Don’t travel to learn a language! Why it’s your ATTITUDE, not your longitude and latitude, that counts

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You may not expect this from a blog that tells you how travel has been the best possible education for me, and how I’ve fallen in love with other cultures, how I’ve danced, sung and had interesting discussions with people from across the world.

But today, I want to tell you that if you think that travelling to the country will be the “do all and end all” of assuring your progress in a language, you’re crazy! If you want to learn a language, do NOT travel to the country!

Learning a language is a process of absorbing information and interacting with people. Where you actually do this is irrelevant.

If you are lazy in your home country, then it’s very likely that you will be lazy abroad too. The pressure does help for some, but it can just as easily be ignored and the expat bubble embraced “just while you settle in”.

I’ve met an incredibly number of expats living in various countries who have been there for ages, and can’t string a sentence together in the local language. This was my situation for the first 6 months that I was living in Spain. So, what changed?

It’s about your ATTITUDE, not your latitude or longitude!

Your commitment is what truly matters.

Even though I was learning Chinese in Taiwan, to be totally honest with you, being in the country was totally unnecessary for me to make the progress I did!

Here are a few reasons why:

  • Eventually, most of my private lessons in Mandarin were done via Skype. It turned out to be cheaper this way than in person – clearly I didn’t need to be in any particular place for that. Anywhere with Internet will do!
  • I ended up having a small group of locals that I would meet up socially with to practice with; just 3 or 4 people in the end. Surely I could have found three people who speak Mandarin in any major city in the world? Many social networking sites help you connect with native speakers of other languages.
  • And of course I was doing plenty of old-fashioned, sit down with a book and studying (studying as the majority of your strategy is a really bad idea when the goal is to speak better, but when combined with actual use of the language it can be very powerful!), or going through my flashcard app. I’d usually do this in Starbucks, since they have the comfiest chairs. I’m pretty sure there are also some Starbucks outside of Taiwan too, right? :)

But what about all that passive exposure?

Well, I’ve had plenty of that over the last 6 weeks here in China, but I’ve actually made very little progress with my Chinese since I left Shanghai. I’ve been so busy with travel logistics, meeting people, actually travelling and talking to those on the train, recording videos etc. that I haven’t really had the time to sit down and iron out my problems in the language.

My time in China: much slower progress

I got on to one of my teachers again after these seven weeks and she told me that my ability to understand her had improved slightly, and my sentence structure sounds a little better. Some improvement is indeed to be expected, considering how much I’ve been practising it every single day!

But the rate of improvement over these 7 weeks and any 7 weeks during the intensive learning period over the first 3 months of this year is dramatically different.

This is unfortunate, but it’s precisely why I had an intentional 3 months of focus; so I could be more free to enjoy using the language when I could. There’s a huge difference between intentionally focusing on your mistakes no matter how stressful it can get, and simply using the language at your current level.

Preparation is key! When people email me to say “I’m travelling to Spain in six months, what should I do when I get there?” then I ask them why the hell they are waiting until they get there?? Do all the hard work now so they can appreciate the country all the more on arrival!

None of the advice I write on this site, or in my guides, depends on you to actually be in the country to apply it.

As well as this, the nature of travelling so quickly means that you tend to use the language much more for functional purposes, rather than having particularly deep conversations that will really push you forward. It’s why I feel that people who think they’ll “learn on the road” beyond the absolute basics are deluding themselves, and why most of my learning projects involve staying fixed in one city for the intensive learning period so that I could get into a good routine and make deeper friendships.

I’m slowing down my travels now and for the next month will get back into intentionally improving my Chinese, so I can bring it up a level. (I’ll be two full weeks in Taiwan again, then a quick weekend in Singapore, and then Macau and Guangzhou and then almost two weeks in Hong Kong. I can do a lot in 2 weeks after the first day or two of settling in!)

Being in the country isn’t what matters

It’s easy to think that simply being in the country will make you magically improve quickly, but this is not true.

The point is that immersion isn’t about where you are, but what you are doing. Every day I get emails from people who are doing a pretty impressive job learning a language, without having ever set foot in a country that speaks it. I’m so inspired by them, that I’m pretty sure that my next major project will very likely intentionally involve going to the wrong country for 3 months and then the actual experience in the country itself.

I’ve already maintained my languages fine from any country (this week in Beijing alone, I’ve spoken at least six hours of French, five hours of Spanish, an hour of Italian, an hour of Portuguese and a half an hour of German, as well as several hours of Chinese), and I actually learned a considerable amount of my Portuguese in France before I ever stepped foot in Brazil, but I would like to show people that being in the country isn’t necessary, so I’ll be learning under similar conditions to many of you for one of my projects soon enough ;)

(By the way, my next minor language project over the summer will be announced in the email list within a couple of weeks, so don’t forget to sign up!)

I love travel, and the last few weeks in China have been absolutely incredible, but that’s the point for me - I learn a language to travel better. I don’t travel to learn a language better. If anything, the comfort and lack of unpredictability that you have at home before travelling makes it EASIER to learn the language then!

If you are in a country to travel it, as I’ve been doing in China, then it’s incredibly hard to get into a routine that allows you to improve your language skills to a real degree. If you are living in the country, and start making friends there and focus time to reduce your mistakes, then you can indeed improve quickly. But in this day and age, you can create a very close replica of that immersion environment without ever needing to buy a plane ticket.

Travel is not necessary to learn a language; travel is necessary for cultural experiences. Do it for the right reasons, and learn your languages efficiently no matter where you are! Let me know your thoughts on this in the comments below!



