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

Many people trying to learn a new language believe that immersion-specifically living in a foreign country-is the best way to become fluent. But there are many reasons why living in a foreign country may not make you fluent:

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

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

3. You’re over the age of 14

4. You can’t understand what natives say

5. Natives prefer to speak to you in English

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

Before going into details, let’s talk about some advantages of living in a foreign country:

Advantages of living in a foreign country

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.

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”…

Language opens the door into culture, and for many learners understanding the culture is the ultimate goal. Living in a foreign country will allow you to experience the local culture in a way that simply cannot be simulated through self-study.

Now let’s talk about why your language skills may not improve much even if you live in a foreign country.

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

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.

Learning a language doesn’t just mean acquiring knowledge, like learning history or chemistry. Speaking a language is a physical skill that requires muscle memory, much like music or sports. If you want to speak a language fluently, you can’t just read and write and listen-you have to build muscle memory in your mouth, tongue and lips if you want to produce the sounds of a foreign language at native speed, on command.

How do you build muscle memory in your mouth? Well, how do pianists build muscle memory in their fingers? How to basketball players build muscle memory in their arms? The answer: REPS (repetitions). Musicians and athletes are well aware, if you want to build muscle memory, you have to do REPS, and lots of them.

As a language learner, you can get your speaking reps by either (a) doing structured speaking practice, usually on your own or with the help of a teacher, or (b) having a real-time conversation. In music or sports, these correspond to (a) doing drills or exercises, and (b) giving a performance or playing a game. But these two ways of building muscle memory are by no means equally effective. Just ask any baseball player, which would make him a better player, doing 10 hours of drills and exercises, or playing 10 hours of baseball games? While applying your practice to a game scenario is important and necessary, the real improvement comes from doing structured practice in the form of drills and exercises.

So what is the advantage of living in a foreign country? Well, it can certainly give you more opportunities to talk to native speakers, but talking to native speakers is the equivalent of “playing a game” or “giving a performance”, which we know isn’t as effective as structured practice. During a conversation with a native, you can’t stop and ask them to explain, you can’t go back and try again if you make a mistake, and you can’t control what the other person says and how they say it. While this type of exposure is fun and definitely important, for people who are starting to learn a language, it just isn’t as effective.

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.

Summary: Researchers have described a “critical period” until age 14 (approximately) within which young people can acquire languages passively, without active study. This means if you’re over 14, you need active study to acquire a language. Living in a foreign country is great for passive language learning (and thus young people) because of the sheer amount of immersion, but if you’re an adult, you should be trying to maximize your active study time, which doesn’t require moving to another country.

The critical period is a stage in early life when the nervous system is especially receptive to external stimuli. This is consistent with the common wisdom of introducing your kids to music or sports at a young age for optimal performance. While the critical period can apply to many types of learning, I find its relationship to language learning to be almost magical.

We’ve all seen it-children learn spoken language by mere osmosis, without ever being taught the alphabet or rules of grammar. This doesn’t just apply to the child’s first language, but also their second, third, fourth etc. Take the case of British polyglot Richard Simcott, whose daughter was exposed to over 5 languages from birth. But at some point we lose this remarkable ability, and we have to learn language like we learn any other subject or skill-through study and practice.

So what does this say about living in another country? If you are under the age of 14, or you have a child under the age of 14, living in a foreign country could greatly accelerate the language acquisition process. I would even venture to say that living in a foreign country is almost a guaranteed way to help a young person acquire a language just due to the sheer amount of potential immersion. Now, there are, of course, ways to mess this up. If you’re moving from America to France so that your kids learn French, but you enroll them in an international school where all the classes are taught in English, you just made learning French a lot harder for your kids. Kids just need exposure, and lots of it.

