Many people find that they learn a language much faster if they immerse themselves by traveling to a place where the language is spoken. And no wonder! The vocabulary word you learned in class is reinforced when you see it on a billboard, overhear it on the street, and then use it yourself when talking to a taxi driver. This constant repetition and practice can be very effective in improving your level in the language.
Learning a language abroad deepens your understanding of both the language and the country where it is spoken. This will enrich your trip and your studies, and allow you to talk to people and experience the destination in a deeper way than a typical tourist.
That said, being in the country is no silver bullet. If you're serious about learning the language, you'll still need to study hard and seek out opportunities to practice.
Travelling to a foreign country both for leisure purposes and to study the local language can be an excellent way to deepen one's experience in a foreign culture and to combine leisure with learning. Although perhaps more common for people between the ages of 18 and 24, language tourism is undertaken by people of all ages and backgrounds. They tend to enroll in non-intensive foreign language courses that allow considerable free time in which to practice the language outside of class and travel extensively. Typical stays range from 2 to 5 weeks, and trips are often repeated in subsequent years.
There are also several other routes to learning a language abroad.
For most big and several smaller languages there are courses intended for foreigners spending a summer holiday attending a language course, in a country where the language is spoken. These may be more or less intensive, and may be targeted at specific groups, such as youth. Often leisure activities are included. Sometimes participants stay in a host family, sometimes at a common boarding site, sometimes they have to find their own lodging.
- Main article: Au pair
An au pair stays at a family, doing part time light household duties and often taking care of children, for room, board and pocket money. Regulations vary, and depending on country and host family conditions vary from a cheap way to learn the language and culture of a foreign country and getting local friends, to an excuse for underpaying a maid. In some countries language courses are a compulsory part of the deal. Some language proficiency is usually required from the start.
Sometimes au pair hosts are immigrants or have immigrant roots, and want a person speaking their language to their children, sometimes they want their children to learn the foreign language, sometimes they don't care about language education, but want to get along with their own, which gives the toughest time if that is not your language, but may be the most effective for learning it.
University students, and sometimes also secondary students, may be able to study as exchange students at a foreign institution with ties to theirs. The study programme may be in English or another lingua franca, or in the local language. Regardless, you probably have a chance to indulge in the local language. Often the institution itself offers language courses, or the programme itself can be about learning the language. The length of the stay is usually a few months, a semester or a school year.
Similar courses can sometimes be taken without an exchange agreement, and there may be schools specialising in gap year studies, or such programmes can be offered by universities or schools with another main focus. These usually have tuition fees also in countries where most education is free.
- Main article: Studying abroad
Some opt for taking their university degree abroad, giving a firm knowledge of the language. This is often part of their academic career, often the master's exam, after having taking a domestic bachelor's, or part of their doctoral studies.
- Main article: volunteer travel
- Main article: Working abroad
Teaching English is an obvious choice – there are English teaching jobs in just about every country. Moreover, the local teachers you work with may be interested and knowledgeable enough to answer your grammar questions (at least to the extent of explaining how the local language differs from English). Your students will also appreciate being able to see you struggle through the same language learning process that they are.
There are many other jobs available to foreigners – temporary work in seasonal businesses (agriculture, tourism), expert jobs in fields with lack of local specialists, jobs in projects abroad of domestic businesses and organizations, ... Some are easy to find, some are not, and there are plenty of caveats.
If English is the working language among your peers or you otherwise communicate professionally in English, you may have to make a real effort to get to speak the local language. If you already know the basics and really want to turbo-charge your learning, a less English-oriented job might be more effective.
The better you know the language you intend to learn abroad before you go, the smoother will the experience be when you set foot at your destination, and the more will you learn. Accent, colloquialisms, local humour, listening comprehension, those are all things easier when you are surrounded by the language, but grammar is not easier to get abroad. If you have a solid foundation, you can concentrate on those aspects of the language that you cannot learn at home.
