Sink or Swim During Your Time Abroad

I often hear people learning a foreign language say “If I could just live in [insert foreign country here], THEN I’d really learn to speak [insert foreign language here]”. As if upon moving there your mind would fill with phrasal verbs and perfect sentence structure and your words would come together with a perfect accent. Nope, sorry friends. Living abroad is a brilliant way to immerse yourself, but it also a shockingly difficult and a sometimes lonely experience. Moving to a country where you don’t speak the language, or don’t speak it well, is more like having a giant wave crash over you and then a riptide pull your feet from beneath you. First you’re shocked, then you fight a little bit, and eventually to let yourself float out to sea. From there you can do two things: respond or react. Responders swim. Reactors find an island. Responders do what it takes to learn the language. They watch movies, they read the news, and listen to the radio. And they practice. As much as they can. With anyone kind enough to participate. One stroke at a time they learn the way of the sea and flow with it. Reactors find an island. Surely there will already be people on that island who are, like them, terrified. They will adapt with minimal effort to the island’s limited boundaries, learning nothing of the sea that surrounds them, and they just wait until they can get back to land and continue life as usual. Rewind five years and you’re looking an ignorant twenty-nothing year old me, who fell in love with Barcelona and thought of learning Spanish as a minor detail. A three-month “intensivo” Spanish course and too many euros later I was hiding out on my island. Every time I stepped off I sunk to the bottom like a brick. And there I stayed for more months (ok…years) than I will now admit. Until I realized the person who succeeds in learning a language in their time abroad is the swimmer, not the one hiding on the island, and the truth is most of us are a mix of the two. We have days of bravery where we step off our island and try to stay afloat. Is it fun at first? No, it’s exhausting. You feel like you’re drowning in every little task. And nearly drowning day after day is tiring. But then one day you notice the sea gets a bit friendlier. Getting good or at least used to swimming instead of sinking requires the same effort as going to the gym, waking up early, or resisting eating a half a bar of chocolate. You must practice. You integrate these good habits into your daily routine until they become automatic. Learning a language is a lifestyle and you can do it from the comfort of your country. Instead of a wave crashing down and ripping you out to hostile waters, you can first dip your toes in, test the waters, practice a few strokes, and then come back to dry land for a rest. The trick is you must go back each day to practice. Watch a movie in that language and exercise your listening comprehension. Read a book and exercise your memory for new vocabulary. For goodness sake go to a language exchange and exercise communication and confidence. THAT is how it’s done; by practice, no secrets. The good news is you can start right now. No plane ticket necessary.