Live a Language to Learn a Language

Bubble by Zzub Nik

Building a 'Language Bubble' can be the best way to learn a new language without traveling.

Contrary to what some people may tell you, you don’t have to move to a country that speaks your target language natively to become fluent.

For some reason a lot of people seem to treat moving to a country that speaks their target language as the ‘magic pill’ of language learning. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard some variation of ‘Well, if I had the money to go live in [country] for a year or two I’d be great at speaking [language]!’

I will admit, I can definitely see why people are fond of repeating it – you have plenty of success stories from people using this method, and since traveling to foreign lands is often seen as an expensive, difficult thing (a lie I’ll address in another article) it makes a perfect cop-out. There are plenty of ‘good excuses’ for why you just can’t travel right now, so no one can fault you for not learning that language you’ve been wanting to speak for years, right?

The problem is, moving to a country – regardless of duration of stay – will not teach you to speak a language unless you put the same amount of work in as would be required back home. I’ve met plenty of people who have lived, not vacationed but lived, in foreign countries for several years and never learned more of that country’s language than basic necessary phrases. I’m not the lone voice in the wilderness on this problem either.

So why does moving to a new country work for some people and not for others? Easy, it’s a question of immersion.

Diving into Language Immersion

Sorry for the mild pun. People who move to countries who speak their target language and are successful in learning it can get there so quickly because they are constantly exposed to their target language. If they want to chat with a new friend, it’s done in the target language. I they want to watch TV, it’s in the target language. Read a newspaper, buy a coffee, decipher the bus schedule, whatever – it’s in the target language.

You may be thinking, ‘Wait… some people aren’t successful. They’re exposed to the language constantly, why do they fail?’

Easy, if you got to know these people you would find that, consciously or not, they do everything they can to not expose themselves to the country’s native language. They ‘turtle-up’ and create a shield of their native language around themselves. I’ve seen it happen with non-English speakers too, but I have to admit we Americans seem notorious for this kind of behavior. People surround themselves with other English speaking expat/traveller friends, watch English TV via satellite or internet, and read only English news online. This English language bubble effectively insulates them from a majority of their exposure to any other language. They essentially create and inhabit an artificial, miniaturized, English-speaking country abroad – peppered only by a handful of excursions across the border.

Turning the Tables

Thankfully, we can take these problems and redirect them to our advantage so well it would make even O Sensei proud. See, if success comes when one allows oneself to be immersed in a language, and people in other countries can manage to keep themselves immersed in their native language, then that means people can do the opposite and immerse themselves in their target language without leaving their homeland.

So how do you do it? You construct your own language bubble – an L2 embassy, a linguistic fortress of solitude, a native language no man’s land, a… um… ok, you get the idea. The trick here is to take everything you would normally do throughout the day in your native language, and start doing it in the language you’re trying to acquire. This sort of tactic has been used extensively in the past to great success, one notable example being Khatzumoto who acquired Japanese without ever setting foot in Japan. Here’s some tips to get started:

  • Use your Technology – The easiest and, in my opinion, best first step to take is to go through every piece of technology you have and change the language settings into your target language. Be thorough too, don’t just switch your iPod’s language settings and call it a day. Change them on your computer, your e-mail client, everything. You’d be surprised at how many things have language settings now.
  • Work the Web – Most websites have language settings now too. Use them. There’s no reason you can’t use Gmail or Facebook in your target language. A handy trick if you’re using Google Chrome is to set it to automatically translate the pages you visit into your target language. Need to look something up? Use your target language’s Wikipedia page. A quick search should also turn up some news sites written in your target language.
  • Make Every Task Count – Start changing every little thing you do into an exercise in your target language. Need to make a shopping list? Do it in the target language. Memo for later? Target language. Keeping a journal? Target language. Compiling a hit list? Targe…. alright, don’t make a hit list. The more you can do in your target language, the better. It may take a while at first to look up all the words you don’t know. No worries, jot them down in a notebook for later. You’ll be impressed at how quickly you find yourself not needing to reach for the dictionary.
  • Update your Music Library – Clean out all the Backstreet Boys and Rick Astley, music in your native tongue isn’t going to get you anywhere. Spend a little time on YouTube or Last.fm and dig up some artists who sing in the language you’re trying to acquire. If you’re too cheap to buy their music once you find something you like, make a Grooveshark playlist of all your favorites. Don’t just use this for passive listening either, learn some of those songs!
  • Find New Friends – Let’s be honest, all your friends are deadbeats and they say mean things about you when you’re not around. Besides, all they ever want to do is speak in your native language- that’s so last year! Ditch those losers and find some cool friends. Kidding aside, finding native speakers of your target language to interact with is a huge step in becoming fluent in that language. Join Lang-8 and start posting, do a search for the social network of choice for the country which speaks your target language, or look for a Meetup group dedicated to it. There are a million ways to find native speakers in your area, so get social and go find them.

I’m sure there are a multitude of other ways to build your own self-contained immersion zone, and if you have any good ones please share them in the comments, but these should get you started. Before long, you’ll find you’ve gotten much, much further than people who stick to classrooms or bury themselves in ‘Total Immersion’ textbooks written mostly in English.

Have any of these tactics worked for you? Do you have any insights about them, what is easy what’s hard etc.? Let us know in the comments!

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com