Adults (people over 14) are another story. We cannot learn just through immersion. Just try watching a couple seasons of a foreign TV show without subtitles and see how fluent you are by the end of it. Adults need to learn language by learning the rules of grammar, memorizing vocabulary, and training muscle memory in the mouth. This process is slow, and living in a foreign country will not accelerate it. The only thing that will accelerate your progress is the amount of time that you put into active study.

Immersion by living in a foreign country is a form of passive studying-you are taking in your surroundings, absorbing the sound of the native accent. But no adult can ever become fluent through passive study alone. For every hour you spend doing passive language practice, you should probably be doing somewhere between two and ten hours of active studying if you want to see substantial improvement. Active studying means doing structured speaking practice, audio dissection to improve listening comprehension, studying grammar, and learning vocabulary. When the choice is between passive learning and active learning, active learning is the way to go to maximize gains, whether at home or abroad.

Imagine you’re a budding basketball player. Which will make you a better player, buying season tickets and attending every Lakers game, or spending an hour a day working on your jump shot and dribbling in your own backyard?

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.

Stephen Krashen, a renowned linguist, says that comprehensible input is the key to learning a second language. In other words, if you don’t understand what you’re reading or hearing, there is no way for you to learn. Let’s make another sports analogy. If you have 2 weeks of experience playing basketball, are you going to substantially improve by playing a pickup game with NBA players? Probably not-it may be fun, but you just won’t keep up. You’re better off practicing on your own for now.

In the language realm, native speakers are the NBA players. Some of them speak very fast, some of them have incomprehensible accents, and some of them use advanced vocabulary. Unless you have the preparation necessary to deal with these unpredictable aspects of conversation, speaking with natives can be a discouraging, frustrating struggle.

A good rule of thumb that I use is 60–90% comprehension for productive listening practice. If you can understand 60–90% of whatever you’re hearing, the audio is difficult enough to be challenging and interesting, but easy enough that you can improve by paying attention to context clues and speech patterns. If you understand less than 60%, it’s not a productive learning exercise because you’re struggling to even understand the main ideas.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t talk to any natives until you hit 60% comprehension. Speaking with natives is fun and highly rewarding no matter what level you’re at-but if you’re a beginner, don’t rely on conversations with natives to improve your listening comprehension.

One technique that I highly recommend for ANYONE trying to improve their listening comprehension, regardless of your level, is audio dissection.

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.

Depending on where you’re living, who you’re around, and what type of people you’re interacting with, you may find that talking with native speakers isn’t as easy or comfortable as you expected. This can negatively impact your learning experience if native speakers would prefer that you just speak in English. It can also be difficult if you’re living in a country where English is very common. In these places, even if you initiate a conversation in another language, people may respond in English because they see that you’re not fluent in the target language. One way to mitigate this is by practicing lines like, “If it’s ok with you I would like to practice my ___”, or “Please forgive my ____, I just started learning and I want to improve.”

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.

Think of your language learning in two parts: passive learning and active learning. Passive learning is a great productive way to relax, like watching TV in another language, or listening to foreign music. On the other hand, active learning requires hard work, but it’s where the true gains happen. Active learning includes a) doing structured speaking practice, b) doing structured listening practice through audio dissection, c) reading with the intention of learning new words, etc.

Jack is a musician who likes to spend 1 hour each day listening to his favorite jazz pianists, and during that 1 hour he intermittently plays his piano here and there whenever he hears a cool phrase that he wants to try out. Jill, on the other hand, spends 45 minutes each day doing drills to practice her scales and develop finger speed to play jazz licks. She also spends 15 minutes per day listening to her favorite jazz pianists.

Are you more like Jack or Jill in your language learning? Who do you think is having more fun, Jack or Jill? Which one is a better pianist? Of course, these all depend on Jack and Jill’s personal goals and preferences, but useful to reflect upon nonetheless!

My name is Akshay Swaminathan, and I’m interested in finding the most efficient ways to learn languages. Take a look at my website and for more language-related content.

Originally published at https://www.startspeaking.org on January 22, 2020.

Data scientist, global health researcher, language learner

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