Living in a foreign country is a great way to learn the language that is spoken there, but it doesn’t guarantee that you will learn that language.

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While there is ample opportunity to improve in a foreign language when living abroad, simply being there doesn’t guarantee that you will get better at the language.

In order to learn as much of the language as possible when living abroad make sure you avoid making these common mistakes.

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Be afraid or embarrassed of speaking that language

As we’ve talked about before, being afraid of speaking is not a legitimate reason to not try. Maybe you think your level of vocabulary isn’t that high, or that your accent is really strong or your pronunciation is terrible and it would be better not to make anybody suffer through listening to you. If you think that way, then you are going to stay at that level forever and never improve. And how do you even know that you’re that bad at the language anyway?

Once you start talking to people you will find that most people are more concerned with trying to understand what you are saying than counting the number of errors you make. Actually, making mistakes is one of the best things that you can do when speaking a language. You shouldn’t try to make errors on purpose, but realize that when people correct your errors they are providing you valuable feedback that will help you improve.

The only way that you are ever going to improve your language abilities is to speak that language as much as you can, which leads to our next point.

Live in a city that is full of English speakers

The easiest thing to do when moving abroad is to pick a city to live in that is full of your fellow countrymen or other speakers of your language. This will make your life somewhat easier, enabling you to easily make friends and find services. But this comfort comes at the price of making it harder to learn the local language. Once you establish your social circle and get into a routine you will find it hard to break from that and make a new one.

One of the reasons that I chose not to live in Rio de Janeiro was that the city has way too many foreigners living there. I felt that if I lived there I would stay in an English speaking bubble and would never have the opportunity to speak Portuguese. Since becoming fluent in Portuguese was a high priority for me, I decided to check out different cities that had less gringos living there.

It is possible that I could’ve stayed in Rio and still learned Portuguese, but I knew the temptation would have been too strong to stick to my own kind. That leads to the next point.

Live with English speaking roommates

Deciding who to be roommates with is a decision that should not be taken lightly, not just because of how it will affect your language learning. If you live with them long enough, you will become more like them and you will see some of their habits becoming your habits. If one of their habits is speaking English all of the time then it will be hard for you to break out of that habit. Since you see them everyday you are ensuring that you will use a lot of English everyday.

During the first two months that I lived in Brazil I went from being able to only speak a few words of Portuguese to being able to intelligently speak on a wide range of topics without much effort. The reason I advanced so quickly in the language was because I lived with a Brazilian who didn’t speak any English. The first few weeks were tough, and I frequently had to resort to Google Translator, but after about a month I got to a comfortable level in the language.

Compare that experience with my present situation of living with two native English speakers. They both had lived with Brazilians before and speak fluent Portuguese, but we speak a lot of English between us. We recognize this as a problem and speak to each other in Portuguese as much as we can.

While your roommates are important figures in your life, they aren’t the only ones who affect your language learning potential.

Only make friends with people who speak English

Living in a foreign country is hard, so it’s only natural that you would want to find ways to make it easier for you. Many people who move abroad seek out friendships with their fellow countrymen, or with other speakers of your language. There is nothing wrong with having these friendships, but to only make friends with people who speak your language will hinder your progress in your target language.

As a native English speaker you will find this hard to do since many people will want to practice their English with you, but it is important that you find a balance with these people. Politely tell them that you are trying to learn their language and ask if you can speak in their language. If they still insist on speaking English with you after making this request, they aren’t a very respectful person and you should stop talking to them.

If you are serious about learning the language you need to make friends with native speakers and insist on only speaking that language with them. This is going to be incredibly difficult to do at first, but it is the best way to improve in a language.

Think that classroom study is enough

The last mistake to avoid making when living abroad is to think that the time you spend in the classroom is sufficient for learning a language. True language learning doesn’t happen inside of a classroom, it happens when you live the language. You need to make a lifestyle out of learning that language, getting exposure to it wherever you can. Change your Facebook to the language you’re studying, watch TV and listen to podcasts in that language, listen to music, read books. You should try to get exposure to that language anywhere you can.

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  • Great article, Josh. I felt like I needed to be reminded of a lot of that stuff. Great for English and Portuguese learners alike!

  • Mo Si says:

    Another mistake to avoid making when learning a foreign language abroad is crossing the road poorly; this can result in hospitalisation and all sorts of other complications that can be hard to sort out if you don't yet speak the local language well. Be careful.

  • Great tips Josh, thx!

  • I am gree with all this!

  • I´m agree with this! /R.

  • Ethan Zinho says:

    Uf I make too many of these mistakes!