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.
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! 😀