We all know the argument: if you want to learn a foreign language, you have to live in a country where it’s spoken. Formal study is an artificial way of learning a language, whereas living somewhere the language is spoken guarantees proficiency. You’ll be immersed in the language, you’ll live and breathe it, you’ll assimilate it and think in it without even trying.
Well, I think that a lot of the technology we’ve come to use every day over the last few years is making this view obsolete. I simply don’t agree that living in a country automatically provides complete language immersion, quite apart from the fact that immersion itself doesn’t guarantee proficiency. If living in a place where a language is spoken always gave us an excellent level of the language, we’d expect returning Erasmus students to be language experts. And, er, they’re not. Note that I’m not talking about cultural insight here, which is a separate issue. What I want to focus on is language learning, in adulthood.
Over the last few years I’ve known many people who were spending longish periods in a foreign country. A lot of them, particularly the younger ones, went online to watch TV and films, listen to the radio and read newspapers and magazines, usually in their native language. They stayed in touch with their friends on Skype and Facebook, and their mobiles were set to their own language. When they went out, they spoke a little of the local language and a lot of their own language and/or English, which for better or worse is the world’s lingua franca. Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not criticising any of these activities. I also use Facebook, I also watch films and TV in English, I read the paper online, I follow blogs, I listen to the radio and watch videos online and my mobile is set to English. I’ve lived in four countries other than my own and in each one I’ve had friends I’ve spoken to in a language other than the local language.
The thing is that other than that last point, talking to people face-to-face, all these are options that either weren’t available or were much more limited as recently as five or ten years ago. My year abroad from university was a bit further back than that, 2000–01, and if we wanted to go online we had to go to the post office and pay by the minute for a slow, laboured connection. The computers were in pokey booths, and if I remember rightly we had to use them standing up. If we wanted to ring home, we had to go to the post office for that too, because international phone calls were too expensive to make from home. Admittedly we were in St Petersburg, Russia, and if we’d been somewhere like New York or Tokyo instead then these things would have been more readily available, but the fact remains that a lot of the technology we use without a second thought now simply didn’t exist then. And my year abroad wasn’t that long ago – I haven’t drawn a comparison with the ’80s, when I was a child, never mind any further back.
What’s changed between then and now is that these days you often have to make a conscious choice if you want to use the local language as your medium of communication. As you may know if you read this blog regularly, I recently moved to the Netherlands and am learning the language from scratch. When I turn on the TV, I have to choose whether to watch Dutch TV or the BBC channels; when I read the newspaper online I have to choose between the British one I have a subscription to – which is familiar and comfortable – or a local one. This is also true of print newspapers, incidentally: they’re easy to find close to where I live in any number of languages. Less than ten years ago I remember buying a day-old copy of a British newspaper in Spain for five euros and being happy to have found it.
When I’ve said to people that I don’t think living in a country automatically means you become proficient in the language I’ve been met with disagreement, if not outright disbelief. Ah, they say, but I know from my own experience that living in the country is an irreplaceable way to enrich your vocabulary; your language knowledge cannot possibly stagnate. One friend told me she’d needed to buy a new duvet. She had to go to several shops before she found one the right size, which meant explaining again and again what she was looking for; she says she’ll never forget the Spanish word for duvet. Others have told me that they would never have learnt the idiomatic expressions used in such-and-such a situation if they had not been living with a host family or spending time with native-speaker friends.
Well, I’m sure this is true as far as it goes but I think it misses two important points. Firstly, even if my friend never forgets the Spanish for duvet, that’s only one word. Language proficiency requires a vocabulary of thousands of lexemes, many of them used in contexts far removed from your everyday experience if you move to a new country as an adult. Every child will learn words like hoof, mane and caterpillar, for example; it’s inconceivable that an adult would not know those words in their native language. But I could have spent any number of years in St Petersburg or Zaragoza without coming across them more than once in a blue moon. I spent four years in Russia and six in Spain, but the reason I know how to say hoof, mane and caterpillar in Russian and Spanish is that I sat down and learnt them in vocab lists. Not to mention the fact that we tend to forget quite a lot of what we learn. How many Spanish words did my friend learn in, say, two months, and how many others did she forget? The often sieve-like nature of the human brain is one of the main reasons I put so much work into maintaining my language knowledge.
Secondly, many of the expressions people use in very homey contexts are colloquial if not demotic, and their use may well be restricted to a particular region, age group, activity, etc. In other words, they may not actually be that useful. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learnt plenty of vocab over the years through living with a host family and spending time with friends, but in many cases those are precisely the expressions I’d think twice about using with anyone else, or in a more formal setting.
Of course, there have always been people who have lived in a foreign country but not learnt the language, so it’s not all down to new technology. Sometimes people don’t want to learn the language, or feel embarrassed, or don’t have time (maybe they work long days to make ends meet and then look after their children in the evenings). But in the last few years it’s become much, much easier to live somewhere without learning the language. Today we have choices we didn’t have in the past. I think that means we have to be much more disciplined in choosing between them, but at the same time our self-discipline’s undermined: we can check our email on our phones instead of waiting until we get home, we can watch TV on demand instead of being dependent on the schedules, and so on.
These arguments work in reverse too, of course: just as being in a country doesn’t automatically immerse you in the language any more, so being away from a country doesn’t necessarily mean you lose touch with it. I can tune into a familiar radio station from where I live now, and I can also listen to Kommersant FM or Radio Nacional de España when I’m in London. So how much does our physical location really determine our linguistic environment these days?
What do you think? Are your experiences similar to mine, or do you agree more with the standard view that the best or only way to learn a language properly is by living somewhere where it’s spoken? Do you access media in your own language from abroad, or in a foreign language from your own country? Share your thoughts!