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  • WC

    “but I would like to show people that being in the country isn’t necessary, so I’ll be learning under similar conditions to many of you for one of my projects soon enough”

    I’m looking forward to that.  I think I had previously missed your “social search” post, and I’m reading it now.  I already like the “couch surfing” idea because I didn’t realize it was anything but somewhere to sleep.  My social anxiety will probably flare up, but I’m sure I can overcome it.

  • Kevin Post

    I understand your point but I still find living and traveling abroad extremely helpful in my language learning endeavors; not to mention exciting! Maybe it’s my state of mind but I learn at a faster pace as a result. Besides, I spend most of my time away from the cities rock climbing, summiting peaks and spending time in small villages where English isn’t an option :)

    But let’s be honest, your blog wouldn’t have the appeal that it does if you were to talk about language learning on your laptop in your parent’s living room; it’s far more entertaining when you’re out of your comfort zone in a foreign city. 

    Speaking of not needing to go abroad to learn a language, I signed up for Turkish lessons on italki through your affiliated link. If the classes go well you should be on your way to receiving 100 ITC my friend. 

    • Benny Lewis

       The reduced appeal my blog would have if I were to learn “on my laptop in my parent’s living room” would not change the truth of the words I’d write ;)

      Your state of mind is just that. This can be influenced in any country!

      I wouldn’t call it an affiliate link, since I can’t earn real money, but I’d use the credits myself for more classes, so thanks!

  • Andrew

    “Do all the hard work now so they can appreciate the country all the more on arrival!”

    Yes!  This is my core philosophy and something I’ve iterated over and over on my site, learn it before you go there, it’s actually easier if you’re a beginner to start learning it at home.  If you arrive in-country with no knowledge of the language you’re not going to go from beginner to intermediate any faster than you would at home most likely.  In-country immersion is really for people who are at least a an advanced-intermediate stage, those people can really utilize the advantage of having native speakers everywhere because they know enough of the language that they can get conversations going, they can get around with struggling horribly and actually have time to focus on the relatively few mistakes and missing pieces they have

    Can you learn a language from scratch by going to the country where it’s spoken and starting as a complete beginner just like Benny does? Sure.  If you can start learning the language from home before going there should you do that instead? Yes! Absolutely, it’s a far better option.  Benny does what he does out of necessity, and as he stated in this post if he can prep for a few months before traveling to the country where it’s spoken he will.

    Also, I’m surprised and kind of disappointed that you didn’t mention the fantastic resource that is language exchanges in this post, I really thought that would fit right in.  I honestly think that talking to a native via Skype is 98% as good as talking to them in person, you’re really not missing much of anything (presuming you’ve got the video feed turned on so you can see their facial expressions and body language as they’re speaking).


    • Benny Lewis

      I’m surprised that you failed to see that I did mention Skype calls. It was the first thing I mentioned in the bullet points of why travel is not necessary!! Please read the article again.

      I’ll be coming back to language exchanges and lessons via Skype in a dedicated post later.

  • Benny Lewis

    Thanks for finding my blog! Glad to have a new reader from my favourite country :)

  • Benny Lewis

    I actually learned the vast majority of my Spanish initially from Erasmus students; i.e. Germans, Italians, French etc. You can learn a lot with other non native learners ;)

    • Samuel Lynn-Evans

      Ha, yeah I’m learning almost all my Ialian now off a Phillipino while in Italy… It’s a modern world truly

  • Benny Lewis

    I agree and honestly do find it strange that there are so few language learners on Youtube using their languages with native speakers. It’s either soliloquys to the camera, or interviewing other polyglots, which is interesting indeed, but is not why I personally learn my languages. Or at least, if they learn for the same reasons as me, they don’t show it as prominently on their Youtube channels.

  • Benny Lewis

    I am indeed! The stress of the first 3 months of the year have been totally worth it :) Having some interesting chats with Beijingers!

    The couple who took that photo of me on the wall were particularly fun to chat to. Being a tourist in China is actually pretty cool, because most “touristy” places are actually 99.9% Chinese tourists, and even on the great wall I saw only a tiny handful of other white faces!

    Definitely a fascinating experience.

  • Benny Lewis

    It may help you to know that 9 months in Paris made me “feel defeated”. I could have given up, but a combination of stays in other French speaking areas and ESPECIALLY meeting up with French speakers in my travels elsewhere (mostly via Couchsurfing) has helped me bring my level up to something much more professional.

    In France there is a cultural issue that can make it quite difficult to learn the language, depending on which cities you are in. Here are my thoughts on that:

  • Benny Lewis

    This is my favourite resource:
    I’ll write more about it later.

  • Benny Lewis

    Cool! Let me know how it goes!

  • Loco2

    I have an Italian friend who has been in London for over 3 years but has lived with Italians the whole time so has only ever managed to scrape by in English. Many people have a romantic idea that if they live in a country they will be forced to learn but no amount of coercion is going to change a person’s fundamental inflexibility to learn!

  • Benny Lewis

    Yes definitely. Complete isolation from your mother tongue is much easier in the country. But there are too many examples of people failing despite this because they just need to find ONE other speaker of their language for the entire exercise to be a waste of time.
    Apart from necessities like work (which are a problem in the country too!! Lots of people teach English!) you can make it so your environment is as helpful as possible to lean more towards immersion.

  • Benny Lewis

    haha ich hab’ nicht genau gesagt, dass das “besser” ist :P Du hast aber gut gelernt! Wieder so!!