Is it better to travel to villages for language/cultural immersion?

When considering where to move to in a country, there seems to be this general consensus that you’ll have a greater feeling of immersion, both cultural and linguistic, if you choose a small town / village over a major city.

I disagree.

If you happen to like villages for their serenity, pace of life etc., then by all means it’s the place for you! But if you think your experience will be any more authentic than someone in a major city, or if you think this will provide you with a superior way of linguistic immersion for speaking the language, you’re kidding yourself.

Finding culture in city life

I happen to prefer cities; I simply get bored in villages and small towns, even if they are amazingly beautiful “hidden away” beach paradises. I like activities and things to do, and personally travel specifically to meet as many interesting people as possible, so I am not so much concerned about sites or seeing as many places as possible in a country, and I especially have no interest in proving myself as a true traveller by getting “off the beaten track”. This isn’t better, it’s just my own personal style.

One thing that especially interests me is the modern culture of a country. In villages, they may still follow old traditions, be very religious/spiritual, and more “true” to how most people lived centuries ago even in cities, but there is a certain uniqueness to how countries adapt to globalisation and technology that I find really interesting (more specific language-related examples in later posts).

So to me, there is definitely lots of culture to be found in city life; on metros, in shopping malls, in tucked away side-streets, and even on the Internet (for pages relevant to the city, or social networking). It’s a different culture to that of villages, but it’s no less authentic or unique.

Even villages have their commonalities internationally; not as much through international communication as in cities, but due to traits that us humans tend to share when we have a particular lifestyle. Time I’ve spent in small towns on different sides of the planet have shown me that we really aren’t all that different.

But I have to admit that I like my nightclubs, lots of varied food options as a vegetarian, international communities like Couchsurfing, cinemas, other foreigners so I can practise other languages, and all the other things that you can find pretty much in any major city. As a long-term traveller, these things make me feel at “home” and give me some sense of consistency in an otherwise constantly changing world! So I like the balance between the familiar and the new. :)

Using villages for language immersion

One thing I always seem to hear from others before starting my language missions is that I’m making a mistake in choosing a major city to do it in. It’s obvious that in villages there may be more motivations to speak the local language due to less likeliness of meeting locals with any English, other foreigners etc., but I feel this approach of being forced to speak the language has some major drawbacks.

The only time I’ve used a village for linguistic immersion was Glencolmkille to improve my Irish. Every other language mission has mostly involved me living in major cities; Prague for Czech, Rio for Portuguese, Rome for Italian, and a big bunch of other major cities over the last 7 years (with just brief visits to villages).

You can absolutely get the same level of immersion in both a major city and in a village, but there is a big difference in how you will go about this, and to be frank, the reasons that villages force you to speak more may not benefit you as much in the long run. In a city you can make a conscious decision to avoid English-speaking expats, surround yourself with local friends, convince locals to help you, and struggle with separating the English-speaking world from the local-language one by making a conscious decision to stop speaking in English.

These commitments require a lot of self-determination and resolve and if you are successful, then you will be able to even continue speaking and improving that language when you are not even in that country, thanks to getting over this psychological barrier that villages rarely present. Or if you move to another city in the same country, you will have a very similar success rate.

City-life makes you more committed in the long-run

Learning in a village may end up making you need that lack of English to be able to confidently speak the language. I’ve seen it time and again; even if someone has an intermediate level of the language thanks to their village stay, once they meet someone with good English, they’ll get intimidated and give up because they are not used to trying. Or once they move back home, they will be too intimidated to practise with any natives they come across there, who will very likely speak English.

In a village you simply don’t have the choice. If you use the village as a tool to reach a good spoken level of the language, you may very well do that. But you may not have reached the level of confidence of being able to speak the language when you finally move back to city-life.

On top of this, villages don’t always guarantee you that pressure. You just need one friend to speak English with you there to destroy the entire concept of full immersion, making a village equally useful and useless as a city.

A lot of people can rightly call me very stubborn when it comes to speaking foreign languages; in most cases I will win over and get to practise, since I have ways of convincing locals to help me.

