Travelling to learn languages

Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


Although I can’t say that I’m a veteran, I’ve done some travelling in countries which language I’ve studied in school, namely France and the Republic of China. Since Chinese is what I’m focusing on right now, that’s where the main focus of this short article will be. I’ve heard many people say that a good way of learning a language is to travel, and I’ll do my best to explain why I think this is wrong in at least one important way. Travelling is a way of learning a language, but not in the way most people think. Of course, I realise that all learners aren’t one and the same, but I do think that what I’m going to say is true in a more general sense.

What has to be realised at first is that learning a language is an extremely time-consuming project. There are thousands upon thousands of words to learn and numerous grammatical points to understand. There are two ways of learning this, either one can grow up in an environment where the language is spoken or one can study it in school. There are ways of mixing these two, such as playing computer games or watching TV in the target language, but I’m making this distinction in order to simplify things.

Travelling is a very bad environment for learning large volumes of vocabulary (which I consider the most important thing when learning a foreign language), because that requires revision and planned studying to be effective. Of course, when travelling, one will pick up words here and there, but considering the time spent, it’s a very ineffective way of expanding vocabulary. When it comes to a language such as Chinese, the situation becomes even worse, because hearing a word is simply not enough to learn it (even though I can distinguish the various tones in Mandarin, it’s still very hard to learn words only by listening).

So, what use is travelling when learning a new language? I’d say that the three most prominent advantages are self-confidence, cultural context and listening ability. First, having learnt a language in school, it’s something quite different to actually use it to communicate. After the first threshold is passed, one’s self-esteem grows for almost every conversation. The language learnt actually works and people can understand what is said. This feeling is wonderful and is perhaps the most important thing with travelling. Perhaps there is a nagging feeling in the back one’s head that asks if this language is real or just made up in the classroom. Travelling kills that thought instantly, regardless of how weak it was from the start.

Second, travelling in a the native country of a language allows one to pick up lots of things that’s impossible to learn in a classroom. Even though it’s possible to know a vast amount of words, no text book will teach in what situations certain words are really used and what they mean. To do this, it’s necessary to hear those words time and again in different contexts. Only then can the words truly be understood. In addition to this, language and culture are sometimes highly integrated. People in the street don’t simply speak English with Chinese words, they speak real Chinese. Everyday conversation translated into English would seem extremely odd in England or the United States, because people think and talk differently (what I’m trying to say here is that even the content of a conversation might differ between languages). Travelling around and meeting a lot of people is probably the only way of acquiring knowledge like this.

Third, listening ability is very important when travelling, especially if one doesn’t share another language with people in the country. When I do things here in Taiwan, almost no one understands English, which means that I’ve no choice but to rely on my Chinese. If somebody says something to me, I can’t always nod and smile, I actually have to understand what is said in order to buy food, find my way and so forth. It makes many conversations to miniature listening ability exams, and, as everybody knows, practise makes perfect. Understanding the locally-flavoured Chinese is extremely hard the first time, but it becomes more manageable for every day. It’s important to hear as many people speak as possible, because they have different voices, difference dialects and different ways of expressing themselves.If travelling is to expensive or impractical, watching TV might be a good substitute.

When it comes to actual language usage, travelling makes one able to use what has been learnt in school. Perhaps one’s knowledge of grammar and vocabulary is great on tests and so forth, but being required to use them in a real context is a marvellous way of truly learning. Don’t expect to learn many new parts of a language when travelling, but consider the positive effects of mastering what you already know, and, in addition to this, picking up useful information about how words are actually used within the culture. Travelling will make you improve a lot, but it’ll do it through strengthening what is already there, rather than expanding into new territories. So, in a sense, one can learn a language by travelling, but not without prior diligent study.

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  1. Niklas’s avatar

    Som vanligt en högst genomtänkt artikel :)
    Hur blev d nu efter flytten? Har invånarna någon dialektskillnad som du fått anpassa dig efter?

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  2. Olle Linge’s avatar

    Det är bra efter flytten och det blir bättre och bättre för varje dag, typ. Jag har snart kommit igång med alla lektioner och det mesta verkar bra, om än kanske inte lika bra som förra terminen (som var asbra, bortsett från tiderna). Jag har hittat hur man cyklar till simhoppningen på under 30 minuter, jag vet ungefär var det finns bra mat och jag njuter just nu av dryga 28 grader (ja, det är rätt skönt nu, men det kommer att sluta vara skönt om inte alltför länge).

    Dialekten är lite annorlunda, framförallt för att taiwanesiska är mer utrbrett i söder och influenser därifrån kommer in mer i språket. Det är dock ingen enorm skillnad. Hörförståelsen går också bättre och bättre hela tiden, framförallt nu på sistone, kankse lite på grund av resandet. :)

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