10 Great Reasons to Learn a Language Abroad
Why learn a language abroad — and how is this different from learning a language at home? I hear this often from people, and while I commend anyone for wanting to learn a language, there is an important distinction between the two. While all language learning is important, there are definite advantages to learning a language on location. Here are ten.
1. To Understand and Be Understood
There’s little more stressful than being in a new place and not understanding what is going on — or being able to be understood. When you first start to learn a language overseas, you’ll know a few words, and a minimal ability to express yourself in that language. It’s hard! You want to order food, get to places, purchase items you need, converse. Over time, you’ll become better — and be able to understand, and progressively be understood much more easily. Curtis West shares this story of his language learning in Guatemala:
When I was studying at the Casa de Xelaju in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, my homestay mother prepared coffee every afternoon at four. She set aside this time to talk just to me. We discussed every topic imaginable. It is a mystery to me how she understood anything I said given the level of my Spanish at the time. But she did, and the experience of being understood was fundamental to my desire to continue my studies. So talk to your mother and family. Come to the lunch or dinner table with something prepared to say. You'll find your hosts an interested audience for your baby steps in your new language.
Enjoy breakfast with a family abroad and while speaking and learning to speak their language.
2. To Save Your Life
Knowing at least some of the language of the place you’re learning can help save your life! You can help someone in an emergency – or help yourself when you need it. Heather Markel tells a story about the life-saving importance of knowing a language:
I was grateful for my elementary Spanish when I traveled throughout Spain with my mother several years ago. Towards the end of our trip, she ended up with the flu, and I ended up with stomach troubles. Of the two of us, I was the only one who could get out of bed, so I headed to the drugstore. I waited on line as patiently as I could, and when I got to the counter, tried to explain our symptoms. It took several minutes, with much repetition, and me trying to act out my mother’s shivering and fever, but I tried every Spanish word I could think of, and the pharmacist was eager to help me, no doubt because she knew how hard I was trying to speak her language, instead of imposing my English. The result was that I was able to get us both the right medicine.
Learning a language can save your life.
3. To Become Smarter
It’s said that when you dream in another language, you’ve truly become part of that culture — one sign that your brain understands the language you’re learning and living in. It’s true — language learning impacts the neural pathways in your brain — and when you learn a language, your brain actually grow bigger! As a result, you increase your cognitive and creative abilities — for life. And while you can learn a language at home, by being immersed in a culture while learning a new language, you’ll also grasp cultural cues, proper use of honorifics, and improve your language literacy — both written and verbal. Learning through immersion speeds up the process almost immeasurably, and adds extras (including a bigger brain and longer life), to boot.
Language learning expands your mind as it promotes deeper thinking and the development of your imagination.
4. To Show and Gain Respect
One of the best ways to show respect to someone is to attempt to speak their language. You will also be treated better because you’re trying! And while you may not know the right words in the beginning, keep trying and learning – it’s important, and locals appreciate and respect your effort. You show respect to a culture by learning and speaking their language, instead of forcing them to speak yours. Heather Markel relates a great story about the importance of language in creating respect:
When I worked in Paris, I accompanied two friends to the Café Oz for a drink one evening. We stood near the bar, and after some time there, I felt the pressure of someone behind me leaning against me. I turned, thinking perhaps they were drunk, or they might stop, but, it turned out the woman leaning on me simply wanted to stand where I was standing. Her eyes greeted mine, and she said, in French, “You could move out of the way!” Without thinking, I replied, also in French, “No problem. All you have to do is say excuse me.” She stared at me, dumbfounded, clearly not expecting me to speak French, and then moved away. It was a small victory, but a huge triumph.
Once you can stand up for yourself in a foreign language, you not only earn respect, but you will also understand that your fluency is improving, which inspires great confidence.
5. To Learn Faster
Let’s be honest — learning a language can be difficult. You have to practice, practice, and practice. By actually living in the culture that uses a foreign language exclusively, you’ll be forced to learn and practice your language skills! There’s no skipping learning when you have to order meals, shop, and get around in your new language. I took several terms of Japanese in college — but didn’t throw myself into it, because I didn’t have to. Once I moved to Japan? I learned more in a few weeks than I had those few terms — because I lived it. Experiential learning through total immersion is the best way for me to learn — you, too? It was so for Roger E. Norum, who studied in Italy. He says,
My most rewarding experiences came from interactions outside of the classroom. I made friends with some local students on my first day and spent afternoons after class with them visiting local beaches, riding around town on scooters and, of course, sitting at bars drinking espresso. The food offered by the program was home-cooked every night by a local family, and we were taken on excursions to local and regional sights and areas of interest. I even spent some time hanging around a local Vespa repair shop, where I learned something about fixing motorbikes. In just one short month I made close friends with a few local Italians and learned to speak decent Italian.
Language immersion is a form of experiential learning — and you’ll benefit in many ways. Photo by Roger Norum.
6. To Get a Better Job — or Be Better at Your Job
There is an enormous cost to not knowing a language, whether you are currently employed or looking to be so after you graduate. Knowing (or not knowing) a language, deeply, can affect your job — and income — for life. Edward Trimnell, writing on the Myth of Global English and the Costs of Americans' Monolingualism, notes that,
When a U.S. company needs a Chinese-speaking attorney or a Japanese-speaking engineer, they almost never hire an American for the job — because so few American attorneys or engineers bother to learn foreign languages. This does not have to be the case.