I especially find that there is regularly a mini-battle between me and (for example) some proud Français over who gets to practise the other person’s language. If I was Mr. Nice-guy then I’d always give in, and my French would definitely not be anywhere near as good as it is now. However, I have hugely improved my French living outside of France thanks to my stubbornness and determination to practise it every chance I get.

I learned most of this stubbornness from my difficult stay in Paris; I may complain about that city a lot, but it has overall had a very positive affect on my ability to improve my languages, which a pleasant stay in a village in the south wouldn’t have given me. If I had learned French in a village then I wouldn’t have had to fight the battle against those who wanted to use me to practise their English. I wouldn’t have had advertisements in English to ignore, or the challenge of convincing someone exhausted from meeting yet another foreigner who wants to practise their language. I also wouldn’t have tried specifically to make local friends, since in a village it happens anyway.

All of this is extra work, but I’d argue that it’s part of the natural process of immersion and maintaining your level of a language. A village shields you from this work and this can come back to bite you in the arse later.

People in villages are generally really nice and more than happy to speak to you in their language. Some people in cities (of course, it depends hugely on the culture; Brazilians for example have never stopped me from speaking Portuguese!) may not be so helpful. Sorry guys, but that’s the way the world works. You can’t hide in a village forever!

In my opinion, learning this skill of convincing someone to speak to you in their language is among the most important skills you can acquire if you don’t plan on forgetting the language after a brief stay in the country. Learning languages isn’t all grammar and vocabulary; sometimes you need to become a stronger person and more confident in your own abilities.

Then again, most people aren’t up for the challenge of city life

Of course, a lot of people come to foreign cities and cave under the pressure of other expats and English-enthusiastic locals and end up speaking very little of the local language. Too many people in fact – I’ve seen it dozens of times and I’ll always be a little disappointed to see the vast amounts of English speakers living in a city permanently, with little of the local language. With a different approach they could easily learn the language quickly.

So maybe my aggressive approach just isn’t for them and they could do with external factors forcing them to speak the local language. In that case villages really are the best answer. Then again, we could always force them to practise the language with ransom notes for their kidnapped puppies…

But do you really need to be forced to speak the language? Any achievements you make in a village are based on the exact same potential that you would have in a city. Surely you can look inside yourself for that motivation that initially drove you to take the step to move abroad for your language dream? There are great challenges for those attempting to learn a language by immersion in a major city, but the long-term benefits far outweigh the extra work required, as long as you’re willing to put in that extra work.

Of course, I write this post to you from a city! In the end, I chose Bangkok to conclude my Thai experiment.

With just over 2 weeks left in this project, I have been both facing challenges (that, interestingly are not new to Asian languages for me at all; laziness will hold you back from learning any language!) and discovering how my first Asian language was not as hard as I had thought. I’ve had some interesting discussions with other Thai learners and I’m convinced that despite the differences and the huge amount that I still have left to learn, the hardest aspect of both an Asian and a European language are essentially the same: confidence, commitment and an efficient learning approach.

Moving to a village in Thailand (or anywhere for that matter) won’t change me. I’d still have the same personal confidence and commitment issues to battle with, despite forced external pressure from lack of English speakers. My lack of time investment in this particular project (due to work, travelling, that episode of Lost that I had to watch, and various other excuses) is an internal issue, and changing my external environment would be ignoring that fact.

Despite the fact that I’m still not speaking Thai yet, I am not going to give up so easy! In my remaining 2 weeks I still have some fight in me and I’m still convinced that I’ve got a decent chance of achieving everything that I had initially aimed for. I have a secret weapon that makes sure that I don’t give up so easily, and I’ll be discussing that weapon (which you too can very easily use!) in the next post! :D

So, is city life really a better long-term solution, or do villages have an extra charm that can’t be ignored? Are you too nice to convince someone who wants to speak English with you, to speak their own language? Am I just too cynical about what’s needed in the long-term? Do you agree with a commenter on this site’s Facebook page that you can’t spell authenticity without city? Share your thoughts in the comments!



