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8 Important Things You Should Do On An Immersion Trip Abroad


Egyptian Friends

Today I’m going to share with you 8 really important things you should do on an immersion trip abroad if you want to come home fluent in a foreign language.

You can read all the tips, advice and secrets for home-based language learning that the internet’s finest have to offer but nothing beats living immersed in the target language community, being bombarded with (and forced to adapt to) the language and culture from the moment you open your eyes in the morning til the time you curl up in bed at night.

No amount of self-learning discipline, social media interaction or expensive learning products compare to simply being in the country, hanging out with local people and most importantly, requiring the target language to get by.

The reason for it is simple: want vs. need.

Living in Australia, I’m only going to use a foreign language when I’m in the mood to study it or when chatting with friends. I don’t really need it for anything at all.

However, if I was living overseas with a host family then I’d definitely be motivated daily by a need to be understood and to properly engage with the community around me. It’s not so much that being constantly surrounded by input makes an immersion stay so much better for language learning (although it definitely helps), but rather it’s the necessity it creates in forcing you to adapt or ‘die’.

Time and time again over the last 10 years of my own immersion stays I’ve seen people who have no interest in foreign languages pick them up very quickly in the host country simply because it’s necessary for them to do so (or at least to live more comfortably).

So… this is the first and most important of 8 really important things you should do on an immersion trip abroad:

 

1. Place yourself in situations of ‘need’

Sounds easier said than done but all it involves is making sure you plan your travel itinerary to spend adequate time in places where you’re guaranteed to need the language, e.g. places where there are no McDonald’s or Starbucks to hide in when you get lazy.

No expat community. No multilingual signs or menus. No way for you to cheat.

If choosing a homestay or au pair arrangement make sure to stipulate that you want a family with little or no English and far removed from any urban center where people are less likely to know your language.

 

2. Don’t study

But I’m here to learn a foreign language. Why would you tell me not to study?

Take advantage of every damn second you have in the target language country and leave the grammar books for when you’re back home learning on your own again.

Get outside and find every opportunity you can to practice.

Time spent in the books while the language is alive outside the house is a golden opportunity completely wasted.

 

3. Keep association with foreigners to a minimum or at least hang out with them while with natives

People naturally tend to gravitate toward their own kind (especially when culture shock and home sickness kick in).

It’s happened to me so many times before – living immersed in a foreign culture for a while, missing home, down in the dumps and then suddenly I hear an Aussie accent somewhere and it’s like a huge breath of fresh air.

I just want to talk to them. I don’t know who they are but I don’t care. I miss my kinsmen.

Resist this urge as much as possible (it does pass), or at the very least make sure to include your target language buddies in any social gatherings you might have.

You might even find yourself in situations where you have to do your best to interpret for both groups which challenges you on a whole different level.

 

4. Get yourself a homestay for the ultimate immersion experience

The ultimate immersion experience is living with a host family that doesn’t speak your language, especially if they have children.

I owe the current levels of my Arabic and Georgian primarily to the children I lived with in those parts of the world.

Kids are the best teachers you can get. Believe me.

It can be nerve-wracking and extremely frustrating at times with cultural and communication barriers, lack of privacy and so on, but as far as placing yourself in a situation of need it really doesn’t get any better than this.

If homestays aren’t an option for you then make every effort to reach out to the neighbours immediately. It’ll depend on the host culture obviously (in some cultures people are very private) but in the Middle East for example it’s not uncommon to have a door-is-always-open policy for the people in your apartment block.

This can also be annoying in terms of lack of privacy and unannounced guests but it’s the next best thing to living with a host family – you’re hardly ever alone and opportunities never cease for target language practice.

 

5. Be where it’s unusual to see foreigners

If you hang out in the urban center of a major city or an affluent neighbourhood you’re far less likely to encounter people who are both interested in being friends with you and don’t speak your language.

I have no interest whatsoever in hanging out with Western educated, English speaking locals when I travel. I might as well stay in my own country.

To use the city of Cairo as an example, if you were to spend your time in a suburb like Maadi or Heliopolis you’d find that locals are less intrigued by you as a foreigner because there are so many other expats there and the people tend to have more money, more education and thus better English.

