6 Reasons why living in a foreign country WON’T make you fluent in the language

Advantages of living in a foreign country

1. Access to native speakers

Finding native speakers to practice with can be difficult, especially if you’re learning a language that is uncommon in your home country. Living in a foreign country is a surefire way to have an unlimited supply of native speakers to practice with.

2. Exposure to intricacies of local language

Slang and colloquial expressions (“gotta go” vs. “have to go”), as well as regional vocabulary (“trash” vs. “rubbish”) or dialects are tough to fully absorb if you’re not surrounded by native speakers. Not to mention more basic words that we might take for granted-just remember if you’re in a Spanish speaking country and see a red octagonal sign that says “ALTO”, it doesn’t mean “tall”…

Why you’re not getting better even if you’re living abroad

1. You’re not speaking the language enough to build muscle memory

Summary: To speak a language fluently, you need to do thousands of speaking reps to develop muscle memory in your mouth. If the majority of your interactions with native speakers are limited to short exchanges at the store or restaurant, you won’t be getting enough high quality reps to see a noticeable improvement in your speaking. No matter what country you live in, you’d see a much greater improvement if you spent 15 minutes each day doing structured speaking practice like I describe here.

2. The range of conversations you have in the language is limited

Summary: Becoming fluent requires being able to talk about a wide range of topics. It is very likely that as a foreigner, the majority of your conversations with natives will be about ordering food, buying tickets, booking transport, or asking for directions. Unless you are proactive about seeking out conversation, you may find that your interactions with natives are limited.

4. You can’t understand what natives say

Summary: Conversation with natives is only a good learning tool if you can understand what’s being said to you. If you can understand 60–90%, the level of conversation is hard enough to challenge you, but easy enough that you can improve by paying attention to context clues and speech patterns. If your comprehension is below 60%, then conversation with a native isn’t fun and productive, it’s just a struggle.

5. Natives prefer to speak to you in English

Summary: If the native speakers that you encounter are not patient or accommodating enough, you may find it more comfortable to revert to English, which limits the amount of muscle memory practice you’re doing in the target language.

6. You’re not putting in additional hours to learn the language

Summary: Adults need to practice active learning in order to improve. This means that no matter how much you listen to native speakers or surround yourself in the culture (passive learning), unless you spend a significant amount of time practicing and studying in a disciplined way, you won’t improve as fast as you want to improve.

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Data scientist, global health researcher, language learner

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Akshay Swaminathan

Akshay Swaminathan

Data scientist, global health researcher, language learner

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