Over the years many times I have been asked by students in various language learning contexts whether a language can really be learned only abroad or ‘at home’, in your own country as well. Well, here is some good news for those of you who might not have the money to travel to a different country just to practice your language knowledge: it is absolutely not essential to live abroad to become fluent in a language, because development is more complex than just your current geography.
Total Immersion …or Total Panic?
I met many ESL students ‘fresh off the boat’ from different Asian countries coming to Australia to try their luck, learn English, get their IELTS and a visa; who were really struggling. In many cases their families had made a huge effort so that they could study in the country for a while, but they had no idea how to go about constructing their new lives and even felt that they were betraying’ their parents by not progressing fast enough. This is because in many cases students arrive abroad with too low a level of English. In my opinion the best ‘investment’ of your time, money and energy is to go (–if you have the opportunity at all) only after you have achieved a level of at least a B1 (intermediate, according to the Common European Framework Reference, equaling band 4.0-5.0 on IELTS). If you do so, you will probably already have a decent foundation to your knowledge of the language, as well as useful study habits that you can build onto once in the country.
In Australia and elsewhere I have also met many learners of English, who, despite having lived abroad maybe even for years, were having a hard time improving their English, or getting the required IELTS band score for their studies. The reason for this in many cases is that their mistakes became fossilized, and their English reached a ‘plateau’, from which they have a hard time taking off. If you learn a language from scratch in a new country, chances are that in many cases you do not receive the necessary feedback on your errors that would allow you to keep increasing your level and confidence, fluency in the language, while paying attention to accuracy (both in speaking and writing) as well.
How You Live There
If you are keen to improve your language knowledge, a lot depends on what your daily routine is like if you live abroad. There is no magic in the air in England or the water in the USA, that is to say no guarantee that just by being in a country where the language you want to develop is spoken you will ultimately become better at it. I have met many expats in various countries, who, due to the relatively isolated lives they were living somehow ‘managed to’ learn practically no English/Spanish/etc. Just because you live abroad, you do not miraculously absorb any grammar or vocabulary. You still need to make an effort.
A few ways to get yourself more exposed to the language is by really immersing yourself in the culture. This can be achieved by getting a job, making native friends, trying to evenly develop all your skills, and maybe considering doing your language year in the countryside, not the capital or a large city.
Getting a Job
This one is perhaps obvious. If you find a workplace where your activities are not completely mechanical or isolated from other colleagues, you will ultimately be forced to communicate, practice the language live more. I saw this difference in my students in Australia. Those who got a shelf stacker job in a supermarket were less fluent than those who worked as kitchen hands, where communication was inevitable.
This might be made easier if you have a hobby or a community that you are a fan or a member of already. If you are religious, the local church might help you fit in smoother. Similarly, if you are a video gamer or do a certain sport, using the internet you may find out about local opportunities as to when, where and how you can meet likeminded people. (www.gumtree.com or www.craigslist.org are good starting points for this, for example).
Developing All Your Skills
Even though when we want to find out how good somebody’s English/Spanish/French is, we usually ask ‘Do you speak … (English/Spanish/French/etc)?’, it does not mean that polishing your spoken accuracy and fluency is all there is to improving your English. Speaking might indeed be considered the most important skill in most learning contexts, but it is not at all the only skill you will need to be able to get by in your new life and/or achieve your IELTS dream bad score. Make sure you also read more and more in the language, watch things in it on the internet, and maybe write a journal or chat/email with natives a lot.
Consider Going to the Country!
We live in an increasingly globalized world, which ultimately also tends to mean that capital cities are full of expats of various nationalities, many of them without even speaking the local language. Interacting with them might teach you many things about life, their cultures, etc, but if you want a ‘purer’ language learning experience and being surrounded by more natives, consider the less obvious and go to a smaller place. The locals at less central towns also tend to be more interested in you, therefore more helpful as well, in my experience, than people in a big city.
Learning at Home
If you do not have the opportunity to go abroad, not even for a year or less to learn a language, do not despair either. It is absolutely possible to learn, even become proficient in it at home, in my personal experience. (I learned two foreign languages ‘at home’ like this too: English and Spanish, before I first moved to the countries where these are spoken).
For this to happen though it is important that you be consistent, get yourself enough exposure, develop efficient learning habits, set clear (micro) goals, and get some professional guidance (=lessons) to raise the questions that have come up while you were studying on your own.
…means loving the journey towards a better English, not just the idea of already speaking it fluently. If you truly enjoy the process towards this goal, you will make learning (English) your lifestyle. You will get into the habit of prioritizing your daily learning time over other, tempting but perhaps not so formative/constructive activities, and as a result development will be inevitable.
Even if you do not live in a country where the language you want to learn is spoken, you can create an artificial little English ‘island’ in your life for yourself. Today you have access to the internet where you can find truckloads of free, authentic materials on YouTube, TED, blogs about different topics of interest for you, etc. Make sure you exploit these! People learned and even became fluent at languages at home in the past too, but now you have the extra advantage of having more and cheaper access to authentic, good quality target language materials. Tap into it.
Not everybody learns the same way, not everybody has the same personality (e.g introverted versus extroverted), or even learning objectives (e.g to become better at informal/formal speaking or reading academic texts). Therefore it is important that you gradually discover not only what is interesting for you (see above paragraph), but also how you want to learn; and then keep doing these practices. Having said this, it is also crucial to sometimes push yourself beyond your comfort zone or interests. Just because you are an introvert, for example, it might not mean that you should afford yourself the luxury of not trying (perhaps even harder?!) to develop your speaking skills, if you want to pass IELTS with the score you need.
On this blog we have talked a lot about goal setting already, but mostly only for the long run. Successful (language) learners know how to set themselves micro goals as well though. This means planning what you will be doing for your improvement in the month ahead, week and even day as consciously of what exactly you want to develop as possible. For example you might love watching a certain series on Netflix in English, but if your listening skill is already up to the standard you will need in your IELTS exam, you might want to admit this to yourself and make concrete plans to improve a weaker skill, e.g your writing.
Whether or not you are living abroad, if you want to speed up your development, you should probably take official lessons from a qualified teacher as well, who can advise you regarding (exam) strategy, give you feedback on your (productive) skills (i.e speaking and writing) to avoid fossilization of your mistakes. Learners who acquire a language too fast or in ‘deep water’, for example by moving abroad with zero language knowledge and then seeking no help there tend to develop their own fossilized (deep-rooted) mistakes and plateau (=get stuck at) a certain level.
In conclusion: No, it is not indispensable that you move abroad to learn a language, because with the right approach and level of awareness learning might very well happen at home, or vice versa: without the right strategy might not happen even if living abroad.