People take it for granted that the best way to learn a foreign language is to travel to a country where that language is spoken. They believe being present in a foreign country, like water and sunlight to a plant, will dramatically grow their language skills. The environment of a foreign country can facilitate language learning, but what’s far more important is the individualized experience of the traveler. When traveling, three factors affect how much language improvement is likely to take place: 1) the destination country; 2) the traveler’s occupation; and 3) the traveler’s lifestyle.
As a native English speaker, my language is spoken all around the world. When I was in Jordan and Lebanon, there were signs in English everywhere, and most natives had some grasp of the language. A lot of foreigners viewed interactions with me as an opportunity to practice their English or show it off. Similarly, whenever they sensed that their English was better than my Arabic, they typically preferred to speak in my native language so that we could have a better conversation. The practical advantage of speaking English made it even more difficult to advance my Arabic.
Students of English, in contrast, do well in most American cities. This owes to the fact that relatively few Americans are bilingual, and bilingual Americans are eager to speak English since English dominates American culture. As a result, foreigners tend to progress a lot in English when they come to the US because so few people are capable or interested in speaking their native language.
The second factor–occupation–is critically important because it has to do with how travelers spend their days. Travelers on a foreign exchange or language study program get constant exposure to the language. On the other hand, I know people who live in a foreign country but work a job in their native language. Given how time-consuming work is, these people usually don’t make much progress in the foreign language, no matter how long they stay in the host country.
The third factor–lifestyle–is arguably the most important of all. Lifestyle is about how people spend their free time. If you’re living in the Middle East, are you out in the market interacting with locals, or do you spend the majority of your free time in the house? The average person spends several hours a day on their phone, and that doesn’t magically change overseas. Is your phone activity improving your skills or is your phone a dead space for language learning? The only way to learn a language is to apply yourself. As we say in the US, you can take a horse to the water, but you can’t make it drink. What you do is far more important than where you are.
Let me offer a vivid illustration. A few years ago, I spent four months in Tokyo. What’s shocking is my Japanese actually got worse in that span. My experience failed on all three factors that influence language learning–country, occupation, and lifestyle. Many people where we were spoke good English. This isn’t true everywhere in Japan, but location within the country matters. I had friends who barely spoke any Japanese, and they did just fine. Second, I attended an international university. English was the language of instruction in all of my classes. Third, my lifestyle wasn’t conducive to language learning. Like many of my peers, I chose to socialize primarily with the other internationals who shared my dormitory. Engaging in Japanese meant embracing the tension of not being able to fully express myself. More often than not, I chose the more comfortable route of speaking English, and ultimately abandoned Japanese in favor of Spanish and Arabic.
The myth of immersion isn’t that immersion doesn’t work. Immersion does work. The myth of immersion is that traveling to a foreign country is a necessary step. People can experience the benefits of immersion wherever they are. They can consume media, change the language of their phones, find language partners using apps like HelloTalk, or practice translation throughout the day.
The myth of immersion isn’t that immersion doesn’t work. Immersion does work. The myth of immersion is that traveling to a foreign country is a necessary step.
Language learning isn’t a mathematical formula. You can’t just plug an individual into a foreign country and expect language mastery to be the result. Growth is all about effort. Being in a foreign country may facilitate immersion, but anyone can experience the benefits of immersion from the comfort of their own home.