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A lot of people are a bit fuzzy about this so I want to make it absolutely clear: If you move to a country for a few months (or even years) it's very possible you will NOT learn the language.
Out of all the advice I give on this blog, based on my lifestyle you would think that “move to the country that speaks it” is on my top to-do list for aspiring language learners? Absolutely not!
Being in a country is an amazing cultural and eye-opening experience, but believing that simply being there will lead to you learning the language shows little understanding of what is involved.
You see, as I travel to new places, as well as mostly locals, I meet quite a lot of expats and others who are staying for a few months like me and the sad truth is that the vast majority of them learn next to nothing in the local language. Consequently in many countries this means they make almost no local friends.
If you think that by throwing money at the problem and buying that plane ticket, you've done the hardest work, you're delusional!
In the cities I've been living in over the last years; Amsterdam, Rio, Berlin, Budapest, Buenos Aires, Montreal, Rome, Paris, Manila, Bangkok, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Prague etc. what I consistently see is that many expats (especially English speakers, but other groups such as Spaniards can be just as bad) won't learn anything beyond a few phrases.
I'm sad to say that this has been the majority of foreigners I have met who live in the countries (i.e. are renting somewhere for at least a few months, not there as tourists for a weekend). I've even met people living in these places for over a decade who never get beyond this stage!
Luckily there are exceptions, and today I want to discuss what I feel leads to many people not learning a language despite living in the country. I also want to reiterate that you don't need to travel in the first place, but if you are already in the country, perhaps seeing these reasons will help you find ways around them.
Why is this?
While it's too simple to say that they are lazy, I think this does contribute quite a lot to it.
- The number one reason is excuses. They “don't have the language gene“, they aren't smart enough, they have a bad memory, they're too old, or invent other bogus excuses like not having time. They never really try. They think too much about why they'll fail and never get out of this terrible pessimistic mindset. Also, no matter where I go in the world it's funny that there happens to always be the country with the “most difficult language” in the world.
- In many countries they delude themselves into thinking that “everyone speaks English”, even in countries where almost nobody outside of the tourist industry can speak more than rudimentary English. (With people's basic English skills of a few phrases to help them sell things to rich foreigners being blown out of proportion).
- The main problem is that they have carefully moulded themselves into an English-speaking bubble so they are caught in a vicious circle that constantly provides them proof of why English is all you need. It's nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. If all your friends are other foreigners, or locals that work in tourism, or who are university educated and perhaps using “socialising” with you for free English practice, and you eat in the same places etc. this says nothing about the vast amount of the country you're ignoring. These people seem to be blissfully unaware of the possibilities and advantages of a life without English.
- Even in northern European countries (like the Netherlands) where English is indeed widespread (although I can confirm that I have met Dutch people who are uncomfortable speaking English and relieved that I speak Dutch to them), expats use the excuse that nobody will speak the language with me! Well, I have yet to find a single Dutch person that has spoken English to me when it's clear I want to speak their language. It's amazing, but simply trying to roll your Rs could hide the fact that you're an English speaker; they are so used to lazy English speakers, that out of force-of-habit they'll switch when they hear an English accent. Apart from that that there are many ways to convince them to help you.
- The “I'll do it later” issue. You arrive and you have to sort out accommodation, make friends, get used to the city etc. You'll start next week! But next week you have to get started working or studying in university – this weekend then! And so on. It gets postponed so far that eventually you know it's never going to happen. This is especially true as you tend towards making other foreign friends, which is “easier” without working that extra bit hard to make local ones instead. This is why speak from day one is not just a good strategy, but a good routine to get yourself into immediately.
Apart from issues that are indeed the learner's fault, there are problems they just don't think about when moving abroad that can be extremely distracting and discouraging:
- Sometimes making friends is really hard; a lot harder than they had considered. You are in an entirely different culture, with different mentalities and people treat one another differently. Separating a culture and a language is a huge mistake. This is one of the major reasons that people embrace an expat community instead of local friends; they simply relate to those other foreigners more. It's important to try to adapt yourself and keep an open mind as to why those locals are acting so differently. Stop judging them by your standards!
