Pros and Cons to Language Learning While Living Abroad

Featured Photo by Kit Suman on Unsplash

I first started learning Italian because, well, we moved to Italy. What a dream, right? Move to a country and be surrounded by the language. Full immersion! My kids and I will be completely fluent in a year or two! Wrong. So wrong. This is the first big mistake I made with learning Italian. Just because you live in a country does not mean you will learn the language. And that’s not all. Just because you live in a country does not mean you will learn the language easier than if living elsewhere. I’m going to address some of the nuances of living and learning abroad based on my personal experience. As with everything, this is not a complete list, and it isn’t representative of everyone’s experiences. But for me, they’re absolutely critical to knowing how I can “live and learn better” when we move to Germany later this year.

Top 3 Reasons Living Abroad Helps Learn the Local Language:

1. Hearing and reading 

Obviously, when you live in a country, just walking around your town provides endless listening and reading opportunities. I learned an immense amount of vocabulary during my first few months in Italy from reading signs at the train station, supermarket, or local shops. Walking through our weekly outdoor market, I could leisurely listen to Italians buying fruits and vegetables or friends chatting amongst themselves. In this way, it didn’t take much time for the seemingly long jumble of sounds to become distinct words to me. Even if I didn’t know what someone was saying, I could distinguish where one word stopped and another began. This was a huge motivator for me to keep learning and a really big step in the language acquisition process.

2. Speaking opportunities

Like hearing and reading opportunities, there is often a greater number of chances for speaking practice when living in a country where that language is spoken. Ordering food at a restaurant, buying goods at the market, or chatting with a neighbor about their garden are just a few examples of day-to-day occasions for speaking your target language. But, this comes with one very important caveat. You have to actually go and do the speaking! I know what you’re thinking. “Uh, duh, Heidi.” Yet this is where many people, myself included, fail to embrace the immersion. Fear of making mistakes or not being understood, being able to rely on English (more on this below), and shyness are very real blocks to initiating a conversation with a local. Additionally, speaking doth not make a conversation. Very early on I learned how to ask for directions in Italian. But would I have been able to understand a native speaker giving me directions? Not a chance. For me, the longer I shied away from speaking, the harder it was for me to get started just doing the thing. So, start speaking as soon as possible to take real advantage of the opportunities around you.

Another thing to keep in mind is this – native speakers are humans, and they have their own lives to lead. Do not expect that every native you come across will want to be your sounding board for language practice. I know how exciting it is to have confidence enough to speak, but make sure to take others’ time and skills into consideration. Asking the waiter where she lives and how many kids she has or discussing your hobbies with the coffee barista are probably not the best ideas. They have a job to do, and that job doesn’t include a language exchange. Not everyone will be patient with us as we speak slowly and attempt to recall words. Another concept that hadn’t occurred to me in the beginning is that every native speaker isn’t a teacher and/or willing to teach. When we first moved to Italy, our closest neighbor was an Italian who spoke fluent English. She was always cordial when I excitedly told her what new words or phrases I’d learned, but she never attempted to engage me in small talk in her native language. I secretly wanted her to teach me little things along the way or give me great praise for my efforts. But this never happened. It was long after she moved that I realized my flaw. I had an expectation that she would do something for me without me considering her skillset (she wasn’t a teacher) or her time or her desires…or even offering to pay her for her time in a language exchange. In fact, my desire that she would take me under her wing probably prevented us from becoming more than acquaintances. Not only did I miss an opportunity for deeper human connection, but I also attempted to put a language burden on someone else without regarding her humanity.

There will be many, many people who are patient, love when foreigners learn and practice their language, and may even provide constructive feedback about your vocabulary or sentence structure. But everyone is not that person, and that should be fully respected. Keeping this in mind allows us to build deeper, truer relationships with those who prefer to speak English (or your native language) and respectful, meaningful relationships with those who want to encourage and help our speaking progression.

3. Picking up on day-to-day speak vs. formal language 

The third benefit of living abroad that I chose for this post is the advantage of picking up on day-to-day and regional language versus formal language learned in a classroom or textbook. Most beginner language courses start by teaching greetings and introductions. While phrases like “Buongiorno” (good morning or good day) and “Ciao” (hi and bye) are useful, there is a plethora of informal greetings that are more commonly used, especially among friends or acquaintances. I had been in Italy over six months when a school staff member asked, “Come va?” (How’s it going?). I knew the word “come,” and I had learned the word “va” at some point earlier in the week, but I couldn’t piece them together in my head. This made for a very awkward long moment of me staring at him saying, “Va, va, va…va?” as I racked my brain for what he could possibly be asking. After an even more awkward mumbo jumbo response (probably a shrug and a “Sì?”), I rushed out of the school and immediately opened Google Translate. Never again would I need to hesitate when someone asked “Come va?,” but had I searched out these types of informal greetings earlier (say, before even arriving in Italy), I would have avoided several situations that diminished my speaking confidence.

