Magic is wonderful. When I was a child and lost a tooth, the Tooth Fairy would magically leave a 25¢ coin underneath my pillow while I slept; Santa Clause would bring me presents on Christmas Eve night; early on Easter Sunday morning, the Easter Bunny would hide chocolate eggs and a basket of goodies for me and my brothers to find. As we get older it becomes our turn to make magic for our own children yet I have met quite a few grown adults who still naively believe in something quite magical: they think that living in a foreign country will magically teach them a foreign language.
I have met dozens of people who have spent months or years of their life in a foreign country and are barely conversational in the language of that country or know almost nothing. Most of them are expatriates. What is an expatriate? An expatriate is someone who moves to a foreign country, usually for economic reasons, with a particular goal in mind and who fully plans on returning back to his or her country of origin after achieving that goal.
Many Mexican immigrants to the USA are actually expatriates, which is why they can live there for thirty years or more and never learn much English. They come to get a better paying job, plain and simple. In their expatriate communities they often fly the Mexican flag, have their own restaurants, have street venders who sell Mexican products and they all speak Chicano Spanish. If you can talk to your neighbors, watch TV, buy a car, go shopping and get a get a job without knowing good English, why bother to learn it?
I don’t mean to harp on the Mexicans. All expatriates are like this. There are similar Chinese speaking and English speaking communities in most big cities in the world. If all you ever do is stay within your own little expatriate bubble you will probably not learn the language of your host country no matter how long you live there.
College Study Abroad Programs
Here is a pretty typical scenario, at least in the USA: Jenny has studied German for four years in high school and for the past two years at her university and feels ready for a “cultural” experience. She spends a lot of money and goes with a group of fellow German students and a fun German professor to spend a few months in Munich. When she comes home, she finds that she is only a tiny bit better at German than when she left.
Why can’t pretty little Jenny speak better German? It’s because she spent most of her time hanging out with her fellow American students and English speaking Germans. When she went to buy things, she found that the German required was not very difficult and that a great deal of shop keepers, waiters, etc. could speak better English then she could German. Although she was promised language immersion, she sheltered herself with her native language.
Do Your Own Preparation First
The US government ranks language proficiency with a five point scale:
1 – Basic knowledge of the language: You memorized a bunch of key words and phrases but can’t do much more than carry on very short conversation.
2 – Limited proficiency: You have studied all of the grammar principals and have a functional vocabulary. You can get your point across and understand the main idea of what people say to you but the language barrier is still very present.
3 – Proficiency: You can converse at length about a certain number of topics but start to have big problems when you stray from those topics. You still get things wrong here and there but few people have trouble understanding you and vice versa.
4 – Advanced proficiency: Your are fluent. Your accent is noticeable but slight and you can function in the language almost as freely as most native speakers.
5 – Near Native Proficiency: Your command of the language is as good as or better than most native speakers. People have to pay very close attention to notice traces of your native accent.
If you don’t have enough desire to get at least to a solid 2 in the target language before you start your language immersion it’s doubtful that you will get much better than that. I recommend getting to a 3 which is entirely possible for most languages. Getting to a 3 first will make it so getting to a 4 in the foreign country becomes very doable and even fun and enjoyable.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone!
You can study a foreign language all you want and for as long as you want but it is doubtful that you will get beyond a level 3 without some good language immersion experience. When in the country, banish your native language from your mind. Force yourself to eat, drink and sleep in your target language. If you can, don’t go with a big group of people from your native country. If that is unavoidable, ditch the group and interact with the locals as much as possible. Start conversations with strangers in the park. Foreign experience is necessary for a high level of fluency but simply being there is not enough.