Traveling to Learn a Language: The best way, the only way, or a myth?

A popular belief suggests that learning a new language is easy if you move to a country where it is spoken. With some attention, it is easy to see that this is a pretty vague plan of action. It’s not that simple.

The first missing detail in this plan is the time span. How long must one spend in this country exactly? Are we talking a permanent move, or more of a vacation? Well, let’s assume there is nobody out there thinking the job of language acquisition will be completed in a week or two. It is probably a mistake to think about it as something that can be completed at all. No matter how good you get in a language, it can always be improved. Language acquisition should be viewed as a journey. You can make huge strides forward on that journey by traveling to a country where you will be surrounded by native speakers. Hoe long you are there is up to you. Personally, I say, the longer the better.

Other important information is your native language and your target language. Let’s assume, since you’re reading this post, that your native language is English, or you at least have a proficiency in it. The language you are hoping to learn has a huge effect on the time and difficulty required to learn. A native English speaker will have a much easier time learning one of the related languages such as German, French, or Spanish while it will be far more difficult for them to learn something like Mandarin or Japanese. Learning a language very different from your own will have a big effect on the time and effort required to learn, but this also does not mean it is impossible.

The next factor you will want to consider is your language level at the time you make this journey. It is a bit over-ambitious and even naive to think that a complete beginner can go to foreign country and immediately start making progress in their target language. In fact, it may have an adverse effect in your development. Depending on the nature of your travels your tasks may vary, but there can be many things to concern yourself with upon arrival – living expenses, transportation, housing, finances, familiarizing yourself with your surroundings, maybe even finding work – and all of these things will take a mental toll on you. If you ad ‘Start Learning This Language’ to the list of things to do when you arrive, you will have a lot on your plate, and something, or many things, will suffer because of it.

Now, what are your resources? I don’t care who you are, you cannot learn a language without resources. It can be a book, some language application, or the people you surround yourself with. The later of these is fine and a great way to get practice with native speakers(a vital part of learning a language), but when starting at nothing, being surrounded with native speakers won’t get you too far if your primary form of communication is mumbling nonsense at each other.

Working with a native speaker who also knows some of your native language is a valuable tool.There are many online networks that can connect you with native speakers who can teach you or just provide some conversation practice. For example, couchsurfing, italki, and meetup.com are all great ways to meet people who are eager to speak, learn, and teach languages online or maybe even in person.

On that last point of the possibilities of meeting native speakers, I will stress this last point: You don’t NEED to go anywhere. But, it’s a hell of an experience if you do.

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One thought on “Traveling to Learn a Language: The best way, the only way, or a myth?

  1. Good points, Matt, and great work on the blog. Living abroad is a wonderfully enriching experience, but it’s certainly not a mandatory condition for learning a foreign language these days. With Internet access, a little creativity, and a lot of hard work, you can learn any language, anywhere. On the flip side, living abroad is no guarantee that you will pick up the language (just look at all the expats who lived in Japan for years and can’t even order food in Japanese). While immersion is essential, language acquisition depends on active learning, not passive osmosis. No my friends, exposure is not enough. You have to be hungry to learn and do everything you can to actively assimilate the language.

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