- Learning a language abroad is a great way to travel and improve your skills in a natural setting.
- There are numerous pros to learning languages through immersion.
- Even though learning a language abroad has potential cons, it's a great experience you should consider.
Learning a language abroad is a great way to change it up from your normal classroom experience in your home country. Aside from the opportunity to fully immerse yourself in the language, you can also make new friends and learn about a new country and its culture.
Like everything in life, there are pros and cons to learning a language abroad. We're here to share the realities with you to help you decide if making the leap into an overseas language classroom is the right move for you.
But first, let's take a look at why learning another language is difficult and how that can affect your experience overseas.
Why is learning a foreign language difficult?
For a lot of people, learning another language is difficult. But why? There's actually some science behind why picking up a second (or third) language isn't as easy as learning other skills.
Stephen Krashen is an American linguist who studies language acquisition which is the process of learning and understanding language. Under his Theory of Second Language Acquisition, Krashen made five hypotheses. Of these five, one of the most important that relates to adult language learners is the affective filter hypothesis.
Simply put, the affective filter can help or hinder your language learning. As an adult, learning another language can be negatively influenced by a number of mental, emotional, and environmental factors such as:
- Low confidence
- An unsupportive learning environment
- Anxiety or fear around learning
If your affective filter is high because, for example, you're afraid of being judged or looking silly for making a mistake, your language acquisition will not be as smooth or easy. Studying a language abroad may put you in situations where your affective filter is higher or lower than normal; it all depends on your state of mind and learning environment.
Con: Local native speakers want to practice English with you
It's a common problem English speakers face when abroad: you're surrounded by native speakers of your target language but everyone wants to speak English with you.
When I first moved to Spain, I thought this was a deliberate insult to my language skills. Surely they've switched to English because my Spanish isn't good enough, right? I came to realize though that this usually wasn't the case. While sometimes people in the service industry switch to English to save time when working in a busy store or restaurant, most people just see an opportunity to practice their own language skills. Don't take it personally!
Pro: You have endless opportunities for language exchanges
If you meet a lot of people who want to practice English with you, why not ask to set up a language exchange? Language exchanges are fantastic and free ways to help and be helped when learning another language. Usually, you and your language partner will meet up to speak half in English and half in the target language for an agreed-upon amount of time. This can be done at a cafe, bar, park, or anywhere that's comfortable for the two of you.
When I worked as an English teacher in Alicante, Spain, I met up once a week after school with another teacher who wanted to practice English in preparation for a proficiency exam. I helped her for a half-hour in English, then we would switch to Spanish for the last 30 minutes. During my portion of the exchange, I liked to read out loud to her to practice my accent and ask questions about any unknown vocabulary.
Language exchanges can be informal chats or more structured -- it all depends on what works best for the two of you! We both gained a lot from those meetings and formed a strong friendship in the process.
Con: You may only surround yourself with other English speakers
When you're away from home in a country with a language and culture different from your own, it's natural to gravitate toward people you feel like you relate to. Let's face it: it's just easier speaking your own language! This can easily be a crutch though and can hold you back from making local friends and fully immersing yourself in your host country.
I am personally guilty of this and can say honestly that surrounding myself with other English speakers has stunted my Spanish language learning. I do have some Spanish friends, but they have great levels of English and we often fall into speaking English the entire time we're together.
I've been studying Spanish since I was ten and have a bachelor's in Spanish Language and Literature, so while I have a high level I still lack confidence in striking up conversations with strangers, something I love to do in English. I know that if I made a bigger effort, I'd be a lot more fluent than I am now.
Pro: Expat communities can be important support networks
In Madrid, Spain, there's a much-loved English language bookstore and bar called J&J Books and Coffee. It's a pillar in the expat community and while there are Spanish patrons, the overwhelming majority are from the US and other English-speaking countries. Going there feels like a home away from home and can be comforting when you've had a particularly hard day.
Sociologically, these types of immigrant establishments serve important roles in building cohesion and a sense of belonging. They offer support and connections to resources. If you need guidance on things like facing bureaucratic processes, there's likely someone there who has been through it and can advise you. Or, at the very least they'll know someone else who can help.
