You are tired of watching Netflix in French. You’ve read all the volumes of Prust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and can cite long paragraphs from Citadelle by heart. You dream about dipping your croissants in black coffee while gazing at the majesty of the Eiffel Tower and chatting in French with a waitress.
Ok, maybe it was a bit exaggerated. But this overwhelming urge to test your language skills in a real-world terrain is a clear-cut sign that you need to go on a language immersion trip, my friend.
Do you indeed need to make a language learning trip?
In July, I spent three incredible weeks in Spain.
I’ve been hiking in Pyrenees, scuba diving in Gibraltar, taking pictures of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
and tasting sangria (wherever I went). I also got locked overnight in the University of Sevilla, to add up to the list of adventures. But, what’s more important, I spent these three weeks speaking Spanish, thinking Spanish and falling in love with it.
To make it clear, I wasn’t a fan neither of Spanish culture nor of the Spanish language itself. All I wanted is to know this tongue well enough to study in Barcelona a year later. But going on such a language retreat made a huge shift in my relationship with Spanish.
In short, now it’s my favorite language.
You don’t have to love the language you’re learning or be a fan of a country it’s spoken in. You may learn it out of work obligations, study requirements, business needs… you name it. But I promise that making a language immersion trip will be a turning point of your learning experience.
How to organize a language learning trip on your own
Organizing a language trip is a lot like planning a vacation. But apart from thinking when to go, where to stay and what to do, you have to ponder on how to improve your language skills while abroad.
It comes down to one question. This question is “How can you create the best possible environment for acquisition of that another language?”.
In this post, I’ll show you exactly how to do it.
Book your language proficiency test abroad
The whole idea of going on a language learning trip came to me when I realized that I need to take the DELE exam.
I could have taken it here, in Toronto. But instead, in a fit of “why the heck not”, I booked the test in Sevilla. Thus, my language retreat divided into two parts: a stressful pre-test week and the post-test “chill”.
The mere thought of the upcoming exam motivated me to spend as much time as possible honing my language abilities. Plus, being around the natives helped me improve my listening and speaking skills.
So if you are planning to take a proficiency test, consider doing it in a country where your target language is widely spoken. It will help you a lot.
Time block your language learning sessions
A language immersion trip can morph into a typical sightseeing vacation in a blink of an eye.
The difference between the two is the amount and the quality of time you devote to language learning itself.
In my case, this “quality time” translated into preparation for the DELE B2 exam. Every morning I walked to the University of Sevilla and studied in a library. This way, I got all the formal study done early in the morning, felt safe for my test scores and still had all day to myself.
2 hours of focused “deep work-style” study in the morning is, in my opinion, optimal. Time block this time in your calendar and do most of your work in that period. If you’re not taking a test, spend this time practicing immersion reading, listening to podcasts or reading a book.
Or… meet with your tutor.
Find a tutor
I tend to avoid any type of language classes, but a tutor… well, having a daily one-to-one lesson with a tutor can be a great idea.
One study has found that having someone who considers you a valuable partner in a conversation is a major success factor in language learning.
A tutor is likely to be one of the first people you speak with in your target language. And if this person succeeds in creating a safe environment, you may see a dramatic improvement in your language abilities.
So, at least, it is worth trying.
How to improve your language skills while abroad
Paradoxically, your language learning trip does not have to be centered on language study.
Often, it’s better to organize your language retreat around a non-linguistic activity: go to a mountain bike camp, for example, or to mini surf holidays.
The only catch is that all the instruction must be in your target language.
It is not a mission impossible. You don’t have to be a fluent speaker to pull it through. Your part is to understand your instructor, and this skill can be mastered in a month. When you understand what other people say and you have someone talk to you on a daily basis, little by little you start to speak yourself.
Take non-language classes in a local school
Just to illustrate what I mean…
Here’s a scan of my scores on the DELE B2 exam. I took it just before going to Tarifa and taking PADI Rescue Diver course with a Spanish-speaking instructor.
