Don’t go abroad for your first year of language studies

Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolee. 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.


During my time here in Taiwan, I’ve spoken to a large number of students at varying levels, everything from total beginners to those close to being completely fluent. Apart from this, I’m a student myself and can rely on my own experience. From this broad, albeit anecdotal, base of evidence, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a bad idea to go abroad for you first year of language studies.

This statement needs some explanation. First, I’m referring to the very first year of language studies, so this doesn’t apply to people who have studied a second language at school, for instance. Furthermore, this is more true for languages wildly different from your native tongue (such as Chinese for a native speaker of Swedish). Since a lot of people study languages abroad only for a short period of time, I’m mostly referring to those that can only spend a semester or two in another country. If you can spend an unlimited amount of time, what I’m going to discuss here is mostly irrelevant. To show what I mean, I’ll take myself as an example.

I studied Chinese for one year in Sweden before I went to Taiwan and I’m sure that was a really good idea. Why? In Sweden, I was able to learn the basics of Chinese grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary from teachers who spoke my native language. When it comes to pronunciation, it’s essential that you understand the explanations. Many people seem to believe that you can learn to speak a language simply by listening to what somebody is saying and then repeating, but I’m convinced that this is true only for children and perhaps adults who spend a lot of time immersed in the language. Some of the finer subtleties of tones, stresses and so forth really need explanations to make sense. If you go abroad for your first year, you are very likely to be taught this in the target language (or at least that’s the case in Taiwan), which means that you will never get a comprehensive overview of the language in a language you are comfortable with.

In addition to this, all languages require some basic vocabulary and some fundamental grammar, things which you can equally well learn at home. Sure, you won’t pick up information about the way people really speak, but neither are you prepared to assimilate that kind of information if you don’t know anything about the language at all. The first year is basically an attempt to understand the basics, so if you only have one year abroad, choosing your first year is a waste of resources. Try instead do leave your country when the lack resources there is slowing you down or you feel that you know the basics already and want to advance. I left Sweden after my first year and I think that’s a sensible choice, even though later would probably work pretty well, too.

That being said, going abroad directly to learn a language isn’t necessarily a bad idea. It depends much on personality and learning style, but if you only have a short time at your disposal, I think that you are likely to get much more from it if you have already attained a descent level in the target language. This will allow you to benefit fully from the experience and to immerse yourself in language and culture, and minimse the time you spend studying things you could equally well have done at home, before you left!

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  1. Kalle’s avatar

    Perhaps, this will also depend on the language you are trying to learn. I can imagine that a Swede trying to learn German or Dutch, a Frenchman wanting to learn Spanish, or something similar, would not have such a hard time as a European trying to learn something so strange as Chinese.

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    1. Kalle’s avatar

      Ah, I see you already got that covered. Gotta read more carefully :)

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      1. Olle Linge’s avatar

        I do believe that what I write is more true for wholly different languages, but I still think that it’s a bad idea to go abroad for the first year even if abroad means Germany. A beginner simply can’t benefit very much from native speakers, since he needs to spend such a lot of time studying basic grammar/vocabulary. A teacher in Sweden can do that equally well. Reaching intermediate and advanced levels, though, a semester in Germany would give a whole lot more.

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      2. A. Frick’s avatar

        Det stämmer nog rätt bra att det är mer effektivt att göra så som du beskriver. Fast det beror ju också på vad man är ute efter: Om man enbart är ute efter att bli hypereffektiv i språket så är nog hemmastudier att rekommendera. Tycker man det dock är trevligt att också lära känna kulturen i det aktuella landet så kan jag lova att det bästa sättet att vara på plats :)

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        1. Olle Linge’s avatar

          Nu missförstår du vad jag skriver, tror jag. Jag pratar ju här om att åka utomlands i ett enda år (eller en enda termin) under utbildning och diskuterar då när man ska åka. Jag är helt säker på att du lär dig oändligt mycket mer om landet och kulturen om du åker dit när du faktiskt kan kommunicera på en grundläggande nivå. Visst är det kul med teckenspråk, men hur hade du tänkt att förstå dig på hur människor lever, hur kulturen är och så vidare om du inte förstå vad de säger och de inte förstår dig?

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        2. A. Frick’s avatar

          Ja, det är ju sant. Den situation som jag tänkte på var att man bara hade en begränsad tid att lära sig språket. Så var nämligen fallet för mig. Men om begränsningen istället är den tid som man kan spendera utanför Sveriges gränser så är det ju såklart bättre att först plugga i Sverige, därefter utomlands.

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