Traveling is a great motivator for learning a new language
Welcome, aspiring polyglot! Often people who endeavor to learn a new language outside of the school system is because they plan to travel. While language courses can help, they are rarely designed to help people with their travel experience. More often than not, the course is designed around an exam or a standardized test. Traveling, however, has nothing to do with a test or an exam.
In fact, travel is better than a test or an exam because when you travel you don't have to worry about failing. When you travel, you will learn that people care more about your effort than about your perfect language. This is especially true for Americans who travel. With expectations at their absolute lowest, showing up bilingual and conversing with the locals or even just being able to maintain a conversation, on the way to bilingualism, you will stand out and make a lasting impression on those who you meet around the world.
Learn a foreign language abroad
While there are countless immersion programs that you can get involved in while you travel, going it alone can be just as beneficial as going with a group. However, it requires that you approach things from a different angle. When you travel with a group, the social experience is almost expected and nearly always unavoidable. However, it can be better to be alone when it comes time to decide what you do and where you go.
That said, if you are not a planner, and have no desire to become one, going with a designated group or immersion program is probably your best bet. There are several options that vary in cost and efficacy, but at the very least they are structures with a built-in social factor. If you want to check out some of the options that are available to you, particularly if you are between 15 and 25 years of age, you can see some of the options in this article:
If you want to learn a language abroad, you have to be willing to go out and meet people. This is a requirement as the only way to really learn a language is to use it. In order to use it, you're going to need to at the very least be willing to put yourself into positions where you don't feel comfortable. Growth happens outside your comfort zone, and if you've chosen to be a solo traveler, then it is your responsibility to seek out opportunity.
Join a Language Class
Common struggles are often unifying factors. When you join language classes you have the opportunity not only to improve your ability, often at a reasonable price, you also have the opportunity to spend time with people who are in a similar situation. Whether someone is attending the class out of pure interest or because they need to better express themselves in a relationship or because they moved to a new country seeking better opportunity, one thing remains constant; you are all there because you are somewhere you struggle to communicate.
Funnily enough, in these classes you will meet people who speak the target language better than they speak your native language, yet you will form a bond irrespective of this. Everyone in that class is likely there because they struggle to communicate and are frustrated by their inability to express themselves in away they find adequate. That means you are all there for the same reason. Two or more people working toward a common goal, facing a common struggle, often that is a recipe for a strong and long lasting friendship.
Once you have friends, especially ones who you are learning with, you will have no problem enhancing your language proficiency. However, it is imperative that you do not fall into the trap of only spending time with people who speak your native language. If you go abroad and speak English the entire time, you are going to miss out on what should be an overall life changing adventure. The reason most people fall into this trap is because it is easy and comfortable, but the end result is a shallow and unpleasant experience.
After the language courses
After, or during, the language courses, the next step is getting out into the world and seeing just how far your abilities will take you. This is where leaning into your interests becomes all the more important. Once you've finished off your language courses you will again find that you are alone in a foreign country. While there are many things you can do, there are some that might set you up for success in ways that others simply will not.
1. Join a sports club.
This might seem simple, or perhaps not, but joining a sports league is a phenomenal way to meet people and make friends. As stated above, going through common struggles is how people develop deep and long lasting bonds. Sports is no exception. The advantage here is that you don't need to speak a language fluently in order to be useful in a game. You might not be able to ask or answer questions, but you know that if the ball goes in the net that's a good thing.
Sports transcend language barriers and can offer an enriching experience to anyone willing to put themselves out there. At the end of the day, in order to excel at something you must first be willing to look like a fool. You may feel that way the first day you approach your new team, whatever sport you choose, but after a few weeks or months your team will look at you with the utmost respect because most of them no they would never risk doing what you did. If sports are not your thing, fear not. There are more than one way to approach this.
2. Art and language travels
One of the reasons people in the US struggle so much with studying history and art is because most of the time we look at pictures and read about the things that happened. When you travel you can take out the middle man and go see the places where important events took place. You can go out and visit the museums where all the most famous art is held. The advantage of taking the risk to adventure abroad is that you get to see things you probably never thought you would and not in a book or on a PowerPoint slide, but live in the flesh.
For those who are unable to do this, there is a way to do it from the comfort of your own home and you can read more on that here:
But the reality of the situation is nothing replaces the feeling of being there. Between the ability to ask people questions about the things you're seeing and the amount of tours offered in just about any language you can think of, going to museums, cathedrals, and other places of interest while you are abroad has a tremendous ROI. That said, some people aren't interested in sports, art, or history. What is left for those people?
3. Bars, clubs, and other shenanigans
While bars and clubs are certainly places you can learn a language, they are not ideal. That said, if it is really what you have on your mind then go for it. If you decide that bars are your ideal place to practice, or even that you might enjoy practicing at a bar or club from time to time, then there are some thing you need to keep in mind. Of these, the first thing to remember is that alcohol does not make you speak your target language better.
Many people erroneously believe that they speak the language they are learning better when they are under the influence. This is simply not the case. What happens is that when you are drinking your inhibitions are lowered and their for you are less afraid not better, per se. If you can take this feeling and transfer it to the times when you are sober, then you may have figured out a cheat code of your own. Most people's struggle with language breaks down to them being afraid, that is why you need to be getting out of your comfort zone every chance you get.
Beyond increasing your knowledge, you will also expand your friend group which will pay dividends in the future. Having fellow travelers to explore with is absolutely amazing and people rarely have the same vocabulary and the phrases of choice vary from person to person, that is the advantage of going to bars and speaking with locals. You will learn from native speakers who are always happy to talk about their life, country, and culture.
The power of basic phrases
Whether you want to learn Spanish, French, Chinese, Russian, or other languages, the power of basic phrases cannot be overstated. Simply ordering food is a perfect way to begin building your confidence as your progress deeper into your language trip. The best part is this can be done year round at just about any destination and the locals will notice your effort to speak the local language. Your language skills will develop faster if you use the language more, even if that means you're just grabbing food or visiting a museum to ask questions you had time to prepare beforehand.
If you are really struggling to find things to say try thinking, and writing, about your home country. Yes, people love to share their culture with newcomers and will be ecstatic if you take an interest in the things they are doing. However, in general people also want to hear about things outside of what they know and do day to day. Mastering basic phrases will help you gain confidence and through that confidence you will be able to continually progress and ascend to new heights.
When it comes to learning a second language few things work as well as complete immersion. This can be achieved through travel, but it is not quite that simple. When you are traveling alone, language study falls entirely on you. There is no one there to tell you to study or check up on your progress. For some, this is precisely why traveling abroad to work on their language is perfect. For others, it may turn out to be a detriment as isolating oneself is easier than making a fool of oneself. However, in order to be great you must be willing to risk being a fool. That does not mean you have to stay that way, though, and by traveling you will learn just how far you can take your abilities.
Learning a language is no easy feat, it will be difficult irrespective of how you approach it. But you can do difficult things and be great, so continue to do difficult things and be great. I will be here by your side endeavoring to do the same.
Be sure to check out Second Language Strategies to catch up on anything you missed, find me on Twitter or Instagram for some short form content. If you are struggling to get speaking in your target language, join our Discord! I look forward to seeing everyone’s progress in the months and years to come.