Additionally, programs like Duolingo or flashcard apps don’t always capture words in their most common or regional uses. For example, the first lesson in Duolingo introduces boy, girl, man, and woman. In the Italian program, it uses “ragazzo” for boy and “ragazza” for girl. These are certainly correct, but they’re more often used for older kids, teenagers, and young adults. So calling my one-year-old “ragazzo” in a conversation would sound (*ehem* did sound) very odd to a native speaker. Instead, “bambino” and “bambina” are more commonly used. (Note:  Duolingo accepts “bambino/a” when typed for “boy/girl,” but you have to know to use them first as it doesn’t teach them). Yet still, we were in the country for more than two years before I learned that Italians (in this region, at least) often use “maschio” (male) and “femmina” (female) in situations where Americans might say “boy” or “girl.” Cue awkward moment of asking a pregnant acquaintance if she knew if it was a “bambino or bambina.” Luckily, she understood and answered “maschio” as if pretending I hadn’t even erred.

Top 3 Reasons Living Abroad Hinders Learning the Local Language:

1. Many people speak English

I’ll never forget the first time I ordered gelato in Italy. I was so nervous, and I practiced saying “One scoop of strawberry” a dozen times before approaching the counter. When it was my turn, I confidently said, “Una pallina di fragola, per favore” in, what I thought, was perfectly native Italian. The barista responded in perfectly native English, “Do you want it in a cup or a cone?” My confidence balloon was instantly deflated. What had I done wrong? Why did she respond in English? Did I really sound that bad? Truth is, she probably heard me speaking in English to my daughter as we waited in line. She probably knew it would be a faster transaction if she spoke English. She was young, and she may have even been excited to practice her English. My mistake:  allowing myself to continually fall back on English when others turn the conversation language. We had lived in Italy for three years before I had an encounter at a store where I asked for something in Italian, the store clerk responded in English, and I continued to respond in Italian. I spoke Italian for the entire exchange, and he spoke English. My heart was racing with adrenaline when I left, and I was so proud of myself for not using the crutch I had so easily leaned on during the previous three years.

When living abroad, especially in and around larger cities, many people speak English, and it’s absolutely possible to do everything one needs (e.g. order food, make hotel reservations, take a taxi) in English. There are definitely people who are excited to speak English and improve their learning experience. Teaching yourself to appreciate that the language is a possibility but not a requirement is priceless. If I’m speaking with someone who speaks English better than I speak Italian, I know I can rely on my native language if needed. I know that it’s there if I get frustrated or don’t know a word. Yet giving myself permission not to switch to English took a great deal of time and confidence building. Something I wish I’d practiced more in the early years.

2. Need for in-the-moment translation

When learning a language while living abroad, translation tools like Google Translate or Reverso Translations are absolute life savers. Even in small conversations, translation apps (or a handheld dictionary if you’re hardcore) can quickly get us past a mental block or unknown word to ensure successful two-way conversation. Yet, when learning a language while living abroad, these tools can also become crutches if we aren’t mindful of how and how often we use them. The need or desire for immediate understanding may guide us to a translation app, but then what do we do with that word? I found that when I use Google Translate in-the-moment, I am much less likely to remember a word or phrase because it doesn’t move that new knowledge to my long-term memory. Instead, my eyes see it, my mouth says it, and then it’s gone. Being mindful of this is key to decreasing reliance on a translation app or dictionary. Making a quick note of the what you looked up, taking a screenshot to remember for studying later, or even taking an extra second to repeat the word two or three times are all ways to turn these moments of need into moments of learning.

3. Assuming it’ll be easy

So, moving to another country and having full immersion will make you fluent, right? You’ll just soak in all the language around you, right? Unfortunately, for most of us, no. This was my absolute biggest mistake when moving to Italy, and it really hindered me from making greater progress early on. First, the assumption that I would simply absorb a lot of language caused a major decrease in confidence when I found the language challenging. I should know these words. I should be able to speak the words I know. I should understand when my daughter’s teacher speaks to me! Alas, I failed to take control of my own language learning process, and I didn’t put in the work necessary to see good progress. Learning Italian, for me, could have been easier by living in the country. But just like any language learning tool, you have to work the resource instead of thinking it will work for you. I assumed living in Italy would (do the) work for me. I didn’t consider this opportunity a tool. I have the language at my disposal, and I must set goals, practice daily, put myself out there, and actually work at it. Of course, “work” doesn’t mean it has to be stressful or challenging. It just means you have to do the thing, and it can absolutely be fun, but it won’t always come easily just because you have an immersion tool at your fingertips.

So tell me. Have you ever lived or travelled abroad while learning a new language? How did it go for you? What felt easy or difficult? What would you do different next time? I can’t wait to hear your stories!

One response to “Pros and Cons to Language Learning While Living Abroad”

  1. […] however, really just means that I didn’t feel ownership over my language life. Though immersion didn’t make me fluent, deep down I still felt as if immersion controlled my language acquisition. I realized after that […]

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