But if you head down to Ain Shams or Muattam where people tend to be poorer and you stand out as a foreigner, the locals are intrigued by your presence and will usually be more than happy to practice their language with you.

Get out of your comfort zone and stay off the beaten track.

 

6. Keep a small notebook and pen on you at all times and if possible a voice recorder

I have a big camphor wood chest at home full of little notepads and bits of paper that I scrawled words and phrases on during my times in Egypt and if I hadn’t of written them down at the time then I probably would have forgotten them.

If you hear a word or encounter some writing somewhere that jumps out at you then whip out the notebook and record for it clarification later when you’re with a teacher or friend.

Voice memo apps like the one on the iPhone are godsends for capturing sounds you hear out on the streets as well.

 

7. Find a teacher with a communicative methodology

Egyptian Arabic Class

I know I said don’t study but if you can find yourself a teacher who uses a communicative approach then I strongly suggest you meet with them once or twice a week.

Unfortunately a lot of teachers around the world still use centuries-old, ineffective methodologies such as the grammar-translation approach which are utterly useless for improving conversational skills.

Communicative teachers will give you highly useful, practical chunks that you can go out and use straight away. For example, following a lesson on how to order food in a restaurant you could finish class and head out to a restaurant for lunch to use everything you just learned which will really anchor it in your long term memory.

It’s usually pretty easy to tell whether teachers are up-to-date with current teaching methodology based on where and how long ago they were trained. These are things you should ask before meeting with them!

I’ve personally had experience with communicative and grammar-translation types of teachers overseas and the difference in terms of what I got out of them was huge.

 

8. Volunteer your time to assist people with their English (or your native language)

When I was in Georgia I gave private lessons at home on top of my other two teaching jobs and it wasn’t long before some mothers in my neighbourhood were requesting that I teach their children as well.

This can be profitable depending on where you are but I suggest doing some of it for free.

The reason why I say free is for a few reasons:

  • You’re trying to form friendships to enhance your target language but if you charge money it creates a professional relationship divide between you and the student’s family. It’s just business.
  • If you offer your time for free there’s no pressure on you.
  • If you took my advice and went off the beaten track to a poorer area then judge for yourself whether you’d feel right taking money from people who probably earn a lot less than you do.

As far as your own language learning is concerned it’s just another way to meet people and become part of their families at the end of the day.

 

 

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  1. I think motivation comes into play a lot here too. I had a student once (native Spanish speaker learning English) who was also learning Russian. He confessed to me that even though we were spending four hours a day doing nothing but chatting in English, his Russian which he spent just a little time on in the evenings was progressing a lot more quickly. He just had no enthusiasm for English, which he was learning for business, compared to Russian which he was learning for pleasure.

    I always remind myself that I'm learning new languages so I can talk to new people, so the best thing I can do is go talk to people just like you say.

    Reply
    1. Absolutely.

      Sounds like your student was quite passionate about learning Russian whereas English was seen as more of a chore. It makes a huge difference to one's success or failure that's for sure!

      Thanks for your comment, Adam. Great blog you have there too 🙂

      Reply
  2. All very good suggestions.

    For me, #3 is the most difficult. There is a peculiar force of nature, a third form of gravity perhaps, that tends to pull expats together. The attraction is difficult to resist, even when you're being very mindful.

    An alternative to a homestay is getting an apartment with local roommates. As someone who really revels in his privacy and autonomy (to his detriment probably), I never really enjoyed a homestay.

    Getting local roommates is the next best thing. You achieve the immersion goal, and instantly make local friends (perhaps really good friends). Moreover, since your roommates aren't parents concerned about your lingual and cultural well-being, you'll have some great opportunities to learn fun slang.

    Reply
    1. Hey mate!

      How's things?

      Thanks. I should have mentioned flatmates actually. Unfortunately all the flatmates I've had have had really good English so I didn't get a lot of practice living with them.

      Reply
  3. Hello,
    I think your tips are absolutely right . I am Spanish and as a teenager I spent some time in homestays in UK to learn English. I learned a lot and I still keep in touch with the british family after 20 years!. My daughter will stay with a host family in UK this summer.