Do your research before choosing where to go. If the language you're learning has a variety of dialects or different written standards, you will have an easier time in a destination where the local variety of the language is closer to the variety you're trying to learn. Thus, for instance, students learning Chinese with traditional characters might go to Taiwan, while those learning simplified characters will likely be best off in mainland China. The Spanish spoken in Chile is a notoriously divergent dialect, and language learners may learn faster in Mexico or Peru. In many cases your choice of city is also important; you'll get a more immersive Catalan learning environment in Girona than in the more bilingual city of Barcelona.
You might have preferences on the culture you want the learn together with the language, but also consider how much culture shock and practical difficulties you can handle. If some country where the language is spoken is closer to yours economically and culture-wise, your stay, at least the first part of it, may be easier. If you prefer the more foreign culture, there is a trade-off. You might want to give yourself some time to acclimatise before starting your studies proper, and give yourself some slack on how much to accomplish in your studies. Also choice of neighbourhood to live in, budget and type of accommodation, can have an impact.
Consider rooming with local housemates, or a homestay with a local family, for a constant source of practice and a window into local culture.
Foreigners tend to find each other. At universities with many exchange students they may live in the same quarters and have common leisure activities. At workplaces with many foreigners using English for their professional communication and locals speaking a language not known by most of these, it is common for the foreigners not to learn the local language.
Make an effort to find local friends, attend language courses as intended, and go out to places where the locals go. At a university, if you are on an exchange student programme with few locals, you may want to also take some courses with mostly locals, to make friends with local students.
A language exchange is a great way to meet someone to practice with. There will surely be people in the area who want to practice their English, you just need to find them so you can meet up. A common arrangement is to spend a certain amount of time (say, half an hour) speaking one language, then switch to the other one, so that both people get to practice. Look for language exchanges online, ask around, or if you're studying at a university or some other kind of school, they might be able to find a language exchange partner for you.
A word of caution: you might hear it said that living in a country "forces" you to use the language, that you need it for your everyday life and and are guaranteed to learn it as a result. This isn't really true, as evidenced by the legions of expats, particularly those from English-speaking countries, who get by without speaking more than a few simple pleasantries in the language where they live. It's possible to manage at a restaurant or a supermarket without speaking a word, and in most major cities one can find English-speaking friends to socialize with. Living in the country doesn't force you to use the language (though it can give you strong encouragement)—the main learning benefit of studying a language abroad is that you get continuous, authentic, and varied opportunities to practice. It's still up to you to take advantage of those opportunities.
If you're in a place where lots of people speak English (for instance, a popular vacation destination like Barcelona or an international city like Hong Kong), you may find that your attempts to speak the language with a local are "rewarded" by the local switching to English! Of course they are just trying to be helpful by making it easier for you to communicate, but if this happens again and again, it can make it harder to practice. This problem is particularly notorious for language learners in the Nordic countries and the Netherlands, where English proficiency is particularly high.
To some extent you can avoid this problem by choosing an off-the-beaten-path destination where not as much English will be spoken. So if you're learning Cantonese, try going to Guangzhou instead of Hong Kong. On the other hand, a less internationalized city means the cultural adjustment will be more difficult and the potential for culture shock may be greater—and that can slow down your learning even more. Think about your prior knowledge of the language and your familiarity with the culture before deciding. Even if you are in a popular destination, it can help to spend time in less-visited neighborhoods, where English proficiency may be lower.
If someone switches to English and you respond that you're trying to practice, they might happily switch back to the local language. They might even be patient enough to repeat themselves once or twice and wait while you stumble over words. And they may well be pleased that you're trying to learn their language, especially if it's a less popular language to study.
But some people want to practice their English just as much as you want to practice their language, and they may be persistent! In that case it can become a bit of a contest for who's more stubborn in using the language they want to practice. Don't take it too seriously—a positive interaction is more important than a bit of language practice, and you can always practice with the next person you talk to.
- See also: Culture shock