a concept familiar to him. He had never learnt about it in Vanuatu. Over there, sarcasm was not yet part of the culture. Going to the loo was also a less adventurous experience: toilets were easily accessible inside the school, no need for a walk to the outhouse.
The cultural shock with a western country was poignant, but nonetheless a valuable teaching. He grew up and, after a detour in Colorado (USA), he took up studying music production. Music had always been a crucial part of James’s life but it was still hard to make a decent living out of his work alone. Then the idea of moving to Mexico came up.
Moving south and building a community on TikTok
James had fallen in love with the Spanish language back in his high school years. He had come in contact with some locals and their delicious food, fascinating culture and charming language dazzled him.
He took the leap and moved to Mexico in 2014. “Besides from Hola! I had zero knowledge of Spanish[…]”, but this prompted him to attend a 4-month intensive course. This meant 6 hours per day of language class with an instructor who did not know a word of English. After two weeks he was ready to give up, but his prior experience of navigating a new culture came to the rescue and gave him the strength to persevere.
He now speaks Spanish fluently, in addition to English and Bislama. He will soon celebrate his 9th birthday in his adoptive country and can count on supporting himself with another passion of his: teaching.
His fascination for knowledge sharing grew from his past as a breakdancer. Friends used to ask him for classes and that experience paved the way to his future business.
After getting certified with a Cambridge Certification Program, in 2014 he began teaching English in local Mexican schools until 2017 when he was hired to work online by Chinese and American companies. The transition to online lessons followed in 2022 and eventually James decided to set up his own venture earlier this year.
“Inglés con James” is the name of both his TikTok and Youtube accounts, counting nearly 1.5 million followers. It is something he never dreamt of having in such a short amount of time (he launched it in April this year). The content posted on a daily basis attracted a wide audience, who enjoy his witty videos and language learning tips.
When asked about the importance of consistency and quality of his creations, he compared them to tiny salesmen, presenting his product door to door and eventually conquering people’s hearts and turning them into loyal learners.
James’s tips to learn English (besides TikTok)
Focusing mainly on speaking and listening, his advice to his followers TikTok and YouTube is to “live the language”. Especially outside of the context of formal learning environments. Changing the language settings on your phone to English, or watching a movie in its original version using English subtitles are just some examples.
“Translating at the beginning is fine, but eventually it slows the learning down”. When learning a new term, it is a good exercise to associate its image directly with the foreign word. Avoid recognizing the word in your mother tongue and only then, turning that into its foreign counterpart.
It is paramount to learn the language for what it is. “Translating is like having an exam in school and someone hands you all the answers: you will pass it with flying colours, but concretely you did not learn anything.”
Recording yourself is also a valuable tool in the box. When you listen to yourself, your brain not only spots possible mistakes but it also recognizes your own voice. This creates a sort of safe bubble where your brain addresses those errors and helps you correct them.
For those who prefer a more tangible experience, James finds libraries are a very useful resource: they advertise social clubs, classes, events and festivals which are most likely for free. Attending those will help integrate in the new community and be in touch with native speakers.
Finally, avoid getting too cozy with other expats who speak your same native language. That way you will not fall into the ease of creating a close group where the local language is barely considered, let alone practiced.
The road might be rocky, but the view will stun you
Full immersion in a culture is key to actively learn its jargon and rules. The type of language you learn only from books is static, passive and at times not relevant to its current application. But a language is a living organism, consistently morphing and adapting to its surroundings. The only way to truly catch its essence is to dive into, observe and connect with its ecosystem.
Befriending some locals, making the effort to speak the language when going to grocery stores and cafes, or even attending events to fully absorb the local culture will ensure, with time, a smooth integration in the new society and fluency in the new tongue.
Start learning now
The story of James was one that showed how impactful the ripple effect can be. His resilience, sense of humour, musical style (check James AKA Dácotu on Spotify too!) and line of business stemmed from his experiences and influenced the person he is today and his vision for the future.
To gain such deep cultural awareness might involve some struggling, moments when you do not believe you will make it. The secret is: take a deep breath and stick with it. At the end of the day you will harvest the fruits of your practice. And how delicious they will be!
Do you like to learn English on TikTok? You’d probably enjoy our interview with the TikTok polyglot – Antonio Parlati.“
If you are planning or considering embarking on a journey into a new culture, or simply if you are already there and would love to boost your fluency in a language, SPEAK has your back. Join our mission, bring your unique story and amaze others with your adventures.
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