It’s a dream for many people to spend a summer break in an exotic foreign country, hanging out with the locals, making a friend or two (or even a summer romance!) and returning home refreshed and fluent in a foreign language.
But can someone just pick up a language simply by being in the country in which it is spoken? Many companies that organize immersion exchange programmes, summer camps or English language courses in an English-speaking country would have you believe that it’s so much easier than with traditional English academies or online English classes. Even the word immersion itself sounds so, well, easy. Just immerse yourself in the language, like standing under a waterfall, and everything will just seep into your skin.
I’m afraid to say that in my case this just did not happen. Before I spent four months travelling around South America, everyone had told me I would ‘pick up’ Spanish as easy as ‘uno, dos, tres’. I took an Ipod full of Spanish songs, somehow hoping that the language flowing through my ears would end up stuck in my brain. But after a month or two, I couldn’t do much more than order a beer and have a basic conversation. So why was I ‘failing’?
Firstly, I had the wrong attitude. I expected the learning to happen without putting in any effort – I thought that just the exposure of the language from people or songs was enough. I never wrote new words down. I didn’t study them or revise them, which meant that when I wanted to use those words again I just couldn’t remember them.
Secondly, I was travelling alone, with no one to help me. Since nobody was a teacher, they didn’t know how to explain words or grammar points to me in a simple way. I met lots of Spanish speakers and when I listened to them speaking, I could only catch a few words that I understood. Participating was almost impossible: by the time I had put together a response in the language, the conversation had moved on to a different topic. This intense listening left me exhausted and demotivated.
So, what’s the lesson? Just being in an English-speaking country and being exposed to English from native speakers is not enough. Yes, use the environment around you as a source of language, but dedicate your time to writing down and memorising vocabulary and grammar, and then using it!
For those of you who do not have the time or option of living and travelling in an English-speaking country, there are ways to learn English that are just as effective, whether it’s going to an English school with other students or taking learning English online on your own. Most importantly, it’s vital to have people to practice your speaking with who can correct you and guide you. Look for places in your city where English speakers go, try Skype English classes with a native English teacher or find an exchange partner who wants to learn your language.
However you do it, learning English (or any other language for that matter) requires a lot of time and dedication, and it should be treated with the same amount of study as any other subject, if not more… There are no quick fixes or tricks, but in the end it is definitely worth it! And remember, just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting and entertaining. You should always find ways to learn the type of English that will be useful for you, not what other people think you should learn. And why not try out all the methods and activities out there before settling on those that best match your needs and your personality? You might be surprised and discover something that works out great… for you! Of course if this happens while you’re fully immersed in an English-speaking country, the experience might very well be that much more enriching.
Article written by Hannah Yurk