How to Learn a Language Abroad
Do you need to live in a foreign country to learn its language well?
Most people think so. In fact, as soon as people find out I speak multiple languages, they automatically assume that I’ve lived in just as many countries.
And that’s not true. Though I have lived in a couple of countries where my target languages are spoken, I generally don’t move abroad to learn a foreign language. Instead, I put in a lot of work from home to make sure I have regular opportunities to practice all of my languages, all from the comfort of my native city.
That’s not to say that living abroad doesn’t have its benefits when it comes to learning languages. If you’re learning the language of the country you’re living in, you’re immediately in a sink-or-swim, learn-or-die scenario that will force you to come to grips with the language quickly in order to function in your day-to-day life.
And that works for some people. However, success is not guaranteed.
If you want to guarantee your language learning success by living in a foreign country, you need to take the right set of actions. And what actions you take will be dependent on your previous level of experience with the language.
In this article, I will explain how to succeed learning a language in-country at each of three levels—absolute beginner (~A1), intermediate (~B1), and near-advanced (~B2+).
Moving Abroad as an Absolute Beginner
If you’re planning on moving to a country where your target language is spoken with absolutely no language experience (A1 or below on the CEFR scale), you’ve got a difficult road ahead of you. Many learners fall into the trap of seeing in-country immersion as a magic pill; that by simply being in a place where the language is spoken, you’ll just magically learn to speak it from scratch, easily and naturally, in a matter of weeks or months.
In truth, moving abroad with zero knowledge of the language is like being taught to swim by being thrown into the open ocean. Many people who wish to follow this approach forget that moving to a country means successfully being able to account for your basic needs—food, water, shelter, etc.—all on day one. Furthermore, as a new resident you’ll be faced with various bureaucratic hassles, including rent, visa, and residency requirements, healthcare, utilities, and more. All this is stressful enough in your native country, where you already know the culture and language; put yourself in a new place, with a new language, and it suddenly becomes next-to impossible.
Put plainly, moving to a country without any previous language experience will mean that you’re under pressure to perform in the language at nearly all times. When you visit shops and restaurants, you’ll need to interact with staff. When you’re out on the street, you’ll need to read important signs, maps, and other public notices. And when you have any kind of urgent need or emergency, you’ll need to make sure you can communicate that need with others, and quickly. Sure, in many places you can use English (or another common language) as a fallback, but not always. When you’re abroad, you need to be prepared for anything, and not knowing the local language will make that preparation difficult.
If your heart is set on moving abroad as an absolute beginner, however, there are three key tips you can follow to make your life much, much easier.
Learn the Basics Immediately (or in Advance of Your Trip)
If you’re already in-country, then you’ll need to work as hard as you can to master the most useful basic words, structures, and phrases. Things like numbers, greetings, question words, and introductory phrases should be high on your to-learn list, as you’ll need to use them regularly in communication with natives. Many traveler’s phrase books are excellent sources of such material.
If you’re not in-country yet, then you can take a slightly different approach. If you only have days or weeks before you arrive, then you can resort to study of basic phrases (as above), but without the added stress of needing to learn and use it all right away.
If, on the other hand, you have three to six months before you arrive, I recommend doing what you can to build a language core. Building a language core means that instead of memorizing idle phrases, you dedicate time to familiarize yourself with the most common basic structures of the language, and learn how to use the most common words of the language within those structures. This is the approach I use before moving to a foreign country, and I accomplish it through daily application of my bidirectional translation method.
Read about Local Culture and Customs
Every country is different. What is acceptable in one will not always be acceptable in another, and vice versa. To be able to survive in-country while acquiring your language skills, you need to have an idea of things like etiquette, politeness, gestures, how to act in public, customs, and cultural taboos, and even the general history of the country. Luckily, you should be able to find much of this information readily available to online, either in English or other languages, so prepare yourself by reading as much as you can before you go.
Interact with Natives Early and Often
You won’t function for long in a country if you don’t know how to speak and interact with natives. Luckily, as a beginner, there are many ways to do this without resorting to blindly interacting with strangers on the street. The best ways is to simply find a native speaker to tutor or teach you using a site like italki or Couchsurfing. With italki, you can search a database of potential tutors and pay them hourly to work with you and answer your questions, while with Couchsurfing, you can interact with natives for free via events or one-on-one language exchanges. Regardless of the method you use, interacting with natives early and often will both boost your language skills and help you adjust to life in your new home.
Moving Abroad as an Intermediate Learner
If you decide to move abroad with basic fluency (~B1) of your target language under your belt, you’ll be able to adapt to your new surroundings much quicker, and devote more time and energy to improving your language skills from day one of your arrival onwards.
As an intermediate learner, you will more than likely have decent speaking, listening, reading and writing skills, making the stress of organizing and adjusting to your new life easier to handle than it would be if you were a beginner.
