We’ve all heard it before:
The best way to learn a foreign language is to live abroad.
You need to immerse yourself if you ever want to really learn.
There is no way to master a language without spending a long time overseas.
Therefore, if you want to learn a language and cannot move to another country, you may feel like you have lost the battle before you even stepped out into the field.
When it comes to learning a foreign language, the benefits of moving abroad are well-publicized. Unfortunately, it leaves many with the notion that learning a language is not only easy overseas, but that it is almost impossible to really learn in your home country.
What gets less attention is how much it can actually benefit you to try to learn a language at home. Living in a foreign country will not necessarily give you a huge advantage. You can learn a language no matter where you are in the world. In some ways, you actually do not need to work as hard if you learn a foreign language in your home country.
3 Surprising Advantages of Learning a Foreign Language at Home
1. You Have More Control over Your Language-learning Environment
A few years ago, I moved to Seville, Spain to attend an intensive language program. Even though the purpose of the program was specifically to immerse its students in castellano (Castilian Spanish), I quickly realized that alone would not be enough to obtain the level of proficiency I desired. There are tons of misconceptions about language immersion, and I was fortunate to figure many of them out quickly.
Moving to Spain had been a goal of mine for several years, so I was not going to let these challenges stop me. Devotion, creativity, and efficiency played a huge role in my reaching a “superior” level of Spanish in a few months. Without that clear, fervent dedication to achieving my dream, living in the country wouldn’t have necessarily given me a huge advantage.
Location Does Not Equal Immersion
Among native English speakers at least, the belief that you will automatically learn a foreign language by simply living abroad is pretty strong. We have all heard that living in a foreign country is the key to learning a language. However, since relatively few of us are multilingual, we typically do not know much more than that. Many people believe that living in a foreign country is the key to fluency, just because you live in said country. As if there’s something in the water.
Here in Spain, it’s common for expats to arrive with next to no knowledge of Spanish. Many think that living among the natives and drinking enough cañas will be enough to pick up the language in a few months, a year tops! Sadly, it’s not uncommon for months to pass before they realize that they still don’t speak much Spanish. Some of these people decide to enroll in a class, others think they just don’t have what it takes and give up. They wonder where they went wrong, shouldn’t they be fluent by now? The answer is…no, not necessarily.
One of the biggest misconceptions about language immersion is believing that your location determines the amount of immersion you can receive. When you move abroad, it’s easy for your language goals to take a backseat to the hustle and bustle of daily life. Between the stress and logistics involved in living a new country, and the misconception that fluency in the target language will “just happen,” it’s easy to get complacent.
We native and fluent English speakers have an additional challenge. As speakers of English, learning the local language can often range from “slightly less essential for survival” to “unnecessary if you speak English.” Locals often jump at the opportunity to practice their English, and foreigners often befriend each other and speak in English as well. Much of your free time can easily be filled with English conversation.
But when you do not move abroad, however, you are aware of the work that is required to learn a language from the very beginning. You know that your environment is not going simply give you the proficiency you desire. You’re making the decision to actively learn instead of passively absorb a language.
Therefore, you’re the one in control of your language-learning environment. You can choose the best strategies, resources and materials for you, and give yourself the best chance of reaching your language goals.
Personalize Your Language-learning Environment
Learning a foreign language is unlike learning anything else. Language is what we use to experience the world, plain and simple. Just as no two people view the world in exactly the same way, there is no one correct way to learn a language.
Determining your learning styles can be a good way to figure out just what resources work best for you. While there are various ways to categorize learning styles, we’re going to look at the seven learning styles that coincide with the Theory of Multiple Intelligences:
Visual (spatial): You prefer using pictures, images and spatial understanding.
Aural (auditory-musical): You prefer using sound and music.
Verbal (linguistic): You prefer using words, both in speech and writing.
Physical (kinesthetic): You prefer using your body, hands and sense of touch.
Logical (mathematical): You prefer using logic, reasoning and systems.
Social (interpersonal): You prefer to learn in groups or with other people.
Solitary (intrapersonal): You prefer to work alone and use self-study.
Do you prefer to learn with music? Do you like to use logic and reasoning to figure out a problem? Do you like learning in a group, or would you rather learn by yourself?
Once you recognize and understand your learning styles, you’re able to find techniques that work best for you. Countless resources are available for practically every language and type of learner, from online courses to movies to books. With thousands of resources and strategies available, you will surely find some that best fit your unique style—which will lead to faster, more efficient language learning!
FluentU is a fantastic place to start.
In addition to providing videos, FluentU also offers downloadable audio dialogues and transcripts to use later when you’re offline. Plus, the program provides plenty of tools which can be used to actively practice your vocabulary and grammar, like multimedia flashcards, running vocabulary lists and more.
If you need a little inspiration, various polyglots have challenged themselves to learn a language outside of the countries in which it is spoken. Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months moved to Brazil to learn Egyptian Arabic using materials written in French. Talk about being up for a challenge!
Luca Lampariello of A Polyglot Dream—who learned to speak fluent American English without ever visiting the U.S.— interviewed another polyglot, Jana Fadness, about why living abroad isn’t necessary to learn a language.
In one case, Olly Richards of I Will Teach You a Language admittedly failed to learn much Cantonese, his seventh language, while living in the Middle East. Here he explains what went wrong, and how he updated his methods for future language-learning missions.
You can also look to his Grammar Hero and Conversations courses to get a jump on the whole language learning process—if you’re going to pick someone’s brain about the learning process, start with Olly’s!
As you’re trying to conquer a foreign language from the comfort of your home, you’re able to experiment without worrying about cultural mishaps on foreign territory. You know you need to put forth active effort from day one—not after month six of passively learning overseas. When you’re able to customize your language-learning environment, it’s not unlikely that you will learn quickly and efficiently.