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  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Yeah, I try to do that anyway. :P If anyone asks, I'm looking for a pretty girlfriend for um… cultural immersion.
    Seriously though, it's definitely helped!! I find English speaking girls slightly less sexy because I know I could be learning so much more with a local :D
    The “falling in love” part is a bit harder for someone in my situation – I'm pretty forward about the 3-month part of my stay…

  • jody1980

    ciao Benny!
    thanks for the great post! however, i'm wondering whether the city argument applies to berlin? i'm hoping to study/work for 3 months in berlin during the summer but i'm starting german from scratch…
    any comments/ideas would be gratefully received :-)))

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Why wouldn't it apply to Berlin? Does Germany's capital have some kind of gravity effect on foreigners speaking German that throws them out if they try?
    If not, the same rules as all other cities apply! Starting from scratch is fine! Hang out with other learners first to feel less intimidated (and encouraged by your progress), and make sure to speak German from day one. The same advice I give for any place would work just as well there ;)

  • TropicalMBA

    I love it! I'm writing to encourage meeting your goal in two weeks! As a side note, and quite selfishly, I am increasingly interested in a “plan” to learn languages in 3 months. I've got a tutor but I'm not sure exactly how to direct her (because I'm sure you know better!). It would be great to see a quick post on how to help direct a tutor to teach you a language in 3 months. In a lot of countries, its really cheap! What kind of plan should I put in place? I don't need to tell you I'd be willing to pay for this information! Anyway, if you have the time, just thought I'd bring it up. I've checked out your basic resources and its still tough for me to piece together what your advice would be for a proven plan. Cheers Benny!

  • Mel

    That's actually not such a great idea. Well, maybe it is, but not for learning a language. A boyfriend/girlfriend is the *worst* teacher, and an even worse conversation partner. All the other relationship tensions get wound up in not being able to say “ř”. Trust me on this one…

  • Steve

    Obviously for you cities are best to serve your purposes. From my experience I have to disagree though when talking from a purely language standpoint for the average language seeker. I've had lots of experiences with languages in both cities and villages and the 3rd option – average sized towns and it is far easier to progress quickly in villages and towns because of the main problem that so many people speak or want to speak English. I know you explained how to stubbornly and determindly fight through these barriers but I believe most language seekers wouldn't be as successful as you in this.
    Forgetting other reasons for choice of location, if the consideration is purely language then the natural immersion you get in non-English speaking places is much more motivating (for most people, maybe) then having to go through the extra work you talked about.
    Have you tried a big town or city that has all the modern comforts you need but is not on the foreigner radar? There are many of them in most countries.
    Also, personally I've found that big/capital city dwellers are very similar all over the world and 'villagers' and their way of life are not. Like you said that your experience of being an English speaking tourist was quite empty (I agree), for me and maybe others city life is also quite empty, why go around the world to do the things you do at home?
    Anyway I respect your reasons for preferring cities but am just putting forward an alternative opinion. Another good idea for a post by the way.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    It depends on the girlfriend; finding one that doesn't mind correcting you often is indeed extremely difficult. Lucky for me, I'm stubborn (as I say in this article), so I'm attracted to equally stubborn girls :P

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Hey Steve, thanks for your comment!

    Yes, it's easier in villages, but you're still ignoring the extra skill I've talked about which I feel is essential AFTER the village stay. A lot of language learners do need to be toughened up for the real world where they'll have to deal with English being present.

    Re: doing things you do at home: If you are going around the world for a few months, then you definitely want everything to be different; but this is my (7 year so far) full-time lifestyle, so I am very honestly telling you that I like a nice balance of the familiar (occasionally having beans on toast for breakfast, watching silly Hollywood explosion blockbusters, hanging out with like-minded people through Couchsurfing etc.) of doing the things I do at home mixed in with speaking the local language and living city-versions of the local culture ;) As I said; I'm not interested in proving myself as a true traveller; I'd rather keep my sanity over my vanity ;) . A lot of other travellers go extra lengths, and tell you all about it, but then again they need English (which they have at home…)

    Actually, I usually prefer small cities that are not so much “on the radar” – especially student cities, like Toulouse in France, Salamanca in Spain for example. However, you'd be kidding yourself if you thought you could avoid English in these places without making a conscious effort to do so, so even though they aren't the tourist-hubs of a country, they are still cities with English speaking youth and lots of other expats, which requires the extra work I talked about.

