Learning a Language by Studying or Volunteering Abroad

Learning a new language is always challenging, it requires desire and commitment. Some people even think that learning a new language isn’t for them; I used to be one of them.


When I was around 12 years old I was enrolled in an English language school where I failed to pass the first course. That event convinced me that English wasn’t for me at all. Let’s say that I had a first bad impression when meeting “English”. After two years, I graduated from that school, but yet, I wouldn’t have said “I speak English”.

In fact, I always thought that teachers passed me because I memorized the content for the test, never missed a class, did all my homework and behaved. In other words, I followed almost every school’s “formula” to graduate with good grades, but not to learn the language. It is not surprising that my main motivation wasn’t to learn, but to avoid the frustration of failing a class. Have you heard this story before, someone who studied a language for years but doesn’t speak it that well?

My second encounter with “English” happened when I was 16 years old and went to Canada for a Summer English Course. This trip completely changed my opinion about learning a second language. In only two months, I went from nodding my head to actually understanding conversations and, more importantly, being able to reply back. I even recall having my first dream in English that summer; I was finally making peace with “English” and we were becoming friends.


Learning process through immersion

My experience in Canada made me wonder about the process of learning a language, especially through immersion. Did the fact that I studied English before help me?, Of course, however, “one of the biggest challenges for the second language learner is how to transfer artificially constructed language practice to the real world of language usage. In other words how can we turn what we know into what we do?”[1]. Immersion solved that problem for me, because I was committed. It is easy to find people who speak your same native language, but that’s when priorities come around to remind you of your main goal.


More than immersion only

Priorities, Motivation and Need are terms that makes immersion not the only requirement when learning or improving a new language. If fact, I have met people who lived in Mexico for years and others that have traveled for months and yet they don’t speak much Spanish. They know phrases that helped them to get around like “Gracias” or “La cuenta por favor”. This tells me that the trip does not guarantee the skill. Then, what else do you need?. For me, the answer was a “clear motive” and “strong commitment”, those two things prevented me from speaking too much Spanish when studying in Canada. However, I integrated “need” to my equation when learning Portuguese by living and working in Brazil.

Have you ever heard of “learning to swim by swimming”? This is what describes my experience of learning Portuguese by working in Brazil and having to speak it. You probably have heard that Spanish and Portuguese are quite similar, in fact, I found out that those two languages share 90% of their vocabulary [1]. Their main different is pronunciation. So, I could say that I already knew some Portuguese, I just didn’t know what exactly.


Does previous knowledge of the target language help?

I have read some blogs that suggest you have some previous language knowledge before jumping into the actual abroad experience. I agree with them in the sense that this previous knowledge helps you to see results faster, which turns into your principal source of motivation. However, I don’t believe that fluency is necessary before your trip.

When volunteering, I do advise learning the basics of the language. Especially when working with the community. Of course not all the positions will require you to speak the target language, but speaking the local language will make a difference to your overall experience. Studying before you go prepares you for the commitment, reduces anxiety, and increases engagement with the target language. In my case I didn't study Portuguese until I was working in Portuguese, but since I share a common mother tongue, I was able to use that to my advantage.


Learning by experiences

According to some studies, when you learn a word on a personal level, that somehow relates to yourself or to someone you know those words are more likely to be remembered in the long term [2]. That’s why some words can be more sticky than others when learning vocabulary. Learning by immersion gives you the opportunity to turn learning into a personal experience all the time, because you are living in the target language. Maybe, you will learn a word when talking with friends in a restaurant by making a funny mistake that made everyone laugh. That life event is creating a strong connection in your brain that will help you to recall that word, possibly forever.


No time to be perfect

My favorite thing about learning by immersion is that you don’t have the time to get it right, therefore you make tons of mistakes that help you to learn and improve. Normally, in a classroom setup you feel this pressure to get it right because there is a teacher that will grade you, so the incentive is to avoid making mistakes, which is terrible for learning. The fact that some schools are still punishing mistakes drives me crazy, because that idea is killing creativity and reducing the learning performance of students. The great thing about immersion is that it actually encourages you and rewards you for making mistakes which later form a strong learning connection in your brain. Failure and mistakes are valuable and necessary for the learning process. There are even companies like Google who reward failure because they recognize that making mistakes means that people are taking enough risk to get to the next level of expertise.


Immersion challenges you, it turns on survival mode

One of the main differences for me between a controlled classroom setup and learning by working abroad was the risk I was willing/needed to take. Imagine you are in a class with other students and the teacher is going around asking questions from the book. “Some of us” will do some Albert Einstein level math to calculate which question we will have to answer and focus only on that task for when our turn comes. No other challenge besides the math is presented.

On the other hand, a real life environment increases the challenge. Before you notice, you will be cornered into using more senses than just listening like reading lips, body language, and voice tone. These push your brain into awareness and sharpness, what I call survival mode. These situations normally don’t happen in a class since it is a controlled setting where you pretend to be in a restaurant excluding things like a TV or the sounds of other people. Real life can transform a simple conversation with a waitress into a challenging task.

Be Careful! According to several research papers, the right level of challenge can have a positive impact on your learning, however, too much difficulty can be negative too. You want to make sure to put yourself in situations that will challenge you enough but won’t make it so hard that they will discourage you later.


Positive feedback will keep you on track

This is a simple concept that has been researched and proved by professionals over and over again. The better we feel about something, the more motivated we get to keep doing it. That’s why we usually hang out with those that make us feel good, developing a deeper relationship. This also occurs when learning a second language, the more people compliment our improvement, the more motivated we are to continue learning. Once we are truly engaged, we are much less likely to quit, even during the rough times, just like me and “English”. Like experts would say: Motivation provides the primary source to start learning a new language and, later, the driving force in the learning process”.[3]

The way immersion boosts your confidence is by receiving compliments in random situations and from native speakers. Working makes the improvement especially noticeable because of the level of challenge. Teachers always do a great job complimenting students, but let’s be honest, it feels better when it comes from a native speaker in a random situation and in their home country. It just feels more authentic and less like part of their job.


Immersion in the culture helps you to comprehend the language

Language is a reflection of our culture, that is why even two countries who speak the same “official language” will still have some differences. You can know by heart how to ask for the check in a restaurant in Spanish, but if you don’t use the right body language and timing for when you ask, you might sound quite rude. Immersion exposes you to these situations and helps you to comprehend the culture which later helps you to learn the language more efficiently.

However, cultural differences could create a negative experience for you, if you let them. Humans tend to dislike what is different from us, because not understanding makes us feel vulnerable. Just remember, things are done differently in each part of the world and you might have to face some of these situations. Embrace those moments as part of your learning experience rather than taking it personally. My advice would be to try to prepare yourself by reading about the country’s history, current affairs, and other travellers’ blogs. But, most importantly, do not prejudge what is different from you, learning requires an open mind.

Learning by immersion requires way more than just being exposed to the target language, it requires commitment, braveness, courage, curiosity and the need of doing it. For me, volunteering was a deeper learning experience than studying in Canada because speaking had a more meaningful effect since I was using the language to work with a wonderful community on a humanitarian project. It also took out the grading factor or pressure, so my focus wasn’t in passing a class but in be able to work effectively.

Volunteering, working and studying are totally different experience, even when all of them have in common the “immersion advantage”. Keep in mind your priorities, learning style and interest when choosing one for you, an, remember, it doesn’t matter if you fail on your first try, first impression aren’t always accurate.

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Words by: Eva Melissa Astudillo


Sources:

How much share Spanish and Portuguese.

Becoming Fluent how Cognitive Science Can help Adults learn a Foreign Language.Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz.

Faiza Manzoor, Mumtaz Ahmed and Beenish Riaz Gill (2014): Use Of Motivational Expressions As Positive Reinforcement In Learning English At Primary Level In Rural Areas Of Pakistan - Page 31