    I have now started a homestay in my own home where I also teach Spanish. We live in a small neighbourhood called Peñaflor de Gállego, near Zaragoza and I think the location is good for linguistic homestays as it is not touristic and is easy to chat with locals.

    Reply
    1. Hi Carola 🙂

      Thanks so much for your comment. It's great to hear from your experience.

      I'll bookmark your site so I can refer you to anybody in future who asks me about homestay accommodation in Spain.

      Reply
  4. I just printed this out and mailed it to my 18-year-old son who is doing a homestay in France right now. He went into this not knowing a word of French and, a week into it, is spending a lot of his time "studying." Until I read this piece I never would have thought how that could actually be a bad thing for language learning! (His "studying" has had another disadvantage: it's succeeded in upsetting his family, as they feel it's rude for him to be shut up with a book so much. They've actually just drawn up a contract that requires him to go out at least 3 days a week.) Thanks for ALL the great tips; I'm sure they'll be really helpful to him in a very rubber-hits-the-road way.

    Amy

    Reply
    1. Thanks so much for your feedback, Amy!

      I hope it helps your son. I can understand the frustration of his host family wondering why he's missing out on so much time with them in order to study.

      Good on them for drawing up that contract. It should motivate him to go out and connect with French speakers.

      Reply
  5. Having spent a lot of time in China, it can seem almost impossible to find someone who doesn’t want to practice their English. But, like you suggest in tip number 5, I would head to places where foreigners are seldom seen. The best place was actually a neighborhood bathhouse with an exclusively blue-collar clientele. I was probably the only foreigner who ever set foot in there and they were all anxious to talk to me. Even better, none of them wanted to practice their English.

    Reply
    1. It's the same in the every part of the world:

      You go to the unappealing bar, bathhouse or cafe that's full of blue-collar locals where no other foreigner wants to go and you make some of the most interesting, life-long friends.

      I suppose the reason is not just curiosity but people see you as making a genuine effort to try and fit in with them.

      Reply
  6. I think those tips are fantastic but they also sort of preempt a lot of the objections you'd typically get to your initial statement of "The best way to learn a language is to move to the country where it's spoken", e.g. what about all those expats that move somewhere and still don't speak the language 20 years later, etc. The tips you follow that statement up with HAVE to be obeyed (e.g. not hanging out with expats or really anyone who speaks your native language) otherwise it won't work, and in the great majority of countries it's quite easy to just get by with English now.

    My point is that you need to plan this out ahead of time and have a decent bit of discipline as well otherwise it won't work, especially if your native language is English (it almost certainly is if you're reading this blog)–it's just so EASY to simply "get by" with just English in countries like Germany, Japan, any Scandinavian country, and even France recently (didn't used to be the case but it seems to be now).

    Oh, and I would also preface what you're saying with the advice that IF you have the time and opportunity to study the language before departing that you absolutely do so as much as possible. Benny wrote up a post on this exact subject the other day basically saying the same thing and this was something he made a point of that I agree with: this advice of going full-immersion in-country does NOT mean that you shouldn't learn as much of the language as possible prior to leaving if you can. The only reason Benny frequently doesn't is because he can't, and when he can he does (he gave the example of how he learned most of his Portuguese while in France prior to leaving for Brazil–that's precisely the right thing to do if you can).

    Anyway, nice work, I generally agree, keep the solid content coming, I'm enjoying it.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

    Reply
    1. Hey Andrew.

      Very true what you say about planning it out ahead of time. People really do need to be strategic about immersion trips well before they travel in order to get the most out of it otherwise too much time is wasted.

      With regard to learning as much of the language as possible before travelling, this is what I'm doing now with Korean. I don't leave for Korea until August-September but I'm starting it now so I can hit the ground running.

      Thanks for your compliment 🙂

      Reply
      1. Yup, agreed, and you're welcome.

        Cheers,
        Andrew

        Reply
  7. Great post Donovan and should be required reading for every study abroad program.

