The other day, I saw my extended family for the first time since coming back from China (Happy 21st Birthday to my cousin!). Everyone asked me if I was now fluent in Mandarin; my 公公 (gùnggùng/gōnggōng/mother’s father*) kept calling me “big China man”; and my 叔叔 (sūksùk/shūshu/uncle) insisted that if I spent 6 months in China I’d come home fluent!
It is a commonly-held belief that the best way to become fluent in a language is to go to a country that speaks it. Studying abroad can be fantastic for your language learning but it is not a gamechanger. The ‘three keys to successful language learning’ still apply, and the onus still lies on you to make things happen.
Sparks didn’t fly between me and the Spanish language until I wandered the labyrinthine streets of Seville and explored the hillside neighbourhoods of Granada. Mandarin is a ‘very useful language’ but that didn’t mean anything tangible to me until I was introducing myself to my Chinese neighbours. There may be other ways to emotionally connect with a language but, for me, travelling is often what lights the fire.
Regardless of which country you’re in, you need to have intrinsic motivation to learn. It’s what will carry you through when you’re tired after agonisingly resorting to Pleco every few minutes to get your point across on your coffee date, and struggling to describe the haircut you want without even knowing the word for “haircut”. A Brit I met through mutual friends had spent 18 months there and was still happy knowing just “hello”, “goodbye”, and “thank you”. She had even dated a couple Chinese men and complained that cultural misunderstandings broke those relationships down.
I have heard there are Turkish migrants who have lived in Germany for for years who still count trees “ein Baum, zwei Baum, drei Baum”. They never noticed that “ein Baum” becomes “zwei Bäume“. I guess they never really cared?
Living in a foreign country offers you countless opportunities to improve through imitation as you’re relentlessly bombarded with new information at all angles. One caveat is that it will all remain mere noise to you unless you have the willingness and ability to notice patterns and reproduce them. A second depends on your existing level in the language. That is, you simply won’t be able to internalise nuanced differences if you don’t have the vocabulary to pick them out in the first place.
To reach real ‘fluency’, the ability to speak well and speak comfortably in a variety of different social situations, you need to spend a great deal of time expanding your vocabulary. Going to China helped me to leap from Elementary to the foothills of Intermediate, mastering everyday-Mandarin and building a strong base. However, I’m actually happy to be home now. Here, I can learn and absorb new and varied vocabulary at my own pace, which will bring to life the grammar structures I am now familiar with. Next time I’m in China, I will be able to access more interesting conversations and have a richer experience.
For most of us, time and money are finite resources. In this way, Benny Lewis of FluentIn3Months really is more of a promoter than a model to follow. In my opinion, travelling abroad is one of the best things you can do to help you learn a foreign language but if you want to reach fluency, you need to put in the time regardless of where you are.
Takeaway: If you would like to learn a language but are waiting to go to the country, stop making excuses! Studying abroad can help ignite you into action but, ultimately, it cannot substitute for intrinsic motivation, willingness and ability to notice, and time. There is a lot to be gained from learning in your home country, the responsibility lies in your hands.
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*Actually my cousin’s mother’s father. For more on Chinese kinship terms, click here.