How To Not Learn a Foreign Language When Abroad for 6 Months
I left for Spain with a carry-on. Six months later, I returned home. Judging by my Spanish skills, it was as if I never stepped beyond my front door. What went wrong?
Six months should be plenty of time to get conversationally fluent. That is, if you practice regularly. Two hours a day would’ve been enough to make leaps. Unfortunately, daydreaming about speaking multiple languages is not the same as putting in the work to actually improve.
The following combination of factors contributed to my lack of improvement.
#1 I was abroad for work
Even though the company language where I worked was English, I was virtually surrounded by Spanish speakers. However, for convenience (ahum, for my convenience) we spoke mostly English. It was faster and less prone to misunderstandings. With a heavy workload, a small team and a full schedule, the focus was on getting the work done and moving the company ahead. Not on helping the intern (le me) learn a language for fun.
Me being the only non-Spanish-speaking person, it had made sense that I made more of an effort to assimilate. But due to time restrictions, I didn’t want to hold the others up. Then again, maybe this is me just trying to make yet another excuse.
#2 Abroad during pandemic
A pandemic is not the best time to meet or interact with new people. Normally, living abroad is filled with interactions with locals, at the shops, restaurants, on the streets. Now, any form of social interaction is the very last thing people want.
I stayed in a tiny village in Spain. When going on a walk there, everyone (me included) immediately crossed the street upon spotting a fellow human in the far distance. Meeting strangers was effectively ruled out.
#3 I was a lazy beach and didn’t set aside a fixed time or schedule to study or practice
I made the mistake thinking I’d magically absorb the language just by being physically present in the country. Passive exposure does help. My friend who I stayed with was in virtual meetings nearly all the time. At the beginning I didn’t understand a word. All I heard was a continuous stream of tongue rolling sounds. Towards the end of my stay, I started being able to distinguish words and largely grasp the context of their conversations.
Of course you exchange a “Hello” and “That will be €4,95 please” at the local store, but it’s always the same. There’s no buildup or progressive climb in difficulty of vocabulary extended beyond Supermarket 101.
#4 I relied heavily on my Spanish friend
Usually when traveling abroad, I am all by myself. Traveling alone means you’re fully self-reliant. There’s no one to help you out on the spot, to guide you through a city, or do the word for you when you are outdoors. You are forced to figure it all out yourself and communicate in a way that locals understand you.
Well, guess what. During my stay in Spain I did nothing on my own. Always together with my Spanish friend, I would shy away from talking, embarrassed for their reaction, and just let them do the word. Partly out of shyness; mostly because of pure convenience.
This is one of the reasons why I prefer traveling solo. It forces you out of your comfort zone and speeds up language learning.
Don’t waste an opportunity to improve your language skills by miles when you are in the country of a language you want to learn. So don’t do what I did.
- Even if the focus is not language learning, you should consider dedicating some time to improve. What you learn can be directly applied at the job, or (in a normal situation) on the streets. It’ll save you time deciphering foreign words you still haven’t learned.
- Take time out of your day to study the local language, even if it’s just 30 mins. The payoff is feeling less like a lost, helpless sheep that cannot voice its needs when out and about.
- Don’t be a lazy beech and lean heavily on your friends. Screw your ego, make the dumb mistakes and prepare to be laughed at by your friends. Entertainment for them, language learning progress for you.
- When choosing where to live abroad, if the budget allows it, I would likely opt out of co-living with fellow English speakers, especially if the goal is local immersion and to improve your language skills. Otherwise you might be lazy together and wonder how come you didn’t make any progress. Remember, the right environment accounts to your successes.