Can You Really Learn a Language by Moving Abroad?

Updated May 23, 2016

Learn a language by moving abroad

They say the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. They say go to the country where it’s spoken. They say if you can, live there.

What they don’t tell you about that method is that at first, it’s hard as hell.

When I told people I was moving to Spain, one of the first questions they would ask was if I could speak any Spanish. I would laughingly answer, “No! But I’ll learn when I get there!”.

Oh my niave self, I could slap you.

For the last 5 months I’ve been confused, frustrated, elated, exhausted, proud…and a myriad of other emotions I can’t even name. Learning a language is certainly a rollercoaster ride.

Choosing to learn a language in a country where it’s spoken seems like a logical idea, and it is a good one, but not without it’s drawbacks. Sure you have more opportunities to speak the language and to go out and put into practice what you’ve learned, particularly with native speakers, but if you arrive knowing next to nothing, it’s not going to be that easy to just pick it up.

I had this (ridiculous) idea that I would be able to learn a lot through osmosis. That I would slowly begin to absorb the language the more I heard it. This might be true, except when you start by knowing next to nothing, it takes actual learning to get to that point. I’ll admit when I arrived in Spain I understood more than I thought I would, but mostly all based on context and the handful of phrases I knew. Ask me to actually reply in Spanish, and I couldn’t.

But what about all that talk of learning more in a week on holiday than years at school?

I’ve always heard people say they learnt far more of a language on a two week holiday than they did during two years of school. That is probably true, but that learning on holiday was based on a foundation of knowledge. I learnt Japanese in school for two years, and I speak more Spanish in 4 months of living here than I ever spoke in Japanese. But if I’d had a basis of knowledge in Spanish, then I’d be miles ahead of where I am now. Learning a language from scratch when you move to a country is not the same as practicing and building and on what you already know.

You still have to put a huge amount of effort into learning a language, even if you live where it’s spoken. It depends where you live too, and on your job. If like me, your job is teaching English or your work involves spending a huge chunk of time speaking in your native language then it gives you less opportunity to learn. You need to actually set aside time to practice. That means studying when you want to be out eating tapas. Although sometimes alcohol in language learning isn’t such a bad thing…

It would be easy to get to a level of language proficiency to get by, and give up on the rest, but while living in a country that doesn’t speak your language has it’s perks, I think it’s important to strive for more than the basics. You might be able to order what food you like, and ask where the bathroom is but not go much further. I think this limits your social interactions and understanding of the culture. Plus, it makes you feel bad when you’re in a group situation and you’re the silent one in the corner. Awkward.

If I could move abroad to learn a language again, I’d do it differently. I’d try and learn more Spanish before I came to Spain, because although learning here is great, I feel like the process could have been hugely sped up and much less stressful with a little prior learning.

The importance of choosing where you live for your language learning

One thing I am really grateful for, is living in a place that’s not an expat or english speaking tourist hub. Something difficult to find on the south coast of Spain! When I first arrived in Almería, it seemed like no one spoke English at all. I had an awful first day at my school because I hadn’t even tried to prepare for nobody speaking any English at all. I spent a lot of time eating potatos because I recognised them on the Spanish only menus, and it was January, not a tourist in sight. But it was what I needed. Motivation to find a tutor quickly and start learning Spanish so I could cope in even the simplest of conversations. Like ordering cake. Because I really like cake.

In short, moving to a country to learn a language isn’t necessarily the easiest way to do it.

If you’re thinking about it though, don’t be discouraged! I still feel like I’ve learnt much faster than I would otherwise, but I just could have made it easier on myself (but let’s face it, I never do that).

So here’s some tips, if you’re looking to learn a language in its home country.

  • Choose a place where you won’t be tempted to just make friends with expats
  • Take an intensive course to get you started
  • Do try and learn some words and phrases, or refresh your tourist language, before you go. Being able to say your name, where you’re from, ask for the bathroom, order a coffee, etc will keep your head floating about water while you learn the rest.

At the end of the day, learning another language is awesome, so go for it in any way you can!

Have you tried to learn a language by living abroad or going on holiday somewhere? How did you find it?

Sonja x

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24 Comments

  • Reply Jaimee May 24, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    I love this post! Everyone always says told me “once you get there you will pick it up fast!” But it’s hard. There still are obsticals for sure, learning a language is never just “easy.” 😛

    • Reply Migrating Miss May 24, 2016 at 6:32 pm

      Thanks Jaimee! Maybe you’ll pick up little things like how to order food etc but having an actual conversation with something entirely in a language you had no clue of before you arrived… that takes work I think! I wish it was that easy haha.

  • Reply Dalia May 24, 2016 at 6:13 pm

    I absolutely agree! I’ve heard so many times that the best way to learn a language is to just go to the country, and am often told how good I am at “picking up” languages. I’m not good, I put in the huge effort required! The best way to learn is a combo of study and talking to people 😉 ¡¡Te deseo mucha suerte con el castellano!!

    • Reply Migrating Miss May 24, 2016 at 6:37 pm

      That must be frustrating sometimes when you know the work it took! I feel that way when people tell me I’m lucky to travel. There’s an element of luck but a lot of work too! Moving country is a great push but I don’t think it then magically happens haha. ¡¡Muchas gracias!!

  • Reply Trekking with Becky May 25, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    Thanks for linking up this great post for #ExpatTuesday!

    I’m moving to Moscow next week, and I’m really going to be able to relate more since the only Russian words I know are yes, no, and vodka! I knew a lot of Japanese before going to Japan being half-Japanese and my only music being Japanese since day one, so I picked up more very easily…a great deal by osmosis…lol! 😀

    Russian is going to be a whole new ball game though, and I’m SO GLAD that my new job comes with free Russian lessons! 😀

    • Reply Migrating Miss May 26, 2016 at 12:01 pm

      I can’t believe you’re moving to Moscow that’s so awesome! That’s great you’ll get Russian lessons, I’m sure yo’ll need them haha. It’ll be really interesting to compare the different experiences with learning the languages. My best advice is, do try and speak as much s possible as quickly as possible! I didn’t really take that advice myself and I was so nervous to speak. It took my Spanish teacher telling me in a kind but firm way that I wouldn’t improve if I didn’t, and then after that when I started trying a lot more I definitely noticed the improvement!

  • Reply Andi May 26, 2016 at 4:21 am

    I moved to Taiwan 3 years ago and now can say “Hello” and “Thank you” in Chinese. Living here has NOT made me fluent, but I have found ways of coping with speaking only English. Eventually I will make more of an effort to learn, but Mandarin is SO HARD!
    I just published this yesterday…you might be able to relate –
    http://andionadventure.com/2016/05/25/expat-secrets-7-reasons-actually-study-chinese/

    • Reply Migrating Miss May 26, 2016 at 12:03 pm

      I bet a lot of people told you you’d “pick it up” as well! I think that’s not the case, unless you have a basis in the language already or are somehow amazing at languages. I realised pretty quickly there was no way I was going to just pick Spanish up! I definitely had to study. I can’t even imagine how hard Mandarin would be though! I learnt Japanese for 2 years in highschool and barely remember a thing.

  • Reply Hannah May 26, 2016 at 10:34 pm

    I can soooo relate to this! I went to Panama for a month last summer. My cousins have family there, and it was a real neat opportunity to get to live with a Panamanian family. I was so naive, thinking I’d just “pick up Spanish” so easily. Sure, I’d done a little studying (gotta love Rosetta Stone) before I left. But, the frustrations of the language barrier between me & the Spanish speaking family stayed with… they were very, very real. I was so glad I had my cousins to speak English with during that month (although unfortunately they speak the same amount of Spanish as I do).
    I did learn a lot though. I learned not to underestimate the inconveniences of NOT knowing a language. And I learned how to say “Que hora es?” = “What time is it?” Combined with a few basic phrases that I’d learned before my trip, I did manage to survive & have a memorable trip. 🙂
    And I do a lot more language studying now. lol

    • Reply Migrating Miss May 27, 2016 at 1:45 pm

      Haha yes I did some study with Duolingo before! So I could say cat, and dog, and a couple of food items. The amount of times I’ve actually needed to say cat or dog I could count on one hand haha. I think when we travel and can’t understand the language we seem to get by easier because we are just ordering food or getting from place to place. It’s the same situation over and over and we manage to figure it out with hand gestures and pick up the little words we need, but when you’re living somewhere and you need to be able to say more or want to ask more questions and actually have a conversation, it’s not so easy!

  • Reply Laura @ Grassroots Nomad May 27, 2016 at 4:24 pm

    So true. I’ve never learned a language and moved to Guatemala at the start of the year to learn Spanish and volunteer. I thought I would be a natural and after 5 months would be joking around with my friends in Spanish. I’m still here and still can’t speak very well. I took 5 weeks of intensive lessons which was great and left very confident and loving the language. I then started work and lived with a family who teased me or get cross if I made a mistake or didn’t understand. That just crushed my spirit and I pretty much just stopped talking altogether. Slowly it is coming back but I’ve lost the passion for it – it is no longer fun, just stressful. My biggest tip is to be around positive and supportive people! I would be so much better if I had stayed with my previous family who was lovely and supportive!

    • Reply Migrating Miss May 27, 2016 at 4:52 pm

      I felt the same! It’s been almost 5 months and I thought I would be much further along by now. Teaching English definitely doesn’t help though! I’m so sorry to hear about your experience with that family, I hope you’re able to move on from it and keep speaking! I always tell my English students they need to make mistakes to learn and I never care if they do, it’s better to at least try. I didn’t initially take my own advice but I try to now! Sometimes my sentences are me stringing together a bunch of words that must make me sound like a caveman, but it gets the point across and people are for the most part happy to help! (Except if you get me started on the foreigners offices, but that’s another post…). I wish you the best of lick and I hope that you can get the fun back!

  • Reply Laia May 28, 2016 at 3:57 pm

    I completely agree! I lived in Sweden and France, and went to both places without knowing any Swedish or French. In two years in Sweden I learnt only a bit of Swedish, but not much. In France I did learn, but for two reasons. 1, most people didn’t speak English (as in Sweden) so I had to. And 2, French is more similar to my native language (Spanish). I completely agree with you that to improve a language in a country, you should have a foundation (or speak a similar language).

    • Reply Migrating Miss May 28, 2016 at 10:12 pm

      I think when people speak less English it definitely helps with the learning! I wish I had the level I have now after 4 months when I first arrived, then I feel like I would have improved really quickly. I’m coming back for another 8 months though and hoping that’s when things will really take off! I envy you, speaking 3 languages though!

  • Reply Carly May 28, 2016 at 5:34 pm

    I can so relate to this! I thought after a year of living in Austria I would have magically learnt German by osmosis – three years later and I’m still rubbish. You’re so right about location too, I live in a touristy, expat city (Vienna) and work completely in English which means my immersion in Deutsch is pretty minimal. I’m tempted to exile myself to the countryside just to get better! Thanks for sharing your great tips 🙂

    • Reply Migrating Miss May 28, 2016 at 10:19 pm

      Haha I was hoping to learn Spanish even faster! I had friends who went on AFS exchanges in highschool who could speak the language after a year, but the difference was they went to school everyday in that language and lived with a host family who spoke the language to them. So I think in that case after a year you would learn a lot! Working in English though really doesn’t help things! I feel like an intensive course, then being sure to keep up the speaking a bit every day would really help! Best of luck x

  • Reply Liz June 9, 2016 at 4:45 pm

    Agree!!! You can’t learn a language by just hoping you’d somehow “pick it up.”

    I was an exchange medical student for a while in Japan and I used to believe that I learned Japanese because I lived there for some time. But the thing is, before I went there, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts, reading Japanese grammar books, and actually making an effort to learn it.

    I tried going to South Korea without knowing any Korean apart from the very basic greeting and “thank you” — and even after a lot of time spent there and lots of interactions with locals, I still don’t know how to speak Korean! So I guess it’s not just something you can pick up somehow. Actual effort to learn is necessary. 🙂

    • Reply Migrating Miss June 10, 2016 at 10:52 am

      Thanks Liz! It seems a lot of people think they just “pick it up” once they’re there, without realising that any previous study probably helped a lot, and then this rumour starts that it’s possible haha. The only exception I can think of is friends of mine who went on AFS exchanges in highschool, who were living with a host family and attending school everyday who were then able to learn the language that way. Although I’m sure they put in a little effort too!

  • Reply Michele Mannila June 15, 2016 at 11:35 pm

    Hi Sonja
    Can you recommend a Spanish Language school in the Almeria area – I am very interested in taking a 3-6 week immersion course in fall 2016 or winter 2017. I’d also be looking for a short term accommodation …i love the Alemeria area and think it would be terrific to be there for a period of time .

    • Reply Migrating Miss June 16, 2016 at 12:57 pm

      Hi Michele,

      Unfortunately I don’t know of any intensive Spanish Language Schools in the area as I took private Spanish lessons. I think the university in Almería runs some courses but you’d need to check if they are at the times you want as I think they are only at the beginning of their semesters (October and March). When you’re looking at courses I’d recommend trying to see if they have an emphasis on speaking, because I think it’s important to not just learn the grammar. Speaking is the real way to learn for me. Good luck!

  • Reply Ben Zabulis January 1, 2017 at 7:02 am

    To be honest I have found that text-book language is okay for starters but only by living in a place can you pick up the nuances of a language not to mention modern phrases and slang of course. In reality, people speak quite differently to how the language books suggest – I have certainly found this with Cantonese here in Hong Kong and if you think about it, English is no different.

    • Reply Migrating Miss January 3, 2017 at 11:05 am

      I agree! I have noticed in English we often don’t finish whole sentences, or stop and change the direction of a sentence halfway through. This makes it so much harder to understand, especially in a group conversation! In Spanish I’m ok with one on one but put me and a group and I have no personality and no ability to interject with comments of my own!

  • Reply Ioanna January 21, 2017 at 9:52 pm

    Great post! I agree that you need some kind of a base before you move somewhere to build upon! Starting from scratch is confusing, hard and might seem impossible to learn anything!

    I think people sometimes overemphasize the miraculous learning process when abroad 😉 it’s faster, but there is no miracle involved 🙂

    • Reply Migrating Miss January 22, 2017 at 2:11 pm

      Thanks! I definitely could have benefited from studying more before I moved to Spain. Starting from scratch was much more difficult, especially when I really needed to learn quickly in the beginning to set myself up! There is definitely no miracle haha, great way to put it!

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