    Reply
    1. Thanks Aaron 🙂

      Reply
  8. Nice post, it hit all of the points I've sensed would be helpful intuitively but it's nice to see them explicitly written out. I've done study abroad and homestays for a year each in Japan, France and Brazil and each time I actively sought out situations where I would have to speak the language. One of the best ways for me to find those situations was having a mutual hobby of interest, and usually this allowed me to meet people who almost never had much contact with foreigners and little if any English ability (in my case surfing). The benefits of immersion are huge if you do it right, that's for sure. But I also studies a bit as well. To be honest I think number 2 really depends on how you approach it and how long you will be staying in the country. If you're only there for a few weeks or months, yeah, for sure, just wait until you get back. I think there is something to be said for the kind of study as you go mentality I think you're advocating, like bringing a recorder or notepad with you, or finding a good communicative method teacher. We imagine studying to be a kind of individual, shut up in your room with coffee and books experience, but I've done quite a bit of "studying" at the bar or on road trips with friends as well. Anyways, enjoying your blog, and have fun in Korea, my brother's a Korean linguist in the U.S. army there and I've been meaning to go visit him, hopefully sooner than later!

    Reply
  9. Hi Donavon,
    Loved this – a list of what we did (as well as we could as a family of four – but still possible). Kids in local school – us mixing in the small, poor community where we lived (huge barriers dropped when we were facing the same problems of getting water and gas etc). Absolutely need is a key – we had no translators and had to preach form week one so the kids in the community taught us. No study!! Communicative mentor. No English speaking friends – also achieved that our kids didn't turn into little US american speakers – still have kiwi accent just softer!! Notebook and full immersion (little harder in family). Talk to people on buses, in the street, everywhere – worth taking a risk ad people appreciate it too. We were fondly know as 'nuestros lindos gringos' (our lovely white people) in our community. We broke all the molds and they loved us for it. Recommend it even for a family.

    Reply
  10. Hi Donavan ! Congratulations for your great work. I apreciate a lot this tips, and your written is very good, same Aaron, another excellent writter. Thanks for all. Good job.

    Reply
    1. Thanks mate! 🙂

      Reply
  11. All of this is so right. I had the opportunity to spend time in Serbia during my time learning that language, and I completely wasted it. I struggled a lot with homesickness and ended up doing a lot to protect myself which basically wound up meaning that I didn't take up the opportunities to communicate in Serbian.

    Even though I knew it was wrong, it seemed like the right thing to do at the time – I'd love to have the chance to go back and do it again now that I know what I know, and now that I'm a stronger person too.

    Reply
    1. Serbia? Wow! That would have been an experience.

      Are you in Norway now?

      Reply
      1. Oops, I never saw this reply, sorry. I'm not in Norway now. I live in London, but I have Norwegian friends whom I try to speak with online as much as I can, as well as frequent trips to Norway to visit them. But I do find Norway a very hard country to immerse oneself in the language – they're all so eager to speak English!

        Reply
  12. Thanks,for great article! I am beginner Arabic learner.I can read,write.But there’s a problem which I can’t understand.What is the difference between xabar (pl.) axbaar.P.S there are many such words.Are these synonyms?Or one of this MSA?

    Reply
  13. Thanks,for great article! I am beginner Arabic learner.I can read,write.But there’s a problem which I can’t understand.What is the difference between xabar (pl.) axbaar.P.S there are many such words.Are these synonyms?Or one of this MSA?

    Thanks.

    Reply
  14. I wish during my time abroad I had spent more time talking, but going to class did help me really improve my reading and writing better than a lot others did which helped me get a job afterward more than my speaking skills, not that I planned it that way.

    Reply
  15. I personally have to disagree with your comments surrounding the “grammar-translation” approach. This is a really important type of learning that should not be disregarded in the way you have.

    I am a native brit who learned arabic from scratch at 21 upon conversion to Islam. I started with learning the alphabet, how to read without understanding of what I was reading, and plus tajweed rules and memorisation of some very small chapters of quran. This gave me a basic understanding of reading and pronounciation.

    Then I moved onto the madinah books which follow the grammar-translation approach you mentioned, and it helped me understand the building blocks of the language and enabled me to read religious texts etc. I also practised writing skills etc.