It's important to balance a sense of security with venturing out and making new friends from the local area.
Con: Native speakers speak too quickly
In a learning environment, your teacher is likely slowing down their speech to make themselves more easily understood. So, when you get out there in an everyday situation with a native speaker, chances are they aren't holding back. Even with an upper-intermediate level of Spanish, I sometimes encounter situations where, due to the speed of speech and an unfamiliar accent, I miss the message entirely.
When you're starting out in a language, being surrounded by native speakers can be intimidating, if not downright scary. Try to focus on picking up the main point rather than understanding every word.
Pro: Listening to native speakers trains your ear
Even if the natural speed of native speakers is daunting, it's helping you to improve! The only way to get used to understanding a language in a natural context is to listen, listen, listen. Soon enough, you'll start to understand the pitch, cadence, and nuances of the accents around you. It will take time and patience, but it's vital to gaining fluency.
When not out and about, try listening to podcasts and news and watching TV shows and movies in your target language. Immersion is key!
Con: It’s hard to translate classroom learning into everyday conversation
When you're learning a language in a classroom, even if that classroom is overseas, it can be difficult to simulate organic conversations you'll encounter out in the street. Because learning is structured and specific grammar and vocabulary are being taught, you may find that while you're a top student during class, you struggle to speak naturally to native speakers. In a natural conversation, it can be hard to predict what's coming next and you may find yourself searching your language memory bank for an appropriate verb conjugation or expression.
This is where practice comes in! Join those language exchanges, make friends with native speakers, and venture out on your own in your town or city.
Pro: Classroom learning helps build confidence in a safe space
Although classrooms might make learning feel scripted, they do offer a safe space to practice (hopefully) without judgment. Remember that affective filter we talked about? A supportive and relaxed classroom environment can promote confident learning and can be a place to play with language.
When taking Spanish classes at an academy in Madrid, I found one day that I was making a ton of silly mistakes. At one point, instead of saying he hecho, I've made, which is an irregular conjugation, I said he hacendado which is completely made up but follows the normal rule of adding -ado to the verb ending.
"He hacendado?" My teacher mused. "That's a brand at Mercadona!" The entire class burst out laughing but I held back from bursting into tears. I kept my head down for the rest of class and didn't speak again. Even though, yes, I had said the name of a generic brand at a local grocery store chain, it was a mistake she should have corrected gently rather than making a joke at my expense. My affective filter was way up after this.
Don't end up like me! Make sure your future language school is supportive of its students and cultivates positive classroom energy (and a low affective filter!). Check out past reviews on our site to find the right fit!
Con: Culture shock can be overwhelming
Culture shock is real. When you go abroad, it's hard to remember that everything you know and accept as normal is only based on your own cultural lens. Being faced with something different from what you know can stir up a lot of unpleasant emotions. It's important to keep in mind, though, that as a guest in another country, it's up to you to adjust and be open-minded.
I've lived in Spain for going on five years and I still am struck by how openly people stare at others here. Staring is not considered rude or inappropriate in most situations. However, as someone who grew up in a country where you're told from a young age not to stare and where staring can be perceived as aggressive, it still shakes me. Almost daily I have to remind myself that I can't judge a place by US norms. Being mindful of this can help ease feelings of culture shock while learning a language overseas.
Read more: How to Deal with Culture Shock While Abroad
Pro: Living abroad makes you a stronger and more open-minded person
The first time I left the US back in 2008 for a language study abroad in Spain, I realized just how big the world is. I had been an avid watcher of The Travel Channel before that but no TV program can prepare you for living the experience yourself. Studying in Spain changed my entire worldview and helped me to see and start to understand the ways culture and language shape our perceptions. The first trip wasn't without its roadblocks, confusion, and occasional tears but it was absolutely the best thing I ever did for myself.
Studying another language abroad will show you just how strong, resilient, and resourceful you are. You will certainly face ups and downs as you navigate a new place but it will equip you with invaluable skills you'll carry with you forever.
More pros than cons
Overall, I think it's safe to say that learning a language abroad has more pros than it does cons. By being aware of the common pitfalls, you can be sure to make the most of your experience and soak up all the lessons it has to offer -- both in the classroom and out.