Jana and I met in Paris a few months ago. She is an American language lover who has a great blog and has created some fascinating YouTube videos (like this one), as well. Jana is a language learner with clear goals as you will see. Enjoy the following post :-)
First things first: Who am I to answer this question?
Hi! My name is Jana. :) I’m someone who was born and raised in the United States in a monolingual household, but I’ve been interested in other languages and cultures for as long as I can remember. I began learning Japanese on my own when I was thirteen, but I didn’t get the chance to go abroad until six years later, when I spent a summer living with a host family and teaching English inJapan. This got me completely hooked on the experience of living abroad, and I’ve been slowly making my way around the globe ever since.
I spent a semester studying in Beijing, one year teaching English in Taiwan, and three years teaching English in Japan. Now I’m in Franceas an au pair (i.e. nanny), where I’ve been for six months and will be for another four months. I speak fluent Japanese and French, can get by in Spanish and Mandarin, and am getting there with Russian. So I have a fair amount of experience both living abroad and learning languages. Based on all that, here’s what I think in a nutshell: Although living abroad is an extremely valuable experience that I would encourage everyone to try, it is not necessary in order to learn a language.
So you don’t need to live abroad to learn a language? Why not?
First of all, you have to understand that living abroad is not automatically going to make you fluent in the language. In fact, there are plenty of people who live in a country for years and never learn the language at all! For example, I knew one woman who had been living in Taiwan for ten years and didn’t speak one word of Mandarin. And I really mean not one word– she couldn’t even be bothered to say things like “excuse me” and “thank you” in Mandarin! As ridiculous as that might sound, though, the truth was that this woman just didn’t really need to speak Mandarin. She was an English teacher, so she only needed to speak English at work, and all her coworkers spoke English. Everyone she socialized with spoke English, and anytime she needed to communicate with someone who didn’t speak English, she could just ask one of her English-speaking local friends to help. She was living her whole life in an English bubble, and she was not the only one.
You might be surprised how many expats live this way. The trend is especially prevalent amongst English speakers, since there are so many anglophones living abroad teaching English or doing other jobs that require English, and so many locals who either can speak English or want to speak it. With circumstances like this, it’s really quite easy to get all your needs met without ever having to deal with the local language.
And even if you do try to learn some of the local language, you may find it difficult to progress to a really advanced level. Once you reach a point where you can “get by” in the language– so maybe you still make lots of errors in grammar and pronunciation, and maybe you don’t understand every word people say, but at least you are able to communicate in most everyday situations– then it’s really easy to just let yourself be satisfied and stop trying to make further progress. As a matter of fact, this is what happened to me with Mandarin. I wasn’t actually that passionate about this language, but I felt like I should continue to learn it since I’d put quite a bit of time into it already.
So I moved to Taiwan, thinking that would give me the boost I needed to become really fluent. But the level of Mandarin I already had was more than enough for me to survive inTaiwanand get everything I needed without having to rely on others. And since I just wasn’t that motivated to learn, I didn’t challenge myself to use the language in more difficult situations. I didn’t make many Taiwanese friends or have many cultural experiences in the country. I actually ended up spending more time working on Japanese instead, because it was more interesting to me! So I leftTaiwanafter a year feeling like my Mandarin hadn’t improved very much.
The moral of the story is, you can’t rely on any kind of outside circumstance to make you just magically absorb the language. You have to be motivated, and you have to put in the effort to succeed. This is a fact that doesn’t change whether you’re living in the country or not.
And if you are motivated and willing to put in that effort, you can learn a language well without ever setting foot in the country where it’s spoken. People like Luca are living proof of this! Luca has never been to theUnited States, and yet he speaks American English as well as I do. I know other people, too, who have learned languages quite well without ever going abroad. Especially in this day and age, when we have such a wealth of resources available through the Internet, it is possible to immerse yourself in a foreign language without even leaving your home! Unless you’re going for something really obsure (like say, Zulu?), you should easily be able to get everything you need to learn a language wherever you are. Online you can find courses, podcasts, movies, books, blogs, dictionaries, grammar charts, and even native-speaking helpers and language exchange partners. You may even be able to find natives to practice with “in real life” where you live. So it is definitely possible to learn a language without going abroad.
Okay, but if that’s the case, why bother going abroad at all?
Even though it’s not necessary to master a foreign language, there are still a lot of good reasons to go spend some time in the country. For one thing, living in the country will help you better understand the culture. You can of course learn quite a bit about the culture by reading up on it before you go, and I would highly recommend you do so to know what to expect and avoid making too many cultural faux pas.Reading and hearing about it just isn’t the same thing as actually experiencing it for yourself, though. You’ll be able to connect with speakers of your target language on a whole different level if you’ve actually seen what they see and lived what they live every day. By living in the country, you’ll be able to pick up on the mannerisms and unconscious behaviors of people there so you’ll seem more like “one of them”. Grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation aren’t everything there is to communication, after all!
Another great reason to live abroad is that the experience will help you grow as a person. Being exposed to a different way of life and a different worldview forces you to think critically about a lot of things. In theUnited States, for instance, we are taught that the customer is always right. If you’re not satisfied with the service of a business, you have the right to complain. InFrance, however, shops and restaurants are seen as the personal spaces of their owners. Customers are imposing on that space, and so they owe the owners respect. Which of these two views is right? I don’t know, but there are good and bad things about both. Anyway, one good thing about living inFrance is that it teaches you to always remember your manners and to be patient! This is just one of many examples of how living in another culture can make you a stronger and wiser person.
I also think that living abroad can be quite beneficial to your language learning, if you approach it in the right way. As I explained above, it’s really important that you’re highly motivated to learn the language well. Otherwise it’s too easy to fall into the trap of either living in an English bubble, or letting your level stagnate because you’re able to “get by”. But if you are highly motivated, and if you’ve already reached this point of “getting by”, spending some time in the country could be a really great way to push your skills into the next level. The first time I went toJapan, I had been learning Japanese on my own for a while and was already able to “get by” quite well in the language. I still had a funny accent and made grammatical mistakes, and some of the things I heard around me were over my head. But my level was more than sufficient to be able to communicate, and because of this people were very friendly and eager to talk to me.
I learned so much just having conversations with people, because if someone said a word I didn’t understand, I could infer it from the context or ask the person to explain it in Japanese. I was also able to travel aroundJapanall by myself, knowing that if anything went wrong I could easily ask someone for help. I was able to have conversations with people like taxi drivers and hotel owners who told me all about the things to see and do in their area. I could interact with people I never could have interacted with if I only spoke English! And because I was in love with the Japanese language and extremely motivated to learn it well, I sought out these kinds of situations and challenged myself to use the language constantly. In turn, the excitement of actually using the language to communicate with people and to get things done motivated me even further to keep learning! I was only inJapanfor two months that time, but when I got back my Japanese friends told me that I had improved a lot. I have no doubt that I could have improved my Japanese just as much without going to Japan, but it just wouldn’t have been the same experience.
I really want to encourage everyone to travel, and to spend some time living in a foreign country if at all possible. There are so many things to be gained from this experience, and the benefits go far beyond learning a language! However, if you’re not able to travel abroad, there’s no reason why you should let this discourage you from learning the language. All the resources you need are easily available, and as long as you’re motivated enough to make the best of them, your success is only a matter of time.
Written by Jana Fadness