Learning a New Language: Before or After Travel?

learning a new language

Today’s Culture with Travel post is by Jesse

For me, language learning and travel were always one in the same dream. For whatever reason, I was drawn to parts of the world that spoke little English. I always imagined that, if and, when I was able to travel, I would learn the local language as well. So, last summer I decided to learn Russian while spending 3 months in Ukraine.

The trip was an amazing experience, but learning Russian (consistently ranked as one of the harder languages for native English speakers to learn) was a bit more than I bargained for; even though I was in a country full of people who knew the language.

In this post, I’ll look at the pros and cons of learning a foreign language both while you travel and before you travel. Hopefully, my experience (limited as it may be) will benefit anyone who is considering learning a new language while traveling abroad.

The benefits of learning while you travel

Immersion in the language

The biggest benefit of learning a foreign language while you travel is that you can immerse yourself in the language. Immersion more or less means doing all or most of your day-to-day activities in your new language instead of your native one. If you’ve ever read up on language learning, you’ve probably noticed that there’s a lot of hype surrounding the idea of language immersion. This is for good reason. Research has consistently shown that learning a language in an immersion environment is the most effective and efficient way to learn a foreign language.

You have a lot of incentive

When you are in a foreign country (especially one that has a low level of English proficiency), your reasons for learning the language become very urgent. Back home, it’s easy to put off your language practice, but abroad you’ll need at least basic language skills to help you get by. If you’re a native English speaker, chances are you won’t absolutely need to learn the local language, but you won’t be able to deny the short term benefits.

When I was in Ukraine, I either had to learn Russian or Ukrainian, or I couldn’t perform basic tasks like buying food, ordering at a restaurant, or reading the bus route map.

You have unlimited opportunities to practice

Depending on where you live and the language you’re learning, it can be hard to find native speakers in your area. Obviously, when you’re abroad, this problem doesn’t exist. All you need to do is walk out your door to practice the language.  

The drawbacks of learning a language while in the country

Your experience in the country will be limited by your language skill

If there isn’t a high level of English in the country you’re visiting, then your experience and interactions with locals will be heavily dependent on how well you speak the local language. While this is a great way to learn, it’s not always the best way to enjoy a trip. Yes, speaking the native language with the locals can be the epitome of cultural exchange, but if your language level is low, forget about it. You’ll be stuck asking people what their favorite food is or how many children they have.  

Immersion is efficient but it’s not easy

Immersion is probably the most intensive way to learn a language. The idea of immersion sounds nice, but it’s far from easy. During my time in Ukraine, there would be multiple times in a day where I felt like my brain was burning. After a few Russian conversations, I would feel like I just ran a couple blocks around the city.

The benefits of learning before you travel

You can take your time

The first benefit of learning a language before you travel can also be its first drawback (more on that soon): when learning a language at home, you can take things nice and easy. Personally, I like be able to take my time with learning a foreign language and gradually work on the basics. Only after I have a foundation in the language, do I start to really dive into things.

If you’re abroad, and have to learn the language in order to communicate day by day, you don’t have that luxury.

You can better enjoy your trip

My biggest regret about the summer in Ukraine was then I didn’t spend more time learning the language before I got there. While I was there, I wanted to interact with people and explore the city. I didn’t want to spend my time memorizing noun declensions. If I had had a higher level in Russian proficiency before traveling, both my trip and language learning experience would have benefitted.

The Drawbacks of learning a language before you travel

It takes more discipline

Because learning a language at home is usually a much more relaxed method than immersion, there’s a tendency to get lazy or complacent in your study. You can certainly use your travel date as a deadline to set a goal, but I’ve found this is more effective the first month before your trip. The further out from your travel date you try to study, the harder it will be to maintain your motivation.

It can be hard to practice with people

This largely depends on the language you’re learning and where you live. Because I elected to learn Russian, I struggled to find any Russian speakers where I lived. I was able to practice with native speakers through a free online language exchange, which was good but it didn’t replace the benefits of in-person communication.  

Finding a happy medium

I’ve somewhat already alluded to this, but I think the best way to learn a language is to get a firm grasp on the basics before you go overseas. The beginning phase of language learning (after you get past stock phrases and the most basic sentences), is the first significant hurdle you’ll face in your journey to fluency. If you can cross that threshold before you step off the plane, you’ll be in a much better position to enjoy your travels, and reap the benefits of an immersive environment.

If I could go back, and learn Russian again before my trip, this how I would do it. So if you’re interested in learning a language and traveling, I hope you found some practical advice here that you can use to help you succeed with your personal language goals!

About the author: Jesse is a writer and founder of Livefluent.com, a language learning blog for native English speakers learning foreign languages. 

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