You’ve heard it said many times before: traveling and immersing yourself in a foreign country is the best way to learn its language. Is it true? There are arguments both ways and, to be honest, they each have their merits. As for being the best, I guess that depends from student to student. Some students will find high-pressure immersion situations just the stimulation they need. Others, however, might find it a little too much too soon.
What I can argue, though, are the very tangible benefits of travel to language learning. Experiencing both the language and culture first-hand makes a huge difference in your appreciation and understanding of the language. It must be noted, however, that hopping on a plane and settling down a couple months aren’t all you need to do in order to further your language training — you’ll have to actually take proactive steps to learn the language, as well. If all you do is sit at home and socialize with your expat buddies, we doubt you’ll develop much skill in the language.
The point I’m trying to make is, that while travel could help language learning, it’s what you use that travel experience for that will determine your results. For all I know, you can just lock yourself up in a room with a Spanish language software while vacationing in Spain, which no different from what you can do while staying at home.
Immersion Isn’t About Where You Are
When we talk about language immersion, we immediately think of someone flying over to the foreign country and living there with the locals for an extended period of time. Truth is, you can live for years in another country and not be immersed in the culture at all. Immersion, after all, isn’t about where you are — it’s about what you do while you’re there.
Your attitude will play a huge part in how travel shapes your language learning experience. Are you going to come to the country with a serious intent to learn the language? Or will you just wing it as you go along?
Your commitment to learning the language and your resolve to follow-through on all the necessary steps is what will, eventually, make or break the process for you. Only when you have the attitude of really wanting to learn will you do everything in your power to take advantage of the available opportunities all around you. And believe me, opportunities are everywhere for language learners when they’re in a country that speaks the target language natively.
Put In Work That Matters
While passive exposure can impart bits and pieces of the language to you, it’s the things you pursue actively that define how far you actually progress in your language learning journey. If you attend to everything as if you’re still at home, then being abroad won’t change anything.
Traveling for language learning means adjusting your activities so that you can take advantage of the authentic sources of learning available to you. For most people, this will mean putting in more time for practice, rather than sitting in front a computer and sifting through lessons. This can mean actively seeking out potential resource persons that you can practice the language with on a regular basis (many of them will be happy to oblige, provided you’ll also practice English with them on occasion — not a bad trade). This can mean spending more time out in the streets, soaking in the language and using what little you know to interact.
Learning With A Computer
If all you plan to do is learn in a computer, don’t bother traveling — it’s just an unnecessary expense. Whether you’re working with a language software, an online course or a language tutor over Skype, you might as well just do it from the comfort of your home. All you have to do is pair the lessons with a regular practice group (this, of course, is the challenging part — finding people) to put what you learn to good use.
Basically, language learning boils down to two things: absorbing information and using that information to interact with people. Both can be done with a computer, of course, not just the absorbing information part.
When I learned Spanish two years ago, for instance, I was living in Singapore, where Spanish speakers weren’t really that accessible. To compensate for the lack of in-person interactions in the vernacular, I went online and found a language group that practiced weekly.
The group consisted of eight Spanish as second-language learners, including me. I know what you’re thinking — the blind leading the blind, right? Fortunately for me, that group was actually run by a first-language speaker who facilitated our Skype meetings to give it structure, corrected mistakes and helped push the conversations along. Sure, it cost a little money, but it was a huge step up from what would have been my fate — being confined to learning with a language software and trying to work out erroneous conversations with students on the same level of incompetence as me.
Immersion Versus Regular Practice
How much better is immersion compared to just getting regular practice like I described above? Based on my own experiences, it’s not that not much better in terms of getting you ready to use the language.
There are times, in fact, when the teacher-run practice groups might have an advantage since the sessions usually run with a well-defined structure. As in, the teacher can ensure you guys go over the important elements of the language, rather than interacting about random things like you would in an immersion situation.
What immersion brings to the table, though, is an opportunity to experience the culture. Knowing how deeply tied language is to a country’s culture, immersion provides a way to appreciate the language at a level those who simply study in their own countries aren’t likely to experience. Ultimately, that appreciation leads to a deeper understanding of why a language works the way it does, making you a much better second language user in the long run.