As you can see, I… well, sucked in the speaking part of the test. However, my score for listening comprehension was pretty high (thanks to the ton of podcasts I went over).
Of course, before starting my underwater adventures, I read the whole PADI Rescue Diver manual both in English and in Spanish. You know, just to make sure that I won’t die in case I didn’t understand my instructor.
I spent a week in that diving center, and it was the best week I’ve had this summer. I was incredibly lucky to find a person who was patient enough to listen to what I tried to say in my broken Spanish. And I can say that scuba diving helped me to improve my Spanish more than anything else.
So, recall your non-linguistic interests. Kite surfing, scuba diving, mountain biking, guitar, tango… there are classes for everything. Contact a local school and enroll in a course.
It will be an unforgettable experience.
How to stick to your goals during a language trip
There’s another important point to keep in mind here. During your language immersion trip, you have to speak your target language. Not English. Not any other language. Your target language.
What could possibly go wrong with that, one would think.
Be careful with who speak with
You go to Lyon to practice your French and find yourself hanging out with fellow-travelers. By the end of your “language immersion trip”, your realize that you spoke English all the time. The trip was great, no doubts, but your French is still where it was.
Sounds familiar? Well, this is how it usually happens.
What you want to avoid like plague on your language learning trip is people who speak English. Hands down, it’s the hardest part. First of all, it means that you have to depart on a language retreat alone or with a like-minded friend. Otherwise, you will get stuck in a comfy English-speaking environment.
But even if you go alone, beware. I remember finding myself in a company of Frenchmen in my hostel in Sevilla. I loved hanging out with them, but activating French three days before my Spanish test made irreversible damage to my brain.
So be careful with people, or as Mikhail Bulgakov once wrote: “Never Talk to Strangers”.
Commit to the No English rule
Wherever you go, people will try to speak English to you because you look “foreigny“. Don’t give in. No matter what, don’t speak English. Deny, shake your head and pretend that you don’t understand.
Use a dictionary, have your Google Translate at hand but don’t take a shortcut of the international lingua franca. Order from a menu in a local language, even if you have no idea what the heck this quesadilla is. Abandon your Google Maps and ask locals how to get to the train station. Start conversations yourself and set the language right from the beginning. If you’re having a rebound, watch Scott Young’s TED talk for some inspiration.
I had many funny moments with this in Spain. Spaniards would ask me something in English, I would reply in Spanish. They would continue with English, I would stick to Spanish. At the end of the count, won who was more stubborn. Me.
Persistence pays off.
Avoid the lone wolf syndrome
There’s another extreme people tend to fall to when abroad – loneliness.
It shouldn’t happen to you if you got yourself a tutor or enrolled in some courses. That way, you get stuck with native speakers of your language for at least the duration of your course – just enough to develop close relationships.
Another way to avoid loneliness is to go to small towns instead of big cities and live in hostels rather than in hotels.
In a hostel, you’re guaranteed to find yourself a company. And if you stay in a small town, your roommates may even be natives. For example, in Tarifa, I stayed in one room with three Spanish girls from Jerez. They didn’t speak English at all and were dead set to party all night. Language barriers didn’t exist.
How to make an amazing language learning trip: recap
The recipe for having a fabulous language immersion trip is simple. Create yourself as many opportunities to speak your target language as possible.
- Go alone or with like-minded friends;
- Prefer small villages to big cities;
- Book hostels instead of hotels;
- Commit to the No English Rule once you crossed the border;
- If you’re taking a proficiency test, consider booking it abroad;
- Find a language tutor;
- Time block the first two hours of a day for language study;
- Find a local school to learn something other than language;
- If you can’t come up with an activity, consider volunteering;
Look for opportunities to talk, be persistent and don’t give in. As long as your stick to these rules, you are bound to have the best language trip ever.
Image Credits: Alina Kuimova