It’s a language learner’s dream: being absolutely immersed in their target language in a country where their target language is spoken. No matter where they go, who they talk to, what they see and read around them, their world is a classroom and they get to see the language they are learning come to life. Everything from reading advertisements on billboards to listening in on people’s conversations on the subway (it doesn’t count as eavesdropping if it’s for educational purposes!), it’s all contributing to their language learning.
As amazing as an opportunity it is to be in the country where the language you are learning is spoken, it unfortunately does not mean that by simply being there you will absorb the language over time. Language learning takes effort. I have heard of people who have lived in a foreign country for an extended period of time and still can not speak the language. However, when with the right combination of activities and effort, you can set your language learning on the fast track and make the most of your time abroad!
Step 1. Preparation
Going to a target language country in order to learn the language without any previous knowledge of the language will waste valuable learning time once you get there. You should at least have an idea for the sound of the language, basic vocabulary, knowledge of how the language is structured and the basic “survival phrases” that you will need in the beginning of your stay, but of course the more the better! On top of the wide selection of beginner courses that you can buy online or from your local bookshop, there are nearly endless resources online for beginner language learners. Prepare as much as you can so that you can be prepared when you arrive and make the time in the country really count by being able to get out there and communicate with the locals!
Step 2. Structure (on the side!)
If you are specifically travelling in order to improve your language skills, then you must continue to actually study the language in a formal setting. But I must emphasize: this must be done ON THE SIDE. When I lived in Spain last year I spent way too much time cooped up in my apartment with my nose inside of Spanish books while the whole world outside my apartment was just dying to teach me Spanish. Do not let this happen! There are ways to balance formal studying with immersion.
I for one really enjoy in-country language classes. You get to have a regularly scheduled study time with people from around the world with similar goals as yourself, you have a native teacher and you have structured study time everyday so you can spend the rest of your time (other than maybe an hour or so everyday reviewing what you learned in class, which is important) doing the immersion stuff! If you do not want to spend money on a class, then you should at least allow an hour or so a day to work on your own with an autodidactic course.
Step 3. Language exchange partners
Find yourself one or two (or more!) language exchange partners and meet up with them regularly! This is a GREAT way to get out there and start meeting people, especially if you don’t know where to start. Language exchange partners are people you meet up with to learn each other’s native languages. You meet in a café or somewhere similar, and spend some time speaking in your native language and in their native language. It is a mutually beneficial experience for both participants, and it’s a great way to meet friends.
Step 4. Libraries are your friend!
If you will be staying in the country for an extended period of time, get a library card and make good use of it! Read as much as you possibly can (even if it is just children’s books!) use the study rooms, videos, magazines, etc. for free! Input is an extremely important part of language learning,
Step 5. Listen!
TV, Radio, conversations in public. Your target language is surrounding you so LISTEN as much as you can!
Step 6. Talk!
As well as finding some conversation buddies, it is also very important to get out there and TALK! Don’t be afraid of making mistakes! Ask for directions, for the time, etc. (even if you already know the answer!) Every little bit helps. The ideal thing to do is to make a pledge not to speak your native language while abroad. Even if you can only speak a very broken version of your target language, it doesn’t matter! The more you force yourself to do it (and it WILL be exhausting at first) try to stick with it, it will pay off big time!
Step 7. Enjoy yourself!
You will be having a great opportunity to learn your target language, but don’t stress yourself! Remember to relax and enjoy your experience. Learning a language is just as much about learning a culture, so go and enjoy the culture that your target language country has to offer.
Happy Language Learning!