Language immersion is not only the best way to learn a new language, but also sort of the reason this blog exists. When I turned 21, I only spoke English, and one of the reasons was that I thought I’d just never have the time or money to learn a new language. But four years and two languages later, I’ve revised my philosophy. Now I get that it’s ridiculously cheap and easy to just go study a language abroad.
In the last few years I’ve reached comfortable fluency in two new languages, and it wasn’t because of the $400 I spent on my first intensive Dutch course or the four years I spent in a high school Spanish classroom doodling tacos and sombreros on my book cover. Formal studying has had its place, but most of my successes have come from going and doing.
Why you should go abroad to learn a language (and why you shouldn’t pay for it)
When you sign up for a French course at your local community college or language school, you’re committing your time and money to several weeks in a classroom where nearly everyone else shares your passport and native language. You may indeed reach a decent level of proficiency in your target language, but I think you’ve entirely missed the point.
In 2015, we’re all global citizens, whether we choose to participate in global society or not. To be a good global citizen you need to understand the other people with whom you share our planet, and there’s no more potent or insightful way of doing that than to learn other languages and experience the cultures that have produced them.
And if you’re a broke student, debt-ridden young professional, or an otherwise thrifty consumer, there’s no reason you should pay for all this.
There are tons of language immersion programs out there, bringing you ‘authentic’ experiences abroad from a couple hundred dollars a week to the low low price of $5,000 a month!
These programs do serve their purpose. They’re ideal for:
1) People with a roomier budget. If you’re mid-career, have some disposable income to play with, and have decided that now is the time to learn a language, then go for it.
2) People who can’t be bothered with the details. It’s easy to hate, but if you’re just super fucking busy, you could easily decide that a few hundred to a few thousand bucks is a worthy investment that saves you your much more precious resource of time.
But if you’re like me and you’re 1) broke as a joke, and 2) a control freak who wants to manage their own language learning endeavors, then you’ve got better options.
The strategies below are ideal for students and young professionals or other people who aren’t tied down by awful burdens like property or children. But those aren’t the only folks who can do it: I even know families and retirees who have gracefully blazed this trail.
And there are a few wildly different approaches to this. It depends on what your life looks like: what’s your financial situation? How tied down are you? What kind of career do you have? How old are you? Are you single? There are a lot of questions to ask, but none of them are deal breakers for spending some time abroad learning a language.
I’ll break down my favorite methods into three different categories that more or less correspond to different lifestyles. To some extent anyone can do any of these, and none are mutually exclusive, so think about trying a few of them at the same time!
For the backpacker: how to learn a language on the road
As I never stop saying on this website, language and travel are deeply intertwined, two sides of the same big global coin. If you’re already someone who likes to travel, who either travels long-term or has the flexibility to take long trips, these tips are especially for you.
If you’re not a member of this community, you should be. Couchsurfing is a hospitality network for travelers: the basic concept is that, as a Couchsurfer, you host other members of the community in your home when they’re traveling, and likewise you benefit from a free place to stay with CS hosts when you’re on the road.
But please be advised that Couchsurfing is not a free hostel, and if you’re just using it for a free place to stay, you’re abusing the network. CS is about building a community of international travelers, exchanging cultures, and making friends around the world. What better way to do this than to speak someone’s language to them?
Couchsurfing is generally intended for short stays (most hosts will specify around 2-4 days on their profile), so it requires a bit of creativity as a long-term language learning strategy. You could reasonably plan a trip in a country where your target language is spoken and secure some CS hosts for 2-3 nights at a time, hopping from one to the next until your trip’s over. Even smarter would be to take advantage of its many language exchange events, wildly popular in big cities like Berlin, Tokyo, and Mexico City.
#2: Air BnB
This one might be better for longer trips, as you pay for your accommodation so the etiquette’s a bit looser. You can normally find Air BnB for well cheaper than the cost of a hotel (although, in my experience, normally a bit more expensive than a hostel), and your host will usually be local. Let them know you’re coming specifically for language practice, and many will be thrilled to help!
(If you don’t have an account yet, you can sign up and get $20 off your first stay with this link, and then if you use it I’ll get a $20 credit too!)
I learned more words and phrases of Serbo-Croatian during a long ride I hitched out of Dubrovnik and into Bosnia than I did in my two weeks in Croatia before that. Why? My ride, friendly as could be, only knew the same five or six English phrases that I knew in his language. What else were we gonna do for those three hours? We passed the ride by pointing at objects and naming them, gesturing wildly, and actively engaging ourselves in each other’s languages. It was one of the best rides I’ve ever hitched.
#4: Any kind of solo travel
The logic is the same here as with hitchhiking: if you’re by yourself in a country where no one speaks your language, what else are you gonna do but learn? It can be painful, frustrating, and anxiety-inducing at the same time as stimulating, rewarding, and comforting. Bringing along a friend from home will assure that the two of you stand confusedly in a corner with your obnoxious backpacks and giant fold-out maps. But going it alone will force you to carry around that list of basic phrases, use it, and add to it as you go.