2. You Have the Home Court Advantage and Can Fit Immersion into Your Regular Routine
Here at home, you speak English every day, so you know that you need to learn your target language in your free time. You can start to fit your language studies into your regular routine, but nothing else has to change. The familiarity of your job, your neighborhood, your friends and your life in general is still there.
When you move to another country, even the most simple tasks can drain your energy. From dealing with culture shock, to adapting to workplace dynamics, to figuring out how the hot water works in your apartment, many unexpected mysteries await those who enter a new country’s borders. Expats need to learn their host country’s abstract customs and concrete laws. You may wonder how learning a new language and experiencing another culture is supposed to even fit into the equation.
In addition, many people living abroad are teaching or working in English. So even though they’re living in a country where their target language is spoken, they’re still thinking and speaking in English all day at work—just like you. Except you don’t have to worry about trying to apartment hunt, figuring out the washing machine or talking to a doctor in your target language. That means you’ll have more mental energy throughout the day, so be sure and put it towards your language-learning endeavors!
Unlike most disciplines that are only practiced within a certain context—such as a classroom, the workplace, a kitchen or the gym—virtually every situation of your life requires language. This is where language immersion takes place. Actively doing something in a foreign language that’s not related to formal language instruction is where immersion truly happens, both in our target countries and elsewhere. Many people who obtain a high level of proficiency abide by this useful language trick, both in their target countries and elsewhere. You can immerse yourself, too—no matter where in the world you are!
Active Language Immersion Can Happen Anywhere
No one learns to how to drive by memorizing the driver’s manual. Learning how to code requires more than reading articles about jQuery and PHP. Similarly, obtaining fluency in foreign language consists of much more than trying to commit grammar and vocabulary to memory—you need to actively use it. Luckily, language can be used—and therefore, learned—virtually anywhere!
One of the best ways to immerse yourself in a language is by participating in activities that already form part of your daily life.
By picking activities that you currently do on a regular basis, you enjoy and/or are relevant to your language goals, you can immerse yourself without leaving the country or drastically changing your everyday routine.
If you like to cook, try looking for cooking classes taught in your target language. Your local Instituto Cervantes, Alliance Française, and various cultural centers are good places to begin your search. If you’re religious, you may want to connect with a local church/temple with a predominantly foreign population (in Seville, I called church “Exercise for the Brain”).
Maybe there’s a local immigrant neighborhood nearby. Try joining a gym there and taking dance or spinning classes taught in your target language. Sign up for their intramural basketball team. Find out what events the residents go to and sign up to join.
Your local university probably has a quite a few international students. If possible, attend some of their events. You will not only learn vocabulary that is relevant to your life, but you will improve your proficiency quickly—and have fun doing so!
When you participate in an activity that is imparted in your target language, you need to improve your proficiency pretty fast. You have to understand what’s being said and be understood, same as any given interaction in your native language. This puts pressure on you that is lacking from many formal language courses. This is also one of the many reasons why people who focus on a solely academic approach usually don’t improve very quickly.
Someone can study a language for years and not know anything because they have never had to actually use it! When you practice with real people in real situations, you’re using language the way it was meant to be used–as a tool to experience the world. You can make this happen on your home turf, just as it’s done overseas.
3. You Can Make Friends “as a Local”
When people relocate abroad, making friends can be a bit complicated at times. In many countries, it’s common for the locals to have had the same set of friends for most of their lives. They may be hesitant to expand their circle, particularly to someone who does not plan on living there long-term. It can also be easier to befriend other foreigners, especially when dealing with a language barrier and culture shock. Although there is nothing wrong whatsoever with making friends with other foreigners, it can be hard to break out of that bubble and try to meet the locals.
But back home, you have a pretty set routine. You can search for speakers of your target language who live nearby and arrange to hang out at ease. If these people are foreigners in your country, they’ll probably be happy to meet you and to make a new friend. In such cases, befriending foreigners can be a mutually beneficial experience apart from the friendship itself. You can benefit from their foreign language and culture, and they have a local presence looking out for them in a foreign land.
Don’t Be a Stranger
It can be difficult to make friends with people who share the same culture, city and native language as you. Understandably, challenges can definitely arise when you combine a possible language barrier with cultural differences. Benny Lewis, who has admitted to being a shy monolingual before becoming a jet-setting polyglot, offers tips to break the ice when trying to approach strangers. Since properly befriending foreigners in your home country is typically less stressful than when you are the foreigner in theirs, friendship is yours for the taking!
If you’re looking to befriend people from a particular country, language or culture, it may be beneficial to learn about non-verbal gestures and differences in communication. It’s common for many things to get lost in translation, especially since some things are not obviously “foreign.” As an example, Spaniards swear much more casually than Americans do. When they speak English, they tend to be more direct than native English speakers, as many phrases in Spanish directly translate as such. Generally speaking, they are less rushed than your typical native anglophone. By taking the time to learn about your friends’ cultures now, you can prevent miscommunication issues later.
Whether you live abroad or want to meet people at your local cultural center, you definitely can and will make friends. Some of these people may be among the most interesting people you have ever met. You can make lifelong friends or even meet your future spouse. With good friends by your side, you will learn the language quickly, at ease and have fun doing so!
In short, attitude beats latitude.
As you see, not being able to live abroad does not have to hold you back whatsoever. Take advantage of these wonderful benefits of learning a foreign language in the comfort of your home country, and make real friends who speak your target language.
Make the language a part of your daily life, and dedicate your free time to language immersion. Fluency in a foreign language is yours for the taking, but you need to make the effort to actually take it … no matter where in the world you are.
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