When you go abroad to learn a language, how do you make sure that you’re learning the language? Many people travel with the hope that they will “absorb” the language, and then find that this process does not unfold by itself. Many people get lonely and make friends with the folks they have the most in common with: expats. They quickly get stuck the trap of speaking their native language while abroad rather than the language they’re learning.
How do you get unstuck?
When I visited Spain in college, I had a chance to visit Pamplona for the Sanfermin Festival (the “Running of the Bulls”). In one bar I met a local girl, and we chatted in Spanish. She told me she spent a year in the US—yet she never tried to speak English with me. Surely after a year in the US, she would speak better English than my self-taught Spanish, right?
“Where did you live?” I asked.
“Miami,” she replied.
That explained it! She lived in the US without speaking English.
What could she have done differently? What can you do differently while abroad?
In my last year of college, I decided to go to Morocco for nine months to learn Arabic. When I got there, I discovered that nearly everyone I met spoke French, and many spoke English. Soon I met a vibrant French expat community. This community influenced all the expats, such that I spoke French with Italians, Bulgarians, and Poles, as well. If I wanted, I could have spoken French almost exclusively.
But I came for Arabic. I had to be sure to focus on that language and not let French take over my limited time.
I managed to learn Arabic pretty well, and more fluently than the expats who had lived there for decades. I could have done better, though. Here are my best tips, some that I did and some I wish I would have done.
1. Live with a host family. Every long-term trip I took I lived with a local family. I found them in different ways. When I was a foreign exchange student in France, I went with a program who found me a family. In Ukraine, I lived with three different families, whom different people found for me. Morocco differed in that I found a family through a Moroccan friend I met in Ukraine. (Technically, I rented a room in the house of a guy who worked upstairs from the brother-in-law of my friend.)
What this meant is that I always could speak the language at home. I would occasionally speak English with friends in Morocco or listen to BBC on the radio in Ukraine as a break. All my meals, though, were at the family’s table. We could linger after the meal to chat. Monolingual kids and old people were always around. These circumstances made immersion possible.
2. Take private lessons. I found that finding a local teacher is not terribly hard. I had one of the best language teachers in my life in Ukraine. She taught Russian to foreigners as her normal job, but she taught me Ukrainian. In Morocco someone (I don’t know who, actually) found me an Arabic teacher. He started teaching me Modern Standard Arabic, but we eventually moved to local dialect and became friends. Both were pretty reasonably priced.
I followed this tip when I visited Portugal for only a brief work trip. (See this article for more about that trip.) I worked hard and found four different Portuguese teachers there. I recommend that even for a brief trip that you seek out a language teacher, even if for one to two lessons.For a longer trip, lessons complement the immersion experience. You get a few lessons per week for the sake of challenging you and teaching grammar, while all the data and practice come from the host family.
3. Make friends with locals. I’ve known many Americans who went to Spain and mirrored the experience of the Spanish girl I mentioned, above. They went to Madrid or Sevilla for months and come back with no more than basic to intermediate Spanish. Some even lived with local host families. The problem was they went to language school all day with Americans, and went out at night to bars and restaurants with their American friends. In the evenings, Spanish people who wanted to practice English would hear them speaking with one another and approach them to speak English.In other words, avoid expats. It’s easy to get to know them, but they will not benefit you. They will undermine your desire to learn another language.In Morocco I spent a decent amount of time with French-speaking folks, which undermined my Arabic. Frankly, it was easier to make friends with them that with other locals. But on my walks in the city, I made it a point to talk to folks on the street in Arabic, as well as the folks I met through the friend who initially helped me find a place to live.
4. Become a “regular.” If you’re in class all day to learn Spanish, how do you meet native Spanish speakers? If your Spanish is not all that great, how do you build decent relationships with locals?Locals spend their time with each other in some way—get into that. Many public places all over the world have a group of “regulars”; see if you can spend time with them.Honestly, this lesson would have helped when I was in Morocco. I could have spent more time with locals, and it would have been easy. Everyone spent a lot of time in coffee shops. Pre-cell phone, if you wanted to meet up with your friend, you went to wait at the coffee shop where he would normally hang out. People had their 2-3 regular coffee shops. As a result, if I just decided to be a regular, I would have had a circle of friends.
I walked around town, and I got to know folks that way. Since I tended to take the same routes, I encountered the same people. When my parents came to visit me, my dad called me the “Mayor of Marrakech” because I stopped to chat with people all the time as we walked through town.
5. Find a job—even without money. If I had to do it again, especially in Western Europe or Latin America, I would find a way to work alongside locals—even as a volunteer. I would find a preschool, a soup kitchen, or a senior-citizen center that would let me work there for any or no money.I have a friend who lived in Amsterdam who worked as an actress by night, but during the day worked under the table for a little money at a cafe. My cousin from Switzerland wanted to learn French, so he found a job as a hired hand on a farm in France. (He said he learned very colorful French as a result!) If you can wash dishes and practice your language, volunteer at a restaurant! Could you empty trash cans at a school? I bet you could meet lots of teachers!
If I could do Morocco again, I would have asked to work somewhere as a waiter or a gardener or shopkeeper. I visited the wholesale grocery market once. I’m sure I could have kept myself busy practicing my language there. That would have certainly gotten me out of my comfort zone. And who knows what I would have gained? Even if I never got a job, I would have had some fantastic stories and top-notch language practice.
6. Talk to strangers. Just talk. To anyone and everyone. Waiters, taxi drivers, mail carriers, souvenir hawkers. Learn how to say, “I’m learning ____ language. Can you help me practice?” Learn how to say, “How’s work? What are you doing?” Everyone can talk a long time about work. For most people this is uncomfortable, but I highly recommend it. Be safe, of course. Keep your eye out for predators. But enjoy the people around you. They will enjoy your attempts.