Why you have to travel to learn a language

Since the world is starting to open up and people are starting to plan international travel once again, I thought I’d share this post I wrote almost a year and half ago now it’s once more relevant and appropriate!

Hands down, the best way to learn a language is to spend some time in a country that speaks the language. Don’t get me wrong, language learning involves a lot of hard work – practising grammar, memorising vocab and mastering pronunciation. But to truly be fluent, you have to actually go to the country and immerse yourself in the language.

I guess this is probably an idea most of us have heard at some point. After all, it’s what language degrees all over the world are built upon. For example in the UK, every single foreign languages degree involves a compulsory year abroad in the third year. This gives students the chance to live everyday life in the language(s) they are learning. What they’ve been praticing for years finally makes sense and what they’ve been struggling with for ages suddenly becomes easier.

I’m a languages student, studying French, Spanish and Russian at degree level but I don’t think you need to be a student for going abroad to be worth your while. I doubt most people will be able to spend a whole year abroad to learn a language (although if you can go for it!) but even a week helps you come on in leaps and bounds.

In my language learning career before I started on my year abroad, I have spent at least a week immersing myself into Spanish, French and Russian speaking life in each of the respective countries. These short trips helped me learn so much of the languages and massively improved my ability to speak the language.

The first trip I went on happened when I was still in secondary school – I took part in an exchange with a school just outside Paris. I stayed with a French family and attended a French school. I’m not going to lie to you, it was absolutely terrifying! To have to live with a new family who didn’t speak the same language as me and to have to face 30 French students my own age in every classroom I turned up in. There are some moments I look back on now and laugh. From being terrified every time I was on the toilet since their bathroom didn’t have a lock, to be exhausted when we were still bowling at midnight (who does that?) to trying to talk about my female cousins and someone thinking I was talking about kitchens. But I also remember speaking more French in that week than I’d ever spoken before – learning the names of all the foods that sat on the dinner table, playing board games with a child who only told me the rules after he won and making small talk with grandma who didn’t speak any English.

The second trip happened less than a year later, when I spent a week in Salamanca, having lessons in the morning and then work experience in the afternoon. The class I participated in was based on an online test I took beforehand, meaning I was in a group of people who were all about my level of Spanish. Whilst we all had similar Spanish levels, we were definitely an ecclectic group – including a couple of retired women planning on moving to Spain, a group of girls on a school trip and a guy my age, also doing the work experience placement. In the classes, we made our way through a workbook, learning all sorts of new vocab, finally getting our heads round some tricky grammar points and practicing actually speaking Spanish. Whilst the classes were super helpful and taught me a lot, I benefitted the most from my work experience (once I actually found it! I was heavily reliant on a very faulty Google Maps this whole trip.) My work experience took place in a nursery/ child care centre. Admittedly most of the children couldn’t actually speak yet but that helped me practise speaking Spanish without any fear of misunderstanding or looking a fool. I’d actually highly recommend speaking a foreign language to a baby – it’s a massive confidence boost and just gets you talking without being worried about what others will think.

My third and final trip abroad pre year abroad was to Vladimir in Russia, at the end of my first year of university. We went for two weeks and attended language classes every weekday morning at the university. Similar to the situation in Salamanca, the classes were really helpful but I learnt the most from everyday life. Just going to the supermarket was an adventure in itself! Despite having been studying Russian for over 5 years, I had no clue of so much of the vocab or how to ask the cashier for a bag or to pay by cash or card. Since we went to Vladimir, which is hardly a tourist destination, pretty much no one spoke English. This meant we had to try and speak Russian to everyone we met – from waitresses and ticket sellers on the bus, to our Russian teachers and our tour guides. Being thrown into the linguistic deep end helped me improve my language skills so much and the other thing I really appreciated was that with most of my interactions, I spoke better Russian than they did English, which made for a nice change of pace. I find often for native English speakers, most people speak English far better than you speak the language you’re trying to learn so often English becomes the default because it is easier and faster.

These three trips not only helped me improve my language skills but reminded me why I studied languages in the first place – to be able to travel and talk to people and experience more of the world. So my greatest piece of advice to all language learner is, if possible, to travel to somewhere where people speak your target languages and have everyday interactions with people in that foreign language.

Are you learning/ have you learnt a foreign language?

Have you ever travelled to help your language learning experience?

Let me know!

9 comments

  1. Absolutely agree with you. It’s so important to spend time in the country of your target language. Not only does it make learning the language far easier (not that learning a language is ever easy!) but it’s so personally enriching too. I lived in Japan as a teen and young adult and loved every moment – memories that will stay with me forever. Thank you for the lovely post. I’m hoping that once this pandemic has passed, travel will once again be a part of all our lives. Btw, Russian is so incredibly difficult! But a beautiful language. You’re incredibly fortunate 🙂

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  2. I agreed with you. Traveling to a non-English speaking country motivates you to learn and improve your foreign language better. I’m learning the Korean language. I did travel to South Korea trice to help me with my hangeul. It was a good experience.

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  3. I haven’t fully learnt a new language but I have always found it easier to pick up bits when I’m travelling. It sinks into my brain easier when its put into practice.

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