Another big issue is putting “moving to the country” as the do-all-end-all of language learning. Because of this they would have done no preparation , or bad preperation of only studying before coming. Too many people tell me that they are moving somewhere in 6 months, and say that they'll study a little until then, as if when they arrive a switch will magically go off to turn them into speakers.
While there are definitely ways to squeeze the little you know to allow you to converse on arrival, if you don't start practising NOW (see below) you've shot yourself in the foot in terms of maintaining terribly slow progress right from the start. The “start” isn't when your plane lands, it's when you decide to learn the language!!
(Note: I start learning on arrival since I decide shortly before moving somewhere that I'll learn its language, but that's because I get a buzz out of an adventurous and certainly challenging travel lifestyle. As I keep saying, my goal is not language learning, but authentic travelling based around meeting as many locals as possible. Waiting until your plane lands before you start speaking is definitely not something I'd recommend as part of a good overall learning strategy).
Even more reasons;
- The learner just isn't passionate enough about learning the language. They thought it would be a “nice idea”, but that was about it. They actually have little interest in speaking the language with people; it's important to be passionate about using a language, rather than just passionate about languages in general or academically, or just interested in travelling (i.e. physically being in another country, regardless of genuine interest in its culture). If you aren't so interested in using it with human beings, you won't actually get that much out of being in the country apart from eating different food and taking nice photos.
- If people like languages for reading, history, listening to the radio or TV, that's fine, but it's important to be honest about it. All of these interests are great, but not necessarily related to speaking a language with natives. In this case, being in the country makes little difference.
Speaking before travelling
As I said above, I strongly feel that if you can start speaking now before you go to a country, then you will have the momentum behind you to speak on arrival. Even though it's not my usual strategy, due to my own particular unique travel style, I have indeed done this before myself!
I made the decision that I was going to move to Brazil for the first time several months in advance, while still living in Toulouse in the south of France, and decided that I didn't want to slow myself down on arrival. So I started learning Portuguese then. Yes, you read that right I learned Portuguese while living in France.
When I say “learned” I don't mean that I simply bought some grammar book, or downloaded some ultimately useless pirated audio or software. I went to Orkut.com (which at the time  was the main social networking site in many countries… Facewhat?), found the Toulouse community of Brazilians, saw it was pretty active and posted that I wanted to meet up to speak Portuguese. Someone answered, met up with me and helped me along.
We met up several times a week, and I struggled at first but did indeed manage to reach a rudimentary stage of speaking without simply using Spanish instead. Then when I arrived in Brazil I had the best possible start ever in a country, where I could communicate my thoughts and make deep friendships right from the start; something that is still a challenge for me at the very start when I arrive with no preparation. I still had a long way to go, but that head start lead to one of my best travel experiences yet.
Speaking is the key, not being in the country
Right now in my life, I enjoy moving to different countries and getting to know locals by learning their language; usually to levels that allow me to ultimately have very deep conversations with them. But this is my style of travel; “language tourism” or whatever you may call it. I'm a traveller and interested in social aspects of culture, well before I would ever call myself a language learner. Languages will always be a means to an end for me.
Because of that, it's handy and fun for me to learn on arrival. I've made many mistakes in this process and learned the best way to do it. Some of these mistakes are easy to explain and blog about and others aren't. So no matter how well I can attempt to explain it, you will indeed run into many challenges you hadn't expected when moving to a country. This is all part of the adventure after all! But thinking it will be very easy to learn a language in an entirely different environment that you are not used to, can be quite short-sighted!
There is nothing about being in a country that means you will learn its language. You can always create an English-speaking bubble or be antisocial or shy. Whether you learn it or not depends on your commitment, not on changing your latitude and longitude.
If you aren't in the country yet, then find ways to speak right now so you don't have to worry about the initial bump. Then when you do arrive, it will be so much easier! If you are in the country, then stop thinking that being there is enough and that you'll magically start speaking with time. You WON'T. Not unless you look at the reasons you aren't speaking now and try to solve them.