Our historic weakness in foreign languages often creates commercial advantages for foreign businesses, as well. Literacy in a foreign language is a tool that enables a person to research markets, sell products, and develop relationships. Competitors of U.S. firms abroad would be more than happy to see low rates of foreign language literacy continue among American businesspersons.
7. To Eat Better
One of the aspects I love most about a place is its food. So imagine learning a language by enjoying the food of a country. Many language-learning opportunities in this world take place around good food. To me, that’s the best way to learn a language – and use it for life! As Nicole Rosenleaf Ritter notes about her immersion language learning experience in Italy,
By the end of the two weeks we were able to communicate basic needs and understand a great deal more than that, plus we had recipes and wine sense enough to host excellent dinner parties for years to come. Most importantly, we are now able to say with confidence that we experienced a small slice of real Italian life... that definitely left us hungry for more.
8. To Learn More Deeply About a Place and Improve Your Cultural Literacy
Let’s be honest — we learn best by doing. You might choose to take a language class in a volcanic crater in Nicaragua, and learn about the environment there — and work to improve the local conservation efforts. By studying overseas, you’ll be able to navigate a place better just by being there for longer than a few days. Besides going to classes, you’ll be shopping, eating, drinking, and playing in a new culture — and language. A homestay greatly increases the immersion, as you are living with a family and learning about life in that culture.
There’s also a lovely aspect of immersive language learning: field trips! Learning a language on location means plenty of field trips, which teach you both about the country, and increases your vocabulary immensely.
Imagine learning Spanish in Grenada…and flamenco? Mariette Tachdjian did both — and notes that her cultural learning went deep, and greatly improved her cultural literacy:
Carmen de las Cuevas is the only foreign language and flamenco school situated right in the heart of the Albayzin-the old Arab quarter which was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1984. You can walk a few minutes uphill and reach the Sacromonte, where the famous gypsy-dwelling caves have now been mostly converted into flamenco venues. Still, the art of flamenco continues to be carried on there as a rich and pure tradition, or flamenco puro. Ask anybody in Granada and they will share with you their own passion for flamenco, and they may even share their family histories.
Learning a language abroad includes delving more deeply into a place through its culture, people, food, and passions — in this case flamenco in Spain.
9. To Become a Global Citizen — and Make Friends
The world is becoming smaller and smaller, because of digital innovations, global connections, and the ease of worldwide transportation. But there are also, at the same time, now wider and wider gaps between cultures since we each bring our own worldviews to the table. Learning a language through immersion teaches you many things - one of the most important is an inside look at another way of being in the world. You will also make new friends, which is an excellent way to increase peace and understanding in our global environment. You will make new friends with your homestay family, your classmates, or even people you meet in daily life. Global citizenship starts with personal connections and intercultural understanding. As Carolina Blythe writes about learning French in Paris,
Day one. A young man who, had he been outfitted in cape, hat, boots, and gloves could have passed for one of the three musketeers, walked into the class and said, "Bonjour, je m'appelle Xavier Dumont," then proceeded to rattle off a variety of information at breakneck speed. It all pretty much sounded like this to me: je lalalalalalala. Oui, nous lalalalalalala. Four hours later, he was still going. My head was throbbing. Not only could I not understand a thing, le professeur had a knack for picking people to answer questions who were clearly cowering under their desks. The lower I slumped in my seat, the more likely he was to call on me. This caused me to become even more self-conscious.
But an interesting thing happened along the way. I realized that of the 15 or so people in class, I was not the only one lost, and none of them were giving up.
We developed friendships that stretched beyond the confines of the classroom. Twice a week, we left class together to visit a nearby boulangerie for baguettes and tarts and a supermarché for legumes, pasta, and wine. Then we made our way to a designated apartment where we fait la cuisine, enjoyed a nice dinner, and discussed our day. On days off we took trips to Versailles or to visit the Museé D'Orsay. Our teacher became a part of our social sphere. We enjoyed evenings of five-franc pints of Guinness and Celtic music at a nearby bar with him, while he wove tales of Paris . . . in French, no less.
Immersive language learning is a great way to become a global citizen while making new friends.
10. To Grow and Become a Better Person
Any new experience will help you grow and become a better person. After all, life is about the journey, not the destination. You will learn so much about yourself and your beliefs by living in a different country. Linda McGrew lived in China for three years, and relates how studying Mandarin in China changed her life:
Aside from the obvious gain of having learned another language, my experiences in China also taught me the acceptance of differences in political, and moral beliefs, revised definitions of my own values, including feminism, idealism, privileges, family, perception, happiness, and success. It was a gift to tackle China and Mandarin — a gift that will never cease to keep giving.
Maybe you want to connect with your family better, as Jennifer Baljko did. She shares a beautiful story of language learning increasing family connection:
It took 31 years, but, finally, I was learning the language my grandparents think and pray in. The urgency of filling that gap sunk in when my grandfather was in the hospital. I couldn’t translate what a doctor had said into words my grandfather could understand. So I enrolled in a 4-week immersion course in Zagreb. The reward for hours spent crouched over papers with an eraser in my hand came in the form of a phone call. I had written a letter, in my 5-year-old Croatian vernacular, to my grandmother, and she called me to say hello. Using simple words I could follow, with a tremble in her voice and holding back tears, she said, “Srce moja, ja sam jako sretna.” (“My heart,” — a colloquialism that is much stronger than “my dear” — “I am very happy.”)
Transitions Abroad offers many resources on immersive language learning experiences. You can read more first-hand accounts on this site about language learning experiences.