For the student or vacationer: short-term immersion trips and exchanges
If you’re halfway to a degree, don’t say to hell with it all and give in to your wanderlust just yet. Actually, I think you’re in the best position to travel and learn a language. My language learning and global expeditions actually started in the last two years of my bachelor’s degree, and I found ways to get my university and later the US State Department to foot the bill.
Nope, I’m not a con artist. I just knew what resources I had available, like some of these:
#5: Work exchanges
WorkAway and HelpX are probably the best known work exchanges. Essentially the concept is that you do a specified task or work a set number of hours (normally around 25-30 a week) in exchange for at least accommodation, but in many cases you’ll find meals included as well. Projects range from working in hostels and volunteering in schools to rebuilding after natural disasters and helping out at yoga retreats.
HelpX is free to use, but I don’t find its layout or organization super user friendly. I opted to pay $29 for a two-year unlimited subscription to WorkAway (there are no special fees here — 29 bucks allows you to contact anyone in their directory), and haven’t regretted it.
WWOOF, or Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is also a sort of work exchange, but it’s much more specific than sites like Workaway. As you may have guessed from the name, it’s exclusively for work on farms, which makes it great for those who don’t mind a little manual labor.
Almost all of the farms will be in isolated rural areas where few people speak another world language, so you’ll often find yourself completely immersed. Don’t fall into the trap of hanging out with the other English-speaking WWOOFers here — make sure you’re taking advantage of the opportunity!
WWOOF also asks for a small registration fee, which varies by country, averaging around $20-25 USD, but you can find some cheap ones too, like $4 Guatemala.
Volunteering abroad can be a good way to learn a language, or it can be a really bad one. I personally stay away from programs like those run by Projects Abroad, Proworld, and International Volunteer HQ, which all charge frankly ridiculous volunteer placement fees and are often associated with low- or even negative-impact projects.
Instead, I recommend sites like Omprakash that aggregate free and cheap volunteer opportunities. For those interested in learning Spanish, Volunteer Latin America functions similarly to Workaway in that it charges a small registration fee in return for access to hundreds and hundreds of free or cheap volunteer projects.
#8: Working in hostels
Another one that can be super helpful or a big waste of time. If you find a job in a hostel in a big world city overrun by tourists — think Paris, Barcelona, Rio de Janiero, Cape Town — you might not get much language learning done, as too many people will just speak English. Try a hostel in a smaller city, somewhere off the beaten path, or in a part of the world where few people speak English.
Look for hostels that will require you to answer phones, write emails, and interact with locals and guests. A little English is fine, but if you can do the majority of your work in your target language, you’re well on your way to success.
This seems to be one of the fastest-growing trends in budget travel, and I love it. Sites like Trusted House Sitters connect travelers to home and pet owners around the world. Keep in mind that housesitting, while always free (except for a subscription fee, typically), often involves caring for a pet as well as a house, and may be a bit restrictive to your schedule. Look for houses away from big cities and tourist centers for maximum language exposure.
#10: Grants and scholarships
Like I mentioned above, I got started traveling on my university’s bill. I applied for an undergraduate research grant, wrote a proposal justifying why I needed to go to some particular archives in the Netherlands to do it, and ended up getting awarded the grant. Once I learned that this was even an option, I started digging deeper looking for academic travel funding opportunities. I traveled once more to the Netherlands for research and to two conferences in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, all paid for by my university.
For the students out there, if you go to a big state university in the US, your school almost certainly has some kind of program like this, and even if you go to a smaller liberal arts school there are probably some options, in both the sciences and the humanities. Search your university website or ask around campus about undergraduate research, university-sponsored service learning programs, or scholarships for studying abroad.
After my undergraduate degree I kept milking academics for travel money: I pursued and (barely) got a Fulbright fellowship to spend yet another year in the Netherlands, this time paid for by the US State Department. I was required to spend the majority of my time on research and courses towards my Master’s degree, but I got really good at Dutch in the process.
You don’t have to be a current student to be eligible for certain academic fellowships and scholarships. Look into Fulbright, Boren, and Critical Language Scholarships if you’re in the US. Citizens of other countries can start on your Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Department of State websites.
For the professional, digital nomad, or wandering vagrant: long-term language learning
Do you have a skill of any kind that can be used to produce a good or service? Yeah, thought so. Did you think that people only need that skill in your country of origin? And if yes, did you never realize what a ridiculous idea that is until just now?
It’s 2015, guys and gals. That means (especially if you’re a native English speaker with a passport from a developed country), the world is your economic oyster. Here are just a few ways to move both your personal and professional life abroad, for a while or for good:
#12: Teach English overseas
Everyone’s heard of this as a good way to learn a language abroad, but personally I’m skeptical of it. If your nine-to-five revolves around English and the teaching of it, you’re making for a very Anglocentric experience abroad. You’ll spend your days speaking, reading, and writing English, and then in the evenings, who is your social circle? Very likely your colleagues or other expats, with whom I’m guessing you’ll also speak English.
