Has anyone ever told you, with a serious face: ‘If you want to learn a language, I think you need to go to the country, that’s where you’re gonna learn’? And in retort, have you never come across a post on a language learning blog explaining that, with the possibilities of the net, you don’t need to travel to create your own language learning environment? I’ve been living in China for three and a half months now, and my language skills have made tremendous progress as a result, even as I attended classes less and less. I’d like to reflect on this recent experience to provide my insights into the ‘travel or stay home’ debate about language learning.
It is true that, with internet media, skype-tutors and multicultural communities, it is entirely possible to build one’s own ‘in-country-like’ environment in any major western city. Conversely, the same elements of globalisation mean you can live in China without ever speaking Mandarin, surrounding yourself with expats, hanging out in English-speaking cafes and restaurants, and streaming American movies on your laptop. It is particularly easy when you live in Shanghai or Beijing, where expats are many, and often have a great story to share.
There is no necessary scenario playing itself out, and learning will take efforts. The nature and degree of effort needed, however, may vary. Learning a new language is extraordinarily demanding, at an intellectual level certainly, but in terms of motivation too. Not only do you keep forgetting the words you learn, not only do you find yourself articulating vague statements along the lines of ‘Australia good, bad, China good, bad, same same’, but whenever a parameter changes – noise in the background, someone speaking in a soft voice, or a topic you’re not familiar with – you find yourself unable to perform at the level you thought you’d reached months ago. And often despair strikes in.
Learning Chinese in China can be remarkably painful. The taxi driver will not understand you when you say ‘Nanjing university’. The waiter will not understand that you’re saying ‘black coffee’. That pretty girl or boy that you met will have an impossible accent; or the loud music will bang bang their speech into syllable mash. You will stare at the bus timetable, and not find your stop among the sea of characters. Easily, you will fall into the comfort of expat bubbles, or avoid anything involving speech and movement. But when your energy returns, you just have to step on the road, and you’ve got Chinese all around you. More interactions with your environment will require – and develop – further language skills. And sometimes, Chinese will just barge into your comfort zone, in the form of a loud neighbour, perplexed waiter, or bill to pay.
Learning from home, the opposite will be true: your Chinese bubble will be fragile, and require ongoing care and attention. Sure, you can build a community of Mandarin speakers around you – but if you bring anyone else into the mix, the group language will shift towards English. Sure, you can listen to Chinese radio, but can you do that when your friends are around. And sure, you can read Chinese books and papers and magazines – once you’ve reached a certain level – but who’s around to talk about them – and where do you get them from?
Finally, when you learn in-country, opportunities will increase your appetite for the language, and your desire to learn more. Whether it’s appealing books at the bookstore, business meetings and partnerships, or good-looking locals, you will have a direct sense of how much more you could do if only your language skills were better – and that sense will help you get through the pain and frustrations of learning. While at home, learning that foreign language requires an extra layer of discipline – to reject other more appealing offers, drinks with friends or colleagues, a film with your partner, a short week-end on the coast. And when you’ve spent the cognitive energy to reject these offers, stick to your discipline – how much is left for study?
Living in the country for a while won’t help you learn the language out of necessity – but possibility.
Have you learnt a foreign language at home or by living overseas? What was your experience like – please share it in the comments of this post!