This post is part of a series on learning foreign languages. It focuses on how to learn a language while abroad in a native-speaking country of the language itself. For the first article which provides an overview into successful language learning, see ‘The Secret Benefit Of Learning Languages: How To Learn Effectively‘. For the article that provides specific details into becoming fluent in speaking and writing (the output half) in a foreign language, see ‘Language Learning: How To Speak And Write Fluently‘. For the article on becoming accomplished in reading and listening (the input half), see ‘Foreign Language Learning: How To Listen And Read With Fluency‘. For the article on using language to develop understanding of a culture and vice versa, see ‘How To Better Your Foreign Language Ability Through The Language And Culture Relationship‘.


Let’s face it—we all learn a foreign language with the hope of someday using it in a country where it’s the native language.

Many people believe that being in the native country for an extended period of time is the best way to learn the language. When done well, learning a language abroad can accelerate your learning faster than anything else. But this isn’t guaranteed—you have to know how to operate.

Presence in the native country isn’t a magic bullet for learning. There isn’t something mystical in the country’s air that turns you fluent.

But there are fantastic opportunities you can’t get from other forms of study. We’ll start by looking at the benefits learning a language abroad can bring.

Benefits of learning a language abroad in a native-speaking country


The first benefit is the least surprising. Learning a language abroad in a native-speaking country puts you in the heart of the target language.

Surrounded by speakers, signage and sounds of the language on a daily basis, you have a chance to soak up your target language like a sponge. Instead of wondering if what you’re studying is applicable, you’ll be applying. As the school of thought goes, we learn best by doing and immersion in the native country is hard to beat in that department.

At the core of immersion is continuous exposure. Through immersion we receive constant learning of the target language in real world contexts, something hard to achieve through textbook study back home. Then as with any constant practice, the repeated exposure will get you over the proficiency line eventually.

At least it will if you enter immersion properly. As we’ll see there’s no guarantee that simply being in a country where the target language is the native one suffices for immersion. Two different people could emigrate to a country at the same time with one of them experiencing full immersion and thus observable language gains whereas the other experiences little of what we would call immersion and doesn’t progress. You need to be active in how you go about your immersing.

Language usage in context

Another advantage learning a language abroad brings is seeing and hearing how it’s implemented in day-to-day life.

Input is essential for progress in a language but if your learning is too input heavy, you risk overweighting the language you see and hear outside of active communication with people.

In essence, there’s a chance your knowledge could become too lopsided towards more scholarly or even unnatural language you find in some textbooks as opposed to the modern, everyday language used by the actual natives.

While not impossible, it’s more challenging to pick up slang, turns of phrase and cultural nuances outside of a native-speaking country. Observing real world usage and then acquiring it yourself through trial and error will provide you with that natural flow that all learners dream of obtaining.

Learning A Language Abroad Context

Opportunities for applied learning

Speaking of trial and error, if there’s one thing learning a language abroad brings you, it’s ample opportunities for application.

If done well, you’ll have more chances to practice output of your target language than you’ll know what to do with. Particularly when it comes to speaking the language, the possibilities are endless. The supermarket, restaurants, gym and more all turn into practice opportunities.

Carried out this way, continuous applied learning puts you in a valuable feedback cycle for target language refinement. You don’t have to wait until your next weekly lesson to know whether your utterances are accurate or not when the people you meet daily are telling you.

Yet as discussed above, applied learning isn’t automatic. Being in a native-speaking country is an open door but you still have to step through it and take those opportunities.

Challenges of learning a language abroad in a native-speaking country

The ‘forced hand’ hypothesis isn’t always true

Many a language learner pines for the opportunity to go to the target language country. They assume a supercharged boost in language ability is all but inevitable.

Part of the reason is the perception that immersion is automatic. That language acquisition is a ‘given’ because your hand will be forced into picking up the native tongue.

But as we’ve seen, this isn’t always the case. Not only are there different degrees of immersion, there isn’t a guarantee that a language learner will experience them just because they’re in the country.

There are people who reach fluency in a foreign language outside of a native-speaking country and there are those who live for years in a country and never learn anything. The truth is we’re lucky to live in an era where mass polyglottery without setting foot into another country is possible with time in a native-speaking country a nice supplement to boost our language learning. We’re gifted with more language learning resources and techniques than ever before.

On a deeper level, some people use not being in a native-speaking country as an excuse for their lack of progress or for not learning at all. When things become challenging, it’s easy to outsource blame onto something external than to internalise the difficulty.

But by facing the challenges head on, you avoid blame-shifting and adopt the mentality of a successful language learner. You’ll become more principled in how you tackle language learning to reach your goals.

There’s a right way to benefit from immersion (shown below). The first step is to avoid the mistake of assuming you’ll become good in a language passively going about your day-to-day business in another country.

Risk of overwhelm

On the other side of the immersion spectrum lies a different type of challenge: the idea that too much immersion is overwhelming.

For those devoid of frequent exposure to a foreign language, being in an environment that gives you it all the time is a dream.

But for some, such mass immersion can backfire. The non-stop exposure and practice can prove too intense and put the person off from learning altogether.

There are two main scenarios where this risk happens.

