You have probably heard that the easiest and most effective way to learn a language is to travel to a country and become immersed in the language. This is a well-known technique for improving your level of a language, or learning as a true beginner. But sometimes taking a linguistic holiday is easier said than done. I will never forget when I first moved to France and didn’t speak a word of French. Being surrounded by a language you don’t understand isn’t all fun and games, and in fact it can even feel stressful and overwhelming.
When you are immersed in a country’s language, your brain is working overtime to pick up patterns, sounds, words, and trying to understand everything from street signs to menus to conversations with other people. And while you may be exhausted after a simple day of sightseeing, you can be sure that the time you spend isn’t being wasted. Your brain is working all the time to figure out how to decipher and communicate, even if you aren’t studying grammar or repeating vocabulary for memorization. That is the magic of immersion learning!
If you are trying to learn English, you may have thought about traveling to England, the United States, Canada, Australia or another country where English is the native language. Maybe you have already taken such a trip. Many of my adult English students have shared their experiences with me, and that’s how I came up with these simple pieces of advice for you if you do take the trip!
Here are a few Do’s and Don’ts when you are traveling with the intention of being immersed in a language:
…become fixated on words you don’t understand. The key is to remain flexible, and take in everything with child-like wonder. If you become focused on one specific word which you don’t understand, this will prevent you from hearing the rest of the information. We can often understand the meaning of a word if we listen to the words before and after it and make a guess. The goal is to understand the general topic and mood, not all the subtle nuances. If you like, you can make a note to look up the word later, but don’t let it ruin the pace of the conversation or interrupt the story of someone who is speaking with you in the moment. You will learn to smile and nod, even if you aren’t following each and every word of the story.
…travel with a large group who speak your native language. Many travel companies organize language trips for groups of people. The problem is, if you travel with a group of people who speak your language, you are not very likely to seek out local people and speak the language you are trying to learn. The comfort of our own language and culture is too strong to make us seek out new things and take risks. The best thing to do is travel alone or in a very small group; you could also travel with a mixed international crowd who doesn’t speak your language. Stay in local accommodations such as an Airbnb home, and plan your activities based on advice from locals. Make an effort to do the things that locals do, not just the big tourist attractions.
…be afraid to make mistakes and take risks. This applies to speaking the language as well as traveling. If you get lost when looking for a particular restaurant, don’t panic—the experience and memory of finding your way will teach your brain more efficiently than a semester in a language classroom. The same goes for speaking—making mistakes and taking risks when we aren’t sure of our words is the best way to improve. Native speakers won’t think less of you for making a mistake, rather they will appreciate the effort you are making to learn their language.
…repeat yourself when people ask you “what?” This is a typical beginner scenario: you are immersed in a language in a foreign country, you are meeting native speakers and trying to communicate, and when you take a risk to say something, the native speaker says “What?” When this happens, don’t panic, don’t hide, it does NOT always mean you have made a mistake! Usually it is because your accent is not yet familiar to the person you are speaking with, and they need to hear you a 2nd time to clarify your words. In this case, simply repeat yourself, as clearly as possible, as many times as necessary, even if you aren’t sure of yourself! Many language learners make the mistake of replying with “No nevermind” and they become terrified to take another risk and participate in the rest of the conversation. This is really a shame because it is the moment of truth—having a conversation is making real-world progress that your brain will automatically remember!
…have a script prepared about yourself. When you meet native speakers, they will usually ask you basic questions to make conversation. This could include where you are from, what you do for a living, whether you have children or why you are visiting their country. It’s a good idea to have some of these replies prepared in advance, so you can feel confident meeting new people. As the conversation turns to different topics, you will be less afraid to keep talking and take risks with unprepared, spontaneous conversation. And that is the goal!
…be grateful for your circumstances even if you aren’t comfortable. Traveling abroad isn’t all wine and roses—as we all know things can go wrong. From bad hotels to getting lost to getting your passport stolen, there is potential for a plethora of problematic situations. Even something small, such as not liking the food or the place where you are or the people you are with, can make one very uncomfortable and homesick for their familiar language and culture. But remember, when these situations arise, think of them as another big opportunity to learn something, and don’t be afraid to express yourself. If you don’t like the main dish, chances are someone else will agree with you. These are the emotional scenarios that help our brain remember better. And once you get back home, you’ll be amazed at your ability to handle the entire adventure in another language.
So what are you waiting for? Book your flights and pack your bags for a memorable linguistic holiday. You’ll be surprised at what you can learn in just a couple weeks!
Have you travelled somewhere just to improve your English?
Did you find it was a good way to learn English? Why or why not?
We always love to read your comments below!