    Sadly, you are right that most language speakers would not be as successful. So this post doesn't imply that cities are better for everyone, but I'm just pointing out the inconvenient truth that those planning on language immersion in villages need to consider ;)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Hey Dan! Until I release an e-book I can't go into much detail :P However, I did write a post that summarises what I tend to do to reach fluency in 2-3 months.
    With tutors, I always basically take control of the class, so I avoid those who have a set method they always follow. I can study in my own time, so classes are for practice and correction, and only discussing grammar rules that I've already looked at myself and am having trouble with. Tutorials have to be combined with your own study and used purely for the speaking aspect. If I don't hear a single correction of how I speak over an entire 5 minute period I dump the teacher and find a new one.
    This is probably the best advice I can give for now; try out a big bunch and stick with the one you feel is definitely going to be in synch with your language projects the best :) And use the class in conjunction with a huge-ass amount of practice and studying you do outside of the class!

  • TropicalMBA

    Thanks, I'm going to use your approach and see what I can do. 3 months is a daunting and exciting prospect at the same time.

  • Jim Morrison

    You might wanna read about this ;-)


  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    That's the whole point :) I'm definitely saying that learning in a city is “harder”, but it's better that people have that struggle in the long run.
    If and when I take on Korean, they can try to default to English, but I'll be ready and know how to (politely) force the conversation back to Korean, thanks to my other city stays.
    Nobody said learning a language was going to be easy ;) I promote easy shortcuts in most of my posts, but in this case I am saying grin-and-bear-it and struggle with something hard :)

  • Graham

    Don't forget you may run into a different dialect. This is particularly true in China (at least from my own experience). If you decide to learn Chinese in some backwater village you might just end up learning the local dialect as opposed to standard Chinese. There are many different dialects and even native Chinese have a hard time understanding each other!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Excellent point!! Although there are villages in the same region as cities, there are definitely plenty with vastly different dialects, which can also be detrimental in the long run to a learner, especially if those in cities look on particular rural dialects negatively (which is unfortunately the case in some countries).
    Another excellent reason to choose cities over most villages (unless you really like villages for their own non-linguistic benefits)

  • Steve

    This is true but the opposite can also be true. In some countries the big cities have their own distinct dialects and the smaller towns have the more common speech. Wasn't Carioca an example of this? I haven't been to Brazil so I don't know.
    In Central America in a lot of villages they use the standard form more than in cities. Even England is an example of this trend in a lot of places.

  • Jean-Paul Setlak

    It depends on your personality and the availability of willing natives. I kind of like the beach, quiet environment. But it is probably easier to get involved in normal life in a city. The GF/BF approach can work, though I had a Taiwanese girlfriend and she was adamant about practicing English at all times. Benevolent friends who are wiling to teach me have been my best source of practice (in mandarin).

  • Cherrye Moore

    I was going to mention the dialect thing in villages, as well. Here in southern Italy there are whole villages of people who don't really speak Italian, just their local dialects. I think the main thing to remember-as you've pointed out-is that you have to be dedicated to NOT speaking English, regardless of your location.

  • Cainntear

    To me the city/town difference is not about forcing yourself/being forced to speak the language — it's about the ease of integration. Walk into a bar in a city and nobody bats an eyelid, but walk into a similar bar in a small town and somebody will say hello.

    A lot of people can't just force their way into a circle of friends. People willing to dress up as leprechauns and produce videos on the Irish language have more confidence than most…. ;-)

  • Davíd Cóltun

    When ever I go to a non-English speaking city, I find billboard advertisements to be the most interesting.