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Can you pick up a language by living abroad?

By Memrise Blog

I love travelling, and for me that’s always gone hand in hand with learning languages. It’s often an interest in a particular country that leads me its language, with culture, landscapes and delicious foods prioritised over the verb tables, declensions and alphabets that come with it. Some of my fondest moments with any language are when I’m abroad, and because I enjoy it so much, I wholeheartedly recommend travelling to any prospective language learners.

But in my enthusiasm lies the danger of scoring a damaging own goal. According to another of the antiglots’ famous arguments for not learning a language: “My niece went to Argentina for a year and came back speaking fluent Spanish. That’s what you’ve got to do really, you’ve got to live there to learn the language.” As my face turns purple and my breaths get shorter, they might deliver the final blow: “Like you did.”

This leaves me torn. Of course I want people to learn languages, and I want them to travel too so they can see the difference they make. But if I talk too much about travelling and languages in the same breath, people might get the wrong idea. Many will say they will never have the chance to live abroad, so they won’t ever learn another language.

Everyone can fantasise from the comfort of their living room about chatting away in Spanish and living in a quaint town in the south of Spain, and it’s easy to blame monolingualism on the fact things turned out differently. In your other life, you’re sure you would have picked it up like everybody else does; but while there are bills to pay, dogs to walk, and mouths to feed, it’s not going to happen.

This position is a basic misunderstanding of cause and effect, although it’s still fairly common. Like the age-old chicken and egg conundrum, we all need to ask ourselves: do we go abroad to learn a language, or do we learn a language to go abroad.

First of all, you can’t just “pick up” a language by living abroad. Moving to a totally new country for the first time is probably not even the right environment to try to. Living abroad can be a very alienating experience. You’re far from friends, family, street-signs you can read and food you recognise. You constantly hit brick walls when asking for things in shops and have near breakdowns when opening letters from the council about rubbish collection. Few people will sit down and patiently go through those letters for six hours with a dictionary. The rest of us just run screaming to the nearest English speaker, to find out whether those numbers are how much you have to pay or just a phone number. Worst of all, this linguistically parasitic existence can become quite comfortable, especially if you have nice friends and neighbours. You become fluent in ‘smile-and-point’ and perhaps learn some phrases to impress your occasional visitors from home. But when you find yourself back on the plane home with your bags all packed, you’ll be wondering where all that time went. How are you going to answer those “So are you fluent now?” questions when you land? Should you even feel fluent by now?

The antiglots will admit this side of things if you push them. Before long they’ll mention their cousin Bill who lived in the Algarve for 18 years and came back without a word of Portuguese. But you hear about their mate Jim who went off to work on a farm in Sicily for a few months. There wasn’t a word of English for miles. He just picked up Italian and speaks it fluently to this day, without picking up a book in his life. What about that? Well, convincing as this evidence may seem, I remain sceptical as to whether that is the reality. If we spoke to Jim, I’m sure he’d tell us how for the first three months he went to bed with a splitting headache, that he felt so unsure of how to talk to his hosts that he felt sick, he made an enormous number of linguistic and social faux-pas, and all because he was in an entirely immersed environment without knowing a single word of Italian and felt helplessly mute. It was months until he finally felt comfortable in the language, and that process was far from seamless.

I am hesitant when people say going abroad is essential for everyone learning a language. Ultimately, regardless of wherever you are in the world, immersed or not, there are still just three fundamental aspects to learning any language: vocab, grammar, and usage. With the right materials and careful planning, you can work on these at home just as well as abroad.

But there is an obvious flaw in my argument: I live in Budapest now, where I’m trying to learn the language. How can I justify everything I’ve just said while sitting here, gazing at the gleaming rooftops of Pest with a mouthful of chimney cake?

Well, I’m hooked. My first ever immersion experience was in Russia, and was everything I’ve described. The first months passed in delirious, confused haze. It was December before I finally got what I thought I’d asked for from the kiosk. I learnt the word for ‘liver’ after a fatal error at a pie shop. The complete lack of English speakers meant it was a full year before I spoke well enough to really make friends. But on returning to England, I felt such a huge sense of loss that I immediately knew that I had to go back out there. I missed going to the supermarket feeling like an enormous achievement, or successfully ordering a takeaway over the phone making me smile all week. I missed speaking Russian every day, and the pure comedy of my mistakes. I’ve been longing once again for that moment when it suddenly all clicks, when you realise you’ve gone a whole morning without reaching for the dictionary.

But that doesn’t mean I’ll make any more progress here than I would at home. Since arriving, my Hungarian has become stagnant. I can hardly speak, I can only really bark in it. The momentum I got going at home has completely petered out, as anyone who checks my Memrise account will see. So even though I’m semi-immersed in the language every day, pálinka and chimney cake will not get me fluent. It’s time to hit the books again and get memrising.