There are different ways in which you can learn a new language: Taking an intensive course, having foreign friends, listening to music in the language you want to learn, watching movies/TV in the target language with subtitles, etc. However, according to my personal experience, I would say that living abroad is one of the best options to improve your language skills.
No matter how many classes and courses you take, that won’t be enough. Don’t get me wrong! Of course studying the grammar rules, verbs, and all the aspects that a school, college, institute, or university teaches is really useful, but in order to be fluent, or as close as possible, the best environment would be to live in that country. What we are taught is only theory, but there is a massive difference between theory and practice.
In my case, I started studying English since I was in school, but I was taught by a Colombian teacher in Colombia. It meant I couldn’t practice anywhere else, not even in the classroom as we were speaking Spanish all the time – even the explanations of English grammar rules were in Spanish. Anyhow, I was always the best in my English class with good marks, but when I had the chance to go to the United States for the first time, I realised my English was rubbish! Knowing the verbs and the rules weren’t enough to understand a native speaker when they were talking to me or to express what I wanted to.
Every time I went to USA, I tried my best to survive on my own, and step by step I started to improve, but not by too much as my trips to USA were for 1 month maximum! Once I got the chance to come to the UK to study for one year, I realised my English wasn’t as bad as before but still not great (even though some people say it is good). I have proved that living in a country that speaks the target language is the best opportunity to learn all the tools you need in order to speak decent English, in my case.
Living in a foreign country will help you in different ways:
Better understanding of the culture
It is never the same to read National Geographic magazines, watch History Channel or listen to your family and friends’ stories of holidays in another country to know about the culture. There is nothing better than experiencing everything for yourself. By living in the country, surrounded by local people, you will be able to understand certain aspects like why tea is so important in UK, or go against some stereotypes, for example that British people are cold and serious.
You will be able to connect with speakers of your target language, and therefore you’ll be able to pick up on mannerisms and expressions that you can only learn by living in that country and communicating with native speakers. In the end, learning a language is not just about learning grammar rules, vocabulary and pronunciation; it is more than that.
Grow as a person
Especially if you are on your own, with no family around, being forced to survive in a different country with a different language makes you think critically and be more mature. It is not only how to order in a restaurant, but aspects you need to express and say in daily life. Living in another culture can make you a stronger and wiser person.
It is important that you are motivated to learn the language and that you make an effort to do it. Living in a foreign country doesn’t mean you will automatically speak the language in the blink of an eye. Many people have this wrong idea that if you move abroad, this will make you automatically fluent in the language. It takes time and it depends on how much effort you are making to learn the language. Actually, there are many people who live in a country for years, and they never learn the language. A clear example of this is my uncle (Spanish speaker). He has been living in the United States for more than 20 years and guess what? He is not even able to order food in a restaurant! The thing is that he didn’t bother to try and he was always with Latinos; he was basically in a bubble! and I am pretty sure that the same situation happens to many people out there.
If you are starting, it may be difficult to adapt to a new place with a different language you don’t know, but you will get there if you really want to.
For those who have the right level to survive, spending some time in the country could be a really great way to push your skills into the next level. Don’t get trapped in a bubble!
There are so many things to be gained from this experience, and the benefits go far beyond learning a language! However, if you’re not able to travel abroad, there’s no reason why you should be discouraged. If you are really determined to learn a language, all the resources you need are easily available, and your success is only a matter of time.