Since you can already understand and make yourself understood in the most common in-country settings (shops, restaurants, transportation, offices, etc.) you can use your in-country time to reinforce and expand your language knowledge, rather than building it all from scratch.
If you are moving abroad to learn a language as an intermediate learner, here are three tips that will help you make the best use of your in-country experience:
Always Be Prepared to Learn
Everywhere you go, everything you do, and everyone you speak to in-country will provide valuable insight and exposure to your target language and how it works. The language will be all around you, so don’t restrict your “learning time” to a couple of hours daily, as you may have done in school. Instead view every trip outside of your apartment as a chance to absorb new information. Read every sign. Listen to the people walking past. Leaf through the day’s newspaper. There will be countless opportunities for you to find new and interesting bits of language—don’t pass them up!
Record Everything You Can
Even if you’re always ready to learn, that doesn’t mean that you’ll always remember everything you learn. To avoid losing new knowledge and insights to forgetting, make sure you carry a notebook with you, and write down the most useful new words and phrases that you encounter when you’re out and about. Review your notes in your downtime, and try to use what you’ve written down whenever you interact with natives.
Language is a social tool. That means that to improve your language skills beyond the intermediate level, you’ll need to get out in the world and actually be social. You can do this in many ways, from interacting often with employees in shops and restaurants, to attending social events like Meetup groups, seminars, conferences, and other public meetings where natives will be present. If you can, make friends, and spend as much times as you can with them. Always remember that if you practice regularly with real people, and get and incorporate the feedback they give you, you will inevitably improve.
Moving Abroad as a Near-Advanced Learner or Beyond
Adjusting to your new life abroad will be the easiest if you go in with a near-advanced (B2) level of your target language or higher. However, attempting to improve your language ability will be much more difficult than it would be if you were a beginner or intermediate learner.
At the beginner level, everything is new, so gains in overall skill come quickly. These immediate gains slow once you reach the intermediate level, though your solid base in the language will then allow you to delve deep into more advanced structures and topics. At the near-advanced level, you are so capable with the language that improvements become difficult to notice, even with lots of time and effort.
Most people who live abroad with this level of language skill actually stop improving; since they can already do everything they need to do in the language, they devote less time and energy to challenging themselves. This is why many people retain foreign accents despite living in-country for years, or even decades.
Reaching a C1 or C2 level from a B2 is, simply put, not a guarantee, even if you live in the country where your target language is spoken. Since your linguistic comfort zone is so large, you will feel little need to go beyond it. Without leaving the comfort zone, you will never reach highest levels of language skill.
Furthermore, C-level language skill is generally defined by academic knowledge of a language, which is out of reach of most language learners unless they decide to attend college or university in the target language.
If you wish to improve your language abilities by moving abroad at this level, follow these three tips:
Produce Language in More Complex Ways
To reach an academic level of language skill (even outside academia), you’re going to need to produce language in more academic formats. In terms of speaking, this means making speeches, telling longform stories, and giving presentations. In terms of writing, this means writing essays, theses, short stories, and even novels. Produce as much high-level language content you can, in both written and spoken formats, and always remember to get feedback.
Read as Much as Possible
As a near-advanced learner, it is difficult to come across new words and phrases in your day to day life. At this point, if you want to increase your vocabulary, you need to read anything and everything you can get your hands on—novels (fiction and non-fiction), short stories, magazines, academic journals, blog posts, poems Twitter tweets, forum posts, and virtually any other print media you can think of. Don’t forget to broaden the subject matter of your reading material, as well.
Play Language Games
Playing with language is something human beings have been doing for as long as language has existed. On an informal level, language games like English’s Pig Latin and Cockney Rhyming Slang and French’s Verlan, are rich, culturally-infused ways of using language that can be both fun and educational for learners. Even literal board games like Scrabble (available in many languages) can help you learn new vocabulary. Exposing yourself to all the various ways in which natives use and alter language for humor, style, innuendo, and other things can help you gain a greater understanding of how language and culture interact, and use that understanding to use the target language in a more natural, nuanced way.
One of the most pernicious myths in language learning is that moving to another country will help you learn its language quickly and effortlessly. Sadly, this is not the case.
The full-immersion that moving abroad provides does help the process along, but it is not a magic pill that absolves you from having to put time and effort into your learning.
Whether you arrive as a beginner, intermediate, near-advanced learner or beyond, you will have to engage in a number of key activities to ensure that your skills continually improve.
In all cases, in-country learning will become easier with out-of-country preparation. Furthermore, the right attitude, flexibility, and mindset will help any of the above types of learners succeed.
To you learners who are traveling abroad to improve your skills, I urge you to cultivate those qualities, and follow the above steps. The information here will help you bolster the advantages and negate the disadvantages of living abroad, and give you the greatest chance of a fruitful and rewarding language learning adventure overseas.
Written by Luca Lampariello and Kevin Morehouse