Learning a new language is a great idea. People who can speak more than one language are in more demand by employers, and can interact with a larger audience. However, many people believe that traveling to a foreign country is the best way to learn the language of that country. I’ve met dozens of people who pay a lot of money to go overseas, expecting to come back speaking fluent *insert-language-here*
Many immigrants in the United States do not speak English very well, even after living here for 20 years. Many of us make the same basic mistakes for decades – for example, saying things like “He make tea?” Instead of “Did he make tea?” Or “I help you “instead of” I will help you.” Many immigrants still speak with strong accents, allowing others to instantly classify them as being from somewhere in Asia, South America, Africa, Russia, etc…
One of the reasons why many immigrants do nothing about their grammar and pronunciation is that there is little pressure to do so. Other people can understand them despite their mistakes (sometimes with a little effort of course :), and are usually too respectful to correct them. How many people do you actually correct if they mispronounce a word, or use the wrong verb tense when speaking? Unless they’re a good friend, despite your good intentions, you’ll just come off as being a jerk if you try to correct them.
Living in a foreign country simply does not make you speak the language of the country very well. It doesn’t force you to learn good grammar, good pronunciation, or extensive vocabulary, because you can navigate your new country just fine without it. For example, one can skip all the articles when speaking in English (“Give me Apple,” “Where Empire State building?”) and you would still be able to shop or ask for directions just fine.
Being in a foreign country only forces you to learn what you need to survive – the ability to understand everyday language and the ability to talk enough to order pizza and communicate with your colleagues and studies. The rest is up to you, your motivation and your ability to learn – which means you would be practically in the same situation as someone who is learning the language in their own country.
In addition, being in a foreign country often forces you to say wrong sentences, because you feel compelled to speak quickly even if you make many mistakes – particularly if you’re in a fast paced setting. When you are in a foreign country, you can often not decide to temporarily stop talking to people and concentrate on practicing your writing when you’re dealing with busy New Yorkers, for example.
By making mistakes you will reinforce your bad habits, and after a couple of years of sentences like “He make tea?,” it will be very difficult to start speaking correctly.
On the other hand, taking your time actually expedites learning for you’re able to look up proper conjugation, definition, and pronunciation.
If you really want to learn a new language, then formal training in school or via a tutor is the best method. I was lucky enough to spend nearly 7 years learning a foreign language through high school and college.
Short of formal training, if you have the motivation, you could well simulate a foreign country environment in your own home. Try watching foreign TV series or reading content in other languages on the internet. You can learn at your own pace and concentrate on pronunciation, grammar, and writing before you start speaking.
After you have learned to speak the language and really built up a solid foundation, aka you’re at least an intermediate level speaker, then it makes more sense to travel to a country where the language is spoken to perfect your skills and master the accent.
Although going to a foreign country seems like a sure way to master the language, that’s simply not true. Sure, you’ll gain insight into other cultures, probably have some great food, and make new friends, but don’t expect to come back fluent.