So, in case I haven’t mentioned, my PhD is about students who came to Barcelona to study abroad. In fact, I’m measuring how much their speaking fluency improved over the course of their 3 months taking Spanish class and living here.
Guess what? They didn’t improve much! But they’re studying abroad, you say, isn’t that the best method?
Is Studying Abroad Best?
That depends. A lot.
Personally, I went from knowing a ton of grammar and speaking French a bit – to almost fluent during my first experience studying abroad. Actually, I was 19 years old and staying with a host family in Switzerland for 4 months, so I had a complete immersion experience. However, I could have spoken English to the father of the family, who had lived in New York, but I refused to speak English.
Next, I went from absolutely zero Spanish to an advanced level in 8 Months in Barcelona. While it’s regressed a bit due to lack of practice and working in English, I did originally score 100% on the speaking portion of the DELE B2 exam, and 90% overall). So, was it the magic of being abroad that made this happen?
Not really. Of course, opportunities are more prevalent in an immersion environment, but you still have to seize them.
In fact, since my French had regressed so much (attrited, in linguistic speak), I hired a French tutor for 3 months last year – February to April for 2 hours a week. I spent 8 hours a week practicing (2 with my tutor, 2 doing homework, 2 watching a film, and approximately 8 hours per month at a French meetup group). In May, I visited a friend in Switzerland and found I had reached, if not surpassed, the level I was at years before! It’s since regressed quite a bit, but I know I can get it back up by investing time and effort.
So, I don’t believe that immersion is always necessary. Practice, motivation, and a positive attitude, though – those are crucial.
Well, you can check out my post on 5 Language Learning Myths to find out a bit more on my opinion about that.
Bottom line: It’s not best if you don’t MAKE it the best experience you’ve had.
How I Learned Spanish In 8 Months
Well, a whole lot of hard work! Yes, it helped that I was in Spain, of course. However, if you truly use your environment to your advantage, and study the grammar, vocabulary and expressions, of course it’s better to be immersed in the language.
As an example, a student from one of my university classes once decided to take my class by distance – an option that exists here in Spain where you choose to only take the final exam and do a final assignment. They were studying abroad and felt that a semester away would be more beneficial than taking my English class in person. When the student returned, their English was not a whole lot better than before they left, which led to a discussion.
Oh, you mean I need to make an effort.
Yes! Of course. A huge effort. Sorry to break it to you, but learning a language – as fun and amazing as it is – isn’t done by osmosis. Actually, that goes for any language, in any country, in my opinion!
5 Top Tips To Make The Most of Your Language Immersion Experience
Just don’t. Refuse. Don’t worry if people look at you strangely, or keep insisting on using your first language the first few times. Keep insisting. Explain to them politely that you are trying to learn. That’s what I did to the father of the family in Switzerland, and it was the best decision I made there.
2. Choose friend groups, volunteer work, jobs and hobbies that involve speaking
Have you heard of Meetup.com? It has exchanges and meetups in many cities all over the world. Some are free and some are reasonably priced, but it’s a great way to meet people who are learning the same language you are. Alternatively, you can find a language exchange partner.
One of the meetup groups I attend is a language exchange of English-Spanish-French, so it’s great to practice all three!
3. Watch movies. A LOT of them. Use subtitles until you don’t need to anymore
While practicing speaking is important, listening is too! Movies are the best way to learn colloquial vocabulary, and encounter vocabulary from situations that may not be in your textbook.
4. Take a class, even if you know a little of the language.
Grammar is important! Vocabulary is important, too! Actually, having a grammatical basis will help you learn a language faster, so why not take a class? Even a few hours of private tutoring every week can help, as I mentioned it did for my French in the section about.
5. Get out of your comfort zone, every day.
Well, I can’t stress this enough! Is it awkward to join meetup groups? Is it easier to find a hiking group that speaks English when you are trying to learn Spanish? Of course! However, finding a group that speaks your second language is going to be much more productive. In fact, the first year I was in Barcelona I refused to join English speaking meetup groups. I did everything I possibly could to avoid speaking my native language. Now that I’m confident in speaking Spanish, I join groups in English, too.
How To Stay Motivated (& Motivate Students)
Well, what if you’re not abroad? How can you make the most of your environment at home? What if you’re abroad and you, or your students keep getting discouraged?
Here are some tips:
- Keep a progress diary of what you learn every day or week
- Set realistic goals and track how you are achieving them
- Try something you’ve always wanted to try – in your target language. For example, I took my first painting class in 10 years in Spanish. I hired a sports nutritionist, personal trainer, and even went on (a fake) real estate shopping trip to some show apartments, just to learn new vocabulary! Even if you’re not in the market to buy a place, it’s fun to look around and practice vocabulary for the day you’ll need it.
- Use motivational posters and quotes (in your native or target language) and post them around you – on your walls, on your desktop, on your phone. They really help! Want free posters? Make sure you have access to my free printables library, or click the button below.
Well, I hope these tips were helpful! What is your experience studying or working abroad? This is one of my favourite topics, so I would really love some comments below!
Happy Teaching (and language learning)!
P.S. Photo fans, the main image for today’s post is one I took right here on my terrace in Barcelona, Spain.
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