    Then when I came to learn conversation from the book called al-arabiyyah bayna yadaik, I already had a strong grasp of the language and was able to pick up conversation really easily, and understood WHY things were the way they were and could quickly learn to adapt and change the sentences I was learning to say different things.

    So whilst I agree that grammar translation will not help you in an immersion trip and conversation, you are being very dismissive of people who learn for other reasons such as translating old religious texts etc, and also underestimating the benefit it has towards conversational skills.

    I do agree that on an immersion trip, you want to focus on conversational focused books if you are going to study, and conversing with locals is of more benefit. And you will also have the added difficulty of dialects if you are learning arabic. If you speak classical arabic, everyone will understand you but some will respond in dialects and so will be a one way conversation and tricky to understand. So learning the local dialect as well as conversational classical arabic is the best use of learning time, plus using it to talk to locals.

    But i think you were overly dismissive of learning grammar. It helps a lot with those wanting to understand the qur’an and religious texts, and DOES help in the ong run with your conversational skills, if combined with conversational focused studies.

    Reply
  16. Hi Donovan. Love the immersion tips. I’m going to be heading off later this year to a place where there really isn’t much English spoken, so will be perfect for the application of your advice. There’s a snag though : I’m not a very sociable person! Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing new cultures and meeting new people, but I’m not very good at just approaching strangers and starting a conversation. I don’t even do that in my own country and language! I think, perhaps, that immersion works when accompanied by the confidence to strike up conversations with strangers in a language you’re still learning, in a place which is completely new. So, I guess I’ll be working on harnessing my inner ‘life and soul of the party’ before I head off. 🙂

    Reply
  17. My experience traveling in Europe is that the moment I open my mouth in my terrible version of their native language, they switch to English. This caused me to ultimately give up and speak English. For several years after that, I gave up language learning… getting back into it again, planning a trip, where, alas, everyone is going to want to speak English to me again…. Who do I beat that?

    Reply
  18. Hello, thank you for your helpful blog 🙂
    I’m a beginner Korean learner and in a little over a month I’ll be travelling with a small group from my school to Seoul for 9 days.
    I want to be as emersed as possible (I really wanted to do homestays but we are instead staying at English-speaking hotels 🙁 ), but I have a bad feeling my fellow students and accompanying teacher will be comfortable speaking in English.
    Especially my friend who is coming too, who has not showed any enthusiasm about learning Korean other than the two-lessons-a-week we have together (where we mostly just watch dramas as I try to study by myself). I highly doubt she’ll try to speak at all in Korean, maybe not even basic greetings (I’ve had arguments already with her about her laziness in learning Korean because I don’t agree with her making her family spend thousands of dollars if she’s not going to try).

    My question is basically how would you suggest I utilize my time in Seoul when every day is scheduled (mostly to English speaking places), and I don’t have any say in activities or destinations. I don’t think I have much free time as I am a minor, so I can’t adventure out to more historical or non-English-speaking places by myself.
    Plus – so many people in Seoul speak English, or just enough to insist on communicating in English. I have multiple Korean friends who often tell me that Korean people (/anyone) will insist on speaking in English so THEY can practice their second language instead of letting you do so (which I also found with my three Korean penpals who I will meet next month).
    Oh, and I have sometimes crippling social anxiety and paranoia which means I can’t just strike up a conversation in Korean with some random person. So that’s fun.
    Sorry if this comment is too long; thank you again for your blogs and advice!

    Reply
  19. These recommendations don’t really apply to the ultimate immersion: moving to a place where you don’t speak the language. We live in the Tel Aviv area and it’s not possible to avoid English speakers. We have the classic set of problems: we speak Hebrew and people respond in English. Or we ask something simple in Hebrew and they respond with some complicated, rapid Hebrew. We studied Rosetta Stone and are now learning here. My husband is in Pimsleur Method type classes. I’m trying to decide what type to take, probably a combination of verb forms/grammar and conversation.

    Reply
    1. It can be frustrating when they insist on responding back in English but persist with it.

      Try: 1) Pretend you’re not a native English speaker and don’t understand English either.
      2) Politely asking them to speak Hebrew only.
      3) Get out of big city areas and find communities where English isn’t spoken.

      Reply
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