In the last five months, I have definitely received the most double takes of my life whenever I said that I had been learning all my Egyptian Arabic in Brazil.
It's just such an unlikely combination! Brazil has never had a huge or even tiny wave of Egyptian immigration. While there, I only managed to meet one single Egyptian in person in my entire 3 months. This was partially the reason I did it – to prove that even if there are no natives nearby, you can learn to speak the language entirely online.
Then again, there are plenty of places that you can go that are not the country where your target language is official, but where you will find it surprisingly easy to practice… in person! No need to log on to Skype – just walk down the street!
I don't just mean major cities where you are statistically more likely to run into more nationalities anyway; places that go beyond the natural international nature of capitals and economic centres, and interconnectedness of social networks to help you connect with “rare” speakers, who are actually really common.
These communities and visitors can be much stronger than you think for particular languages, and actually worth serious consideration as a plan-B, if the country where that language is official is harder to visit or stay in longer due to prices, visa issues, climate etc.
Here have been a few based on the numbers of people I've met in my travels:
Japanese in Brazil
I've been putting off learning Japanese for a while, as moving to Japan could turn out to be costly. There is another option worth considering though! In Brazil (and especially the city of São Paulo), you will find the largest Japanese community in the world outside of Japan.
An amazing 1.5 million Japanese live in Brazil, with the majority of them in Sampa (São Paulo). While there I noticed that there was definitely a much larger appearance of Asian faces, and I even ran into their “Japan town” (the disrict of Liberdade) in that city. I saw advertisements in Japanese, heard a lot of Japanese spoken on the street, and was starting to think that this would actually be the perfect place for genuine immersion in the language, long before I'd ever make it to Japan. Something to consider!
German in Spain
I was amazed to see when I was there that many advertisements (such as accommodation, parties and the like) are in German.
It's the language I heard most in many parts of the island (almost dwarfing Spanish/Catalan), especially when you start to pay attention. Ibiza is a popular tourist destination of course, but quite a lot of German expats simply live there. Work on your tan and your German simultaneously! 😀
Hebrew in Peru
It may come as a huge surprise, but I actually think that many parts of South America are actually ideal to get some Hebrew practice!
You see, after serving in the army, Israelis like to take a while to travel abroad and see the world. Europe and North America can be too expensive, so quite a lot of them end up in South America. When I was travelling in the Northeast of Brazil, for instance, I met an incredibly large number of them, and even travelled with one.
There's a website they use a lot gringo.co.il (entirely in Hebrew) to help one another out with the best prices and places to go. Using this site from the experience of many penny wise travellers before us, combined with my Portuguese speaking abilities, my friend and I were unstoppable!
But where you can be sure to bump into them can be hard, as South America is so big. That's why one of its biggest attractions, Machu Picchu or nearby Cusco where I was learning Quechua, is a sure spot!
Out of all the foreigners I met in Cusco, Israelis were by far the largest in number. There is even a restaurant right off the main square in Cusco with the menu in Hebrew to cater for this huge crowd. I heard what (to me) sounded like Hebrew a lot in the street, and while I've heard they can be quick to switch to English to you in Israel, I'm sure the sheer novelty of speaking Hebrew with a non-Israeli while in South America would keep their interest longer 😉
Algerian/Moroccan/Tunisian Arabic in France
One thing that gave my simplified view of countries and nationalities a wake up call, was some days when I was having a rough time with my French studies while in Paris and I heard people speaking amongst one another without understanding a single word of it. My coworker assured me that my French wasn't that bad, as they were actually from Morocco and speaking Arabic.
In fact, you will hear these “Maghreb” flavours of Arabic incredibly frequently in France! Almost 30% of all foreign residents in France come from this northern area of Africa. In my experience they are very friendly, so if you reached out to them for language practice you can bet they'd be incredibly enthusiastic to help you!
Turkish in Germany
Along the same lines, while I was getting ready for my German C2 exam in Berlin, the part of the city I was living in, Kreuzberg, actually turned out to be a terrible choice in terms of getting some German immersion!
Incredibly, every time I'd go to nearby supermarkets, the large fleamarket and food market, and just generally walking around and eating in small restaurants in my part of town, the language I would hear was Turkish, and not German.
An estimated 4-5% of Germany's already huge population comes from Turkey. When I was later in Istanbul, I almost wished that I had put some of that time in Berlin into Turkish for the extra boost!
Irish (Gaeilge) in Canada
Surprisingly, Canada, has the only officially recognized Gaeltacht (region where Irish is the language used) in the world outside of Ireland. It is modelled after the Oideas Gael experience that I've frequently attended myself, and well worth looking into for all those of you in North America interested in the language, but worried about long-distance flights.
I should also mention that Cantonese/Mandarin are super easy to practise if you make it to Vancouver, where I was really felt like I was back in Asia most of the time out walking the street!
Polish in USA
My own time in Chicago involved the ridiculous project of learning Klingon, but when I was out, I definitely heard what sounded Slavic and could only have been Polish! In fact, Chicago has such a large Polish population, that many people end up speaking “Poglish“, when they speak English, dropping many Polish words into the conversation.
Save yourself the flight across the pond, and pop up to Chicago if you feel like getting in touch with your roots!
Italian in Argentina
I had a wonderful time learning tango in Buenos Aires, but its flavour of Spanish was really interesting! You see, due to huge immigration in the 20s from Italy, their Spanish has been totally transformed in terms of vocabulary and musicality.
This community is strong to this day and I came across a surprising number of Italians while halfway across the world from Italy, and used it as an opportunity to maintain and improve my Italian skills while there.
English in Thailand
When those interested in learning English as a Second Language tell me they are looking into moving to London, I have to roll my eyes a little. It's an incredibly expensive destination, and a little worse than other parts of the UK or Ireland due to the large number of international people there, which could get you into a Spanish/French/Chinese expat bubble way too easily.
Instead, I heartily recommend that they get a cheap flight to Thailand, and hop on down to one of the touristy islands, like Koh Phi Phi (my favourite), Koh Samui or Koh Phangan. I quickly found that these were terrible places to learn to speak Thai (at least I learned how to read it fast) with the less touristy north much better, but boy do you ever speak a lot of English there!!
It's relatively easy access for Australians (well, for that part of the world!), now has super cheap flights for Brits, and Americans and Canadians will almost always include it as a significant stop-over on their Round-the-world ticket. As well as this, it's unbelievably cheap and a great place to relax.
Yes, I'm serious – Thailand's islands are an excellent place to go for young people to get a lot of English practice!
These 9 countries have been particular combinations that have stood out for me, but I'm sure you can think of others that are special beyond what you'd expect from an international city. Even having said that, in most international cities if you try hard you will find those native speakers to hang out with and chat to.
Hopefully this extra reminder that you don't have to go to that (one) country where your target language is official – you can get immersion in the strangest of places! Let me know some of your suggestions in the comments below!