That by no means says that you can’t do it, it just means it demands a lot of discipline: you’ll have to fight at every turn to get involved in local activities, befriend locals, and do things in the local language. You can get started on a job listing site like Dave’s ESL Cafe.
#13: Work in a language center
This one isn’t quite the same as being a formal classroom ESL teacher at a school abroad. Language centers exist across the world, and I can say from experience that they’re both wildly popular and hungry for native speaker employees in Latin America.
Some of the most innovative ones, like the Fenix Language School in Sucre, Bolivia, or this one I’m eyeing in Medellín, Colombia, are associated with hostels and offer a free place to stay to volunteer teachers. The added bonus is that there’s no better place for someone with multilingual ambitions than a language center where four or six or ten languages are being spoken and taught every day. See if you can negotiate a few extra hours of work in exchange for free or reduced classes.
#14: Find other skilled jobs
Skilled workers are more mobile today than they’ve ever been. If you have any kind of degree or accreditation in something, it’s time to start thinking globally about your job prospects.
There are some specialized search engines like Transitions Abroad, Go Abroad Jobs, and Overseas Jobs, but I find a lot of them gimmicky, and some of the ‘jobs’ they feature are actually unpaid internships or volunteer roles. I usually stick to LinkedIn or Indeed for general job searches, or I get in touch with some locals in whatever country I’m thinking of moving to to ask where they look for jobs.
As a general rule, lower income countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia will have more flexible visa policies than developed countries like the US, Canada, Australia, or members of the EU. In some cases, depending on your nationality, you may be eligible for working holidays in industrialized countries like these. Do your research and you’ll find opportunities!
#15: Live off savings (with local roommates)
There’s also something to be said for just taking it easy for a while. If you’ve been working hard for a few years and have some savings, now might be the time to rest on your laurels and learn a language. The best way to do this is to just find a country where your target language is spoken, find out how long you can stay without a visa, and go!
Renting an apartment with locals is by far the best strategy here. Summer subleases are easy to find in university towns around the world, and travel networks like Couchsurfing often have groups or resources for assistance finding local roommates and houseshares.
#16: Jump on the digital nomad bandwagon
This year I’ve gradually succeeded in moving enough of my income online that I don’t have to worry about staying in one place to have a job. Instead, I’m ‘location independent‘, writing and editing and doing odd jobs from my laptop as I move around the world. Almost anybody with some kind of desirable skill or profession can take it remote and make this move, and one of the best ways to start is to move somewhere where cost of living is low.
In January I’ll move to Colombia, where I plan to rent an apartment in the center of magical Medellín for about $150 USD a month. I’ll be making sure not to end up in the expat neighborhood like I did in Mexico City, instead opting for a neighborhood where the streets are full of Colombians and the language is indisputably Spanish.
My monthly income is still three digits right now, but that’s enough to live a decent life throughout most of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, or Central or Southeast Asia. If you’re interested in making a similar move, you can start by looking at websites like Numbeo and Nomad List for figures on cost of living in various countries and cities around the world. I highly recommend it!
Bonus ‘free’ immersion strategy: move abroad and take cheap classes
This one’s not technically free, but in a sense it is. If you really want some formal classes without shoveling out thousands of dollars, try the combination approach of moving to a developing country and taking private or formal classes there. You can easily find private Spanish classes in Mexico City for under $15 USD an hour, and in places like Nicaragua or Ecuador that number is cut in half. In Guatemala, you can even find Spanish language schools for less than $200 USD a week with housing included. Cray.
If you move somewhere affordable enough, your living expenses will actually decrease so much that, even after paying for language classes, you’re still net saving on what you spent just to live in your house or apartment back home!
A note on language immersion and self-guided learning
This is how I spend my life: moving around and learning languages. I’m still working out the kinks as I go, but I can share with you a couple of rules of thumb I’ve learned so far.
The first is that immersion is never enough. Planting yourself in an apartment in a busy urban area will not prompt some kind of learning-by-osmosis process. You have to do much, much more than this.
This is all useless if you don’t talk to locals. Get over your speaking anxiety. Avoid the expat bubble.
And also, study. In the Netherlands I took a two-week intensive course (4 hours a day, 5 days a week) in Dutch after about three months in the country. I skipped Dutch 1, signed up for Dutch 2, and used my two months in-country before the class to get started learning on my own. I didn’t ‘learn Dutch’ in that course, but it gave me formal tools that I still use today. In high school I took four years of Spanish classes, after which, for a variety of reasons, I couldn’t have a basic Spanish conversation. But those four years of grammatical rules and basic nouns and verbs sure helped when my scared white face crossed the border into Northern Mexico earlier this year.
Whatever your strategy, some kind of immersion should be an integral part of it if at all possible. And there’s no reason it should break the bank!