It seems quite common among language learners that living in a country where the language you learn is spoken is a very effective way to improve the language skill (especially speaking).

However, even living in such country, I found that there are only a few minutes in a day to get the speaking opportunity. Unless you work for a company or attend school, there is practically no chance to speak the language. Making local friends is also unrealistic as people only want to be friends who speak fluently, but unless you have enough opportunities to practice the language, you can never gain the fluency. (Also the possibility of making friends depends significantly on race, ethnicity, gender, age, etc...)

So I feel living in a country where the language is spoken don't get my speaking improved that much. I even think it is better to live in a cheap country to save money, and then attend language school in the target country. Example: Living in Ukraine for 3 months and then attending language school for 1 months in Rome to learn Italian, instead of living in Italy for 6 months.

This also jibes with my experience. As a perpetual traveler, it is common for me to travel to a country and stay over 1 months, but in all countries and all languages, my skills did see practically no improvement. Only after I attended a language school in China did my Chinese start to improve greatly, and it is even going to surpass my English (L2), which I use in any country as a traveler for long enough, but never attended any school.

I'm not going to say it has no effect. At least vocabularies should be improved as you see the language in restaurants menu, ads on the wall, etc... or everything you see in your life. But other skills, especially listening and speaking, would be very little, in my opinion.

So is the theory correct or myth? Is it often suggested solely because it is 100% better than living in your home country, as nothing whatsoever gets you anything better than living in the country? In other words, does it focus on the certainty, not on degree? Or is there any such evidence, research, data, that supports the theory?

3 Answers 3


Speaking on personal authority as someone with an MA in TESOL (Teaching English as a Second/Other Language) you have reached one of the main issues when you say, "I found that there are only a few minutes in a day to get the speaking opportunity". Immersion only works as a language learning technique if you are completely immersed in the target language for long periods of time (hours of your day - at work or at school or with a group of people). If you are only immersed in the target language for five minutes to order a bagel and ten minutes in a taxi, you are not truly experiencing immersion learning.

Research shows that immersion learning is a highly effective technique, and "[t]his approach to second-language and literacy development proved itself to be the most successful school-based language program model available" (http://carla.umn.edu/immersion/documents/ImmersionResearch_TaraFortune.html, May 28, 2018). However, if you are living in a country to learn the language and not attending school / working in that language, you are not going to derive as much benefit from the immersion effect. I have taught abroad before and gone up to two years in foreign countries without having to learn more than a few basic foreign phrases.

If you want to make the immersion effct work for you, you would need to devote time to studying the language on your own and then finding situations to practice it, or you might want to achieve a certain level of language in a language school and then go abroad to try it out. You might also find a native speaker who gives lessons in the foreign country to get you up to a certain level.

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    Thanks. Could you clarify what you mean in "I have taught abroad before gone long periods of time in foreign countries without having to learn more than a few basic foreign phrases."?
    – Blaszard
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 17:20

All things being equal, it is certainly better to live in-country, but it's not necessary or even guaranteed to help much. I lived in the Middle East for a couple of years and managed to not approach fluency. Why? Because I was taking classes, and all of the classes were in English, all of the assignments were in English, all of my classmates spoke English. When I went home I spoke English to my English-speaking wife. In short, I did not take advantage of the resources in-country. Complete mistake and laziness on my part. If you are driven, resourceful, and have an internet connection, then you can become fluent (in most languages) from anywhere in the world. That said, I certainly learned more of that L2 than I would have if I took those classes in an English-speaking country. It's difficult to completely avoid all of the "context" that surrounds you - signs, ads, posters, buses, stores, random conversations, etc - and not be curious about what it says.


In fact, immersion is the only way to properly acquire a language. Anything else is simply learning/studying.

~Stephen Krashen's Theory of Second Language Acquisition

Keep in mind, that when you begin speaking a new language, your brain actually creates a new ego for that language. Just as with infants who are acquiring their first language, this ego is very fragile at first.

~Polyglossic - Applied Linguistics

All that to say, in my experience I absorbed the most when I went out drinking with native speakers. Responsible consumption of alcohol lowers the inhibitions your new ego puts in place for self-preservation. This makes it easier to try things out without worrying about mistakes. Then you are using the language to actually communicate rather than studying it abstractly. That is, language can only be acquired through use. Implementation > theory.

~Time - It's True: Alcohol Helps you Speak a Foreign Language Better

Also, to add to Chrisandra's answer, second language acquisition is most effective when the person has a specific domain for each language. For example, many immigrants will have a "home language" and a "public language." Because your brain associated each with a specific use, it is much easier to appropriately jump between two languages. If you mix the domains, you often end up speaking a pidgin language.
~American Speech-Language-Hearing Association - Learning Two Languages

Being an adult language learner, you have the opportunity to decide your language domains. While the norm is home/public, this isn't particularly useful for someone living alone in a foreign country. So, you might have entertainment & education, friend group A & everyone else, work & friends, etc. One setup which has proven effective in Canada is sending children to schools in which all subjects are taught in a language which differs to the family & community language. For example, the community speaks English, but school subjects are taught in French.

The point being, if you want to utilize immersion, stick as best you can to whichever domains you have available or choose for yourself. Mixing domains will extend the time it takes to reach fluency.

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    @TommiBrander I learned this stuff in my linguistics coursework years ago, but I have linked some decent resources. Hope they help 😊 Commented Jul 21, 2018 at 15:36

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