This article is by Lizzie. She writes for Languages Abroad and GEOS Languages Plus, which have schools all over the world. Last year, she spent a month in Madrid learning Spanish, where she discovered for herself the benefits of learning a language abroad. She continues to learn Spanish in between her love of travel, art, and tea. You can read more about her travel adventures on her blog, Wanderful World.
One of the most successful ways to learn a language is to fully immerse yourself in it all day, every day. This is difficult when you are surrounded by people speaking your native tongue in your hometown, going about your daily routine, which is why many language learners choose to go abroad to a native speaking country and dive straight in at the deep end.
Whilst there are huge benefits to learning a language in its native speaking country, there are also techniques you can try and tips you can follow to ensure you make the most of your time there.
Learn a little before you go
I cannot stress enough how important it is to learn a little bit of the language before you set foot on native-speaking soil. If it is the first time you will be getting your tongue around the language, it’s easy to wave any preparation off (make excuses to not prepare) by saying you will pick it up once you’re there.
This may be true, but you might find yourself lost or stuck in a sticky situation as soon as you get off the plane, and a smile and a hello (or thank you, or sorry…) in the native language goes a long way. I’m not saying that you will definitely end up in a spot of bother (difficult situation), but it’s best to be prepared for all eventualities. From experience, at least, it will at least help you find the metro once you’ve landed!
Lounge with the locals
Like it’s easy not to prepare before you go, it’s also easy to stick to what you know once you have arrived. If there are any speakers of your native language in your vicinity, the chances are that you will seek them out for friendship. This is only natural – we are all drawn to people who are similar to ourselves and, of course, it will feel much more comfortable.
However, to make the most of your time, you should actively seek out native-speakers to forge relationships with, whether that’s in the local bar, café, or park. Having people close by to help you out is a huge benefit, and one which you may not have the luxury of back at home. I’m by no means saying you should fob off (disregard) any chance of friendship with people that speak your language, but instead spend some time away from these groups to make yourself more approachable to locals.
Explore your surroundings
You’d be surprised by how much information you subconsciously pick up every day – information that is all around you, like signposts, menus, posters, and advertisements. If you don’t allow yourself the chance to be exposed to all of this, you are limiting yourself in your language learning prospects.
Get out and about (around town) as much as you can and try new things; I have no doubt that you’ll pick up a large portion of your language skills from simply surrounding yourself by the native language, whether it’s in text format or from snippets (pieces) of conversations on the street.
Put theory into practice
If your aim is to learn the language, I’m guessing you’ll be using other tools as well as immersion, like textbooks, audio books, and apps to add more layers to the process. This is great, but it is worth bearing in mind that speaking and interacting with real people is much more beneficial.
Written and audio material are great starting points, but you should put what you have learned into practice as soon as you can, whether it’s in the local shop, bar, or on the street. You’ll receive a wider range of responses to questions that are listed in a textbook, and you will be exposed to a more diverse pool of accents than are available in an audiobook.
Practice makes perfect
It goes without saying that you should be practicing at every opportunity. So many people put off speaking until they know a certain amount of the language – but how do you know when will be the right time? Take it from me; it will never be “the right time”! If you don’t start speaking straight away, you’ll start questioning your ability, which in turn will start to chip away at your confidence.
Yes, launching into dialogue in a language you are not familiar with is scary, but it’s only going to get scarier if you put it off. Swallow your pride and give it a go (try it) – even if it’s just ordering your food in the native language. Once you realise that no one is going to laugh at you and you can actually get your point across, your confidence will start growing and your vocabulary will start expanding.
Write down your progress in a journal
At first it might not seem like you are making much progress – we all know that learning a language is a difficult and lengthy process and it’s not going to happen overnight. But you’ll be amazed by how much you are picking up (learning) by simply being surrounded by a different language and being forced to listen to it and speak it every day.
One of the best ways to monitor this is to keep a journal; jot down (write) things you have learned during the day, new words that you have picked up, and situations you found yourself in where you struggled. When you’re not feeling so successful, look back on the journal to see how far you have come – I guarantee you will be shocked (and pleasantly surprised!).
Finally, there’s no point surrounding yourself with a new language every day if you are going to revert back to your native tongue in the confines of your accommodation; you should be soaking it up wherever possible! So, instead of listening to your favourite radio station from home or watching a comfortable English-speaking television programme, opt for an alternative in your target language. At first you might not be able to understand much, but they are great tools to help you get to grips with (understand) pronunciation and sentence structure whilst familiarising you with the intonation of the language.