The first is if the learner is a beginner.

While beginners are in the phase where they learn the most, if what they learn isn’t calibrated to an appropriate level it can become overwhelming and stressful and thus not retained. Optimal language learning takes place around i+1. The difference between a beginner’s level and native-speaking environment isn’t just one level, it’s orders of magnitude higher.

The second is down to the personality of the learner.

Some people thrive learning a language abroad, getting stuck in the deep end, happy to apply whatever they’ve learned wherever they can. They’ll strain every sinew to understand what’s being said. They’ll seek every opportunity to speak to a local, even if they can’t yet express themselves fully in the language.

Others are more of the opposite. They aren’t as comfortable fumbling around in front of locals on a daily basis until they improve. They find a barrage of spoken words they don’t understand too much to handle. For these types of learners, immersion in a country can be counterproductive. They’re likely to get more out of time in a native-speaking country if they establish a strong foundation first.

Maintaining language study

Another challenge relates to falling by the wayside with the studying that helped you get where you are with the target language in the first place.

There are a number of reasons why this can occur.

For one, life abroad can create a disruption in the way you go about things. This is particularly the case early on in your move when you’re settling in. Keeping up with your learning is harder to justify when you feel there are now other ways to practice the language.

Another is the result of the immersion effect. If you feel you’re getting sufficient exposure and practice from immersing yourself in the language and environment properly, you might think of reducing or leaving your studies altogether.

However, be wary of dropping studying, language study whether self-directed or formal often has a valuable role even when in the target language country.

Now that we’ve looked at some benefits and challenges of learning a language abroad, let’s examine some of the methods and how to do them the right way.

Learning A Language Abroad Study

Methods for learning a language abroad

Immersion in a native-speaking country

We’ve touched upon some desirables and undesirables of immersion, the process of learning a language through continuous exposure to it in a specific environment.

Looking at it in more detail, there are two approaches to immersion.

The first is that ‘true immersion’ is only achieved if everything you do is in the target language itself. No replying in English to that person who realises you’re a foreigner. No giving up and resorting to Google Translate. Adherents of this approach would say that taking the plunge this way builds your language muscles faster even if it’s more difficult in the beginning.

The second approach is a ‘satisficing immersion’. Followers of this branch would say that being in a native-speaking country is good enough for learning a language abroad. You’ll pick up the language indirectly to compliment your studying. Whatever your approach, keep this one tenet in mind: you need to be immersing, not waiting to be immersed.

The biggest mistake people have when it comes to learning a language abroad is believing that immersion is a passive process that occurs to them with little to no effort.

Imagine it this way. You’re a brand new foreign resident fresh off the boat in a land where next to nobody speaks your language. You have little to no ability in the native tongue at the moment. You get through the life admin of settling in, figuring out where to shop and starting your job (which is obviously not in the native language as you don’t speak it).

You have motivation to learn the local lingo and believe that you’ll ‘pick it up’ as you go along. How can you not, you’re in the country and that’s how it goes right?

Yet time passes, weeks turn into months if not years and on reflection you realise that you can do little more than say a few stock phrases and roughly order what you want at your regular spots. What happened?

With immersion, at best you can only pick up that which lies at the boundaries of your exposure.

The person who doesn’t mingle with locals, only uses their native language at their workplace and points at items on a menu instead of talking to the servers directly has a narrow boundary of exposure. No matter how frequently they repeat these scenarios over their lifetime in the foreign country, they won’t get better, it’s a stagnation point.

Contrast this with the person who decides to become acquainted with the neighbours, attend language exchanges in their free time and makes an effort to talk to all kinds of staff in the native tongue. Their exposure boundary enlarges and soon enough they’ll experience a growth in competency in the foreign language.

Another scenario to be careful of is the infamous expat bubble—avoid becoming trapped in one overseas. The term ‘bubble’ provides a nice visual contrasting the insularity of a narrow scene against the wider ambit of immersion.

It’s clear that broadening one’s boundary of exposure is just as much a social endeavour as it is a linguistic one. Cocooning oneself among a small group of non-natives will slow down the benefits one could otherwise receive via immersion, benefits which go beyond speaking a language and into connection and cultural awareness.

To get the most out of immersion, be active. Seek out opportunities to apply what you’ve learned on paper or a screen. Join activity groups and engage with the culture of the country you’re in. Embrace new words and phrases from a real life interaction rather than cowering in fear from not knowing how to respond.

If you find a full immersion of exclusive use of the target language too much, switch to a satisficing approach. Some of the methods listed below are also ways to supercharge immersion for language learning. The key is to maintain a healthy level of exposure for your personality and level so that you don’t bail out of learning entirely. The best part about immersion in a native-speaking country is that if you persist without giving up, you’ll win the language marathon eventually.

Learning A Language Abroad Immersion

Language schools/language exchange programs

A tried and tested option, particularly among young adults is to attend a language school or exchange programme in a country that speaks the target language.

This option is tried and tested because of how effective the two-pronged combination of immersion coupled with formal study is in accelerating the learning process. At a good language school or exchange programme, you get the best of both worlds.

Some organisations offering worldwide language school programmes for a variety of languages include:

Go Overseