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They say the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. They say go to the country where its spoken. They say if you can, live there.
What they dont tell you about that method is that at first, its 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 Ill learn when I get there!.
Oh my niave self, I could slap you.
For the last 5 months Ive been confused, frustrated, elated, exhausted, proudand a myriad of other emotions I cant even name. Learning a language is certainly a rollercoaster ride.
Choosing to learn a language in a country where its spoken seems like a logical idea, and it is a good one, but not without its drawbacks. Sure you have more opportunities to speak the language and to go out and put into practice what youve learned, particularly with native speakers, but if you arrive knowing next to nothing, its not going to be that easy to just pick it up.
Moving to Spain to learn Spanish makes sense. But 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. Ill 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 couldnt.
But what about all that talk of learning more in a week on holiday than years at school?
Ive 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 Id had a basis of knowledge in Spanish, then Id be miles ahead of where I am now. Learning a language abroad 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 its spoken.
So how fast can you learn a language? It depends where you live, and on your job, and how much effort you put in. 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 isnt 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 doesnt speak your language has its perks, I think its 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 youre in a group situation and youre the silent one in the corner. Awkward.
If I could move abroad to learn a language again, Id do it differently. Id 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 thats 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 hadnt 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.
Although Spain is obviously one of the best countries to learn Spanish, I wouldnt say I can now travel to a lot of Spanish speaking countries and be fine. Learning a language abroad means youll learn a lot of the dialect of where you are, and if youre travelling elsewhere within the country or to another country that speaks the same language, youll need to make an effort to learn the differences!
In short, moving to a country to learn a language isnt necessarily the easiest way to do it but I still think its worth a shot.
If youre thinking about it, dont be discouraged! I still feel like Ive learnt much faster than I would otherwise, but I just could have made it easier on myself (but lets face it, I never do that) by making more of an effort to learn Spanish before I arrived in Spain.
So heres some tips, if youre looking to learn a language in its home country.
- Choose a place where you wont 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 youre 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?
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