Should You Travel to an English-speaking Country to Learn English?
Updated: Dec 3, 2018
One of the long-running debates in language learning is whether it is necessary to travel to or live in a country where the language is spoken.
Can you learn English to a native level of fluency without living in an English-speaking country for an extended period of time?
I will share my opinion with you in this article.
So is it required or not?
No, it is absolutely not required to live in a country where English is spoken in order to learn English to a native level.
When I was learning German I spoke the language for the first time during a three-week “language stay” in a small town near Stuttgart. I arrived in this small town six months after I began learning German.
After those three weeks I returned to Holland where I was living and three months later I was able to pass the C1 exam.
A few years later I reached roughly a C2 level in Spanish within a year.
To that point, I had spent less than a week in a Spanish-speaking country. And even then I was traveling alone and sightseeing the entire time.
Even after passing the German C2 exam I still didn’t feel like I had a native level in the language. At that point I had lived in Germany for just over a year.
In total it probably took me three and a half or four years until I felt like I could effortlessly do everything in my personal and professional life in the language.
But even if I hadn’t moved to Germany but instead continued learning the language in Holland, I am certain that I would have eventually reached the same level.
If you learn a language consistently, the debate on this topic should not be “if”, but “when” you will reach fluency.
The biggest fallacy of language learning
Just because you live in a country doesn’t mean you will ever learn the language.
Yes there are more speaking opportunities because there are native speakers all around you, but unless you are still extremely focused on learning the language, you won’t.
When I was living in Amsterdam I met tons of native English speakers that couldn’t speak Dutch.
In fact, I can count on one hand how many native English speakers I met in Holland who could hold any meaningful conversation in Dutch. And I worked at a very international company with a lot of Brits and Americans.
I know an American who has lived in Amsterdam for more than 40 years and can’t speak Dutch!
Sure he can order in a restaurant and say basic things, but he is not fluent enough to hold any meaningful conversation in the language.
Holland is a bit of an outlier because the English level is so high in the country, but I can’t say that the success rate of non-native German or Spanish speakers that I met in Germany or Spain was much higher.
Learning a language requires a tremendous amount of effort, even if you are living in a country where the language is spoken.
You don’t just step off of the airplane and head to some language transplant factory to have the language uploaded to your brain.
Sure native speakers will talk to you if you are interesting, but no more than any other stranger on the street would talk to you in your home country.
On the other hand, technology has made it convenient to connect with native speakers anywhere in the world.
If you are truly motivated to learn English then it might be even easier these days to determine your strategy and do it online.
In fact, once I was living and working in Germany and decided to take the C2 exam, I actually continued practicing online using the same method that I used in Holland to prepare for the C1 exam.
Sure I had made some German friends and had the opportunity to speak with them on occasion, but with a busy work schedule my online speaking practice provided a much more structured and efficient means of improving my speaking.
But don’t cancel your flight just yet!
You can learn English to a native level without ever living in an English-speaking country.
But this doesn’t mean that visiting or living in a country cannot bring tremendous benefits.
To me, the biggest benefit of actually living in a country is that you are confronted with situations in your day-to-day life that you have to resolve but may never have practiced.
For example, one time I was retrieving my mail from the common area in my apartment building in Germany when a hysterical woman came running up to me, asking if I could help her.
We arrived at her apartment to find a rogue faucet spraying water everywhere. I’m grabbing dinner plates and spoons which were obviously of little help.
I needed a specific wrench but had no idea how to say it in German. Also the verbs that one uses in these types of situations are all new the first time.
We managed to get the faucet under control and when I got back to my apartment I immediately looked up the missing vocabulary in a German dictionary.
There’s just no way that I would have ever learned that vocabulary any other way. Heck, some of the names of tools that I need for repairs in the United States are new to me the first time I use them.
The same is true for other daily tasks like changing a light bulb, taking out the trash or discussing various issues with your landlord.
You absolutely need these skills in order to consider yourself to have native fluency in a foreign language.
You can also practice these things over Skype but being in the country forces you to do these things by exposing the areas that you were either too lazy, forgot or did not have time to learn.
But if you, like me, are very focused on one area like business English, then full fluency in all of these day-to-day scenarios can wait!
A big reason why I had neglected to practice many daily living tasks in German was because I was so focused on mastering the business-related language that was most important to me at the time. And in hindsight I wouldn’t have done it any differently.
If you focus your energy on one or a few key areas then unsurprisingly you become very strong in those key areas.
You build a huge vocabulary.
No matter which area you are focused on, you will also get a ton of grammar repetitions during the process.
Then once you master your key area(s), you will be so confident with the language, that learning day-to-day tasks or other topics of interests will be so much easier. It will be just a matter of adding new vocabulary on top of the language infrastructure.
It all depends on your priorities in learning the language.
But living in a country is not mandatory in order to reach a native level of fluency.
It has the potential to speed up the learning process but it is absolutely not mandatory.
About the Author
Jason Gower is the creator and instructor of Expand Life Business English courses. He has more than fifteen years of business experience and has learned both German and Spanish to a C2 level. Click to learn more about Expand Life Business English courses.