Living in a Country Does NOT Automatically Make You Fluent in a Foreign Language

by Dr. Monroe Mann, PhD, Esq, MBA, LLM, ME, EMT
Founder & Exec. Dir., Break Diving, Inc. & the Fluency Project

Conventional wisdom says that actually living in a country where the language is spoken is like drinking from a firehose: you become fluent in no time.

But it’s wrong.

You see, in most cases, it’s quite easy to avoid that stream of water by simply walking to a part of the grass that doesn’t have the spigot.

In other words, many people live in a country and deliberately avoid the firehose (by hanging out with native language friends, by not living with a host family, by using English, etc).

In fact, the only time that this raw firehose analogy is correct is in two situations:
a) if the language you are studying is English; you’re in England, USA, Australia, etc.; and you actively force yourself to speak the language every day,
b) if you are studying a language other than English and the town you are in is very rural.  In this case, no one there speaks English, so you are forced to speak your target language.

In any other situation, it’s very easy to live in a foreign country and never learn it.

Some examples:
* I’m American and live in New York.  I can’t even begin to tell you how many people here speak Spanish, or Chinese, or Korean, or whatever and barely speak a word of English.  Shame on them for living in a country and not making an effort to learn that country’s language, but more importantly, it shows that you can live in the biggest English-speaking city in the world and… not become fluent in English.  Why?  Because it’s so easy to find a niche population where you can continue to speak your native tongue.  You don’t have to learn English anymore to live and work in the USA (but they really should, because it shows respect, and it expands that person’s world).
* I used to live in Shanghai, China, which is the biggest Chinese-speaking city in the world, and… I can’t even begin to tell you how many expats there barely speak a word of Chinese.  I hold them at fault too, for not trying to improve their Chinese, but the more important question is, “Why doesn’t living in Shanghai magically make people fluent in Chinese?”  The answer: so many people there speak English.

This is why I laugh when people say, “Oh, the best way to study a foreign language is in the country!”  Well, no, not necessarily.  First, you need discipline.  Second, you need determination.  Third, you need to want to become fluent so much that you refuse to speak any other language whenever you can.  Guess what?  You can do those things at home, in your home country: Study regularly, every day, practicing reading, writing, speaking, and listening.  If you can do that for three months consistently, then you may accelerate your learning by going to live in that country.

But there’s a caveat: too many people have great study habits at home, and then go to the foreign country, and become lazy, thinking “I’m in China” is enough.  No, it’s not.  In the host country, you need to then work every harder to keep up that daily discipline.  Study every day.  Talk to everyone as much as you can in Chinese.

And guess what?  Even that isn’t enough.  Why?  Most people are too shy to actually initiate conversations with people.  Most people are too timid to refuse to speak English when every native wants to practice their English with you.  In other words, very often, you will find the courage to ask for directions in Chinese (or French, or Spanish) and the other person will know you’re a foreigner and… respond in English.  To them, you are a tool to improve their English.  And shame on them for it.

I find it equally amusing and upsetting that this happens.  Here you are, the foreigner, spending hundreds (perhaps thousands) of dollars to travel to their country, and when you get there, and try to speak in their language, they decide to practice their language skills on your dime.  Not cool people!   It’s for this reason that when I find someone in the NYC Subway who I know is on vacation, even though I know they are from France, or Italy, or Germany, or China, I will first always speak to them in English.  Later, if there is time, and after I determine why they are here, I may ask, “Do you mind if I practice my Chinese/French/Spanish with you?”  They always say yes, but it’s the element of respect: I respect that this person flew all the way from his/her country to visit my country.  They made the effort.  Not me.  They made the expense, not me.  So I owe this person the courtesy of not pushing my own selfish desire to practice my language skills ahead of their herculean effort to get on a plane and fly over here.  Each of you reading this should keep this in mind too, the next time you meet a foreigner in your city…

But let’s go back to Shanghai: it requires a firm but friendly chastising whenever it happens.  I simply will not talk to them in English, and if they continue to speak to me in English, I will tell them, “不好意思,但是我要联系我的中文。我在中国,对不对?” (I apologize, but I’d like to practice my Chinese.  I’m in China, right?)   With a big smile!  No one gets offended, and they figure it out quickly.  If someone refuses, I refuse to speak to that person.  If I’m in a store, I will walk out of the store.  If I’m in a restaurant, I will leave the restaurant.

Harsh?  No, it’s what is required to ensure that your language immersion time in a foreign country is maximized.

When I lived in Switzerland for two years for college, I remember all of my American friends would laugh at me, “Monroe, you’re embarrassing yourself with your terrible Italian!”  And it was ’embarrassing’ insofar as it took me decades to order, ages to buy something, and eons to register for a program.  And yet, at the end of two years, guess who spoke Italian really well?  My friends to this day tell me, “I still remember how we all made fun of you, and yet, here you are, today, with Italian under your belt, and I still can’t say anything but ‘good morning’.  So yeah, the final requirement is that you need to put your ego at customs, because once you set foot on foreign soil, unless you are willing to put yourself in awkward ‘I have no idea what these people are saying to me and no idea how I’m going to explain this to them’ situations, you will never learn how to speak the language.

So, yeah, is language immersion in a country good?  It is, if you are the type of person who knows how to benefit from it.  Most people don’t.  And even after 2, 5 or 10 years, still don’t speak a word.

Therefore, if you go to a foreign country and come home with zero foreign language improvement, it won’t be because the opportunity wasn’t there.  It will be because you weren’t there.

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