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?

Curvy font “Hola” sign with orange background and light bulbs on a brick wall
Curvy font “Hola” sign with orange background and light bulbs on a brick wall
Being able to say “hello” in your target language won’t impress anyone — Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

#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.

#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.

#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.

#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.

  • 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.

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Writing my way to progress. Topics: personal growth, life lessons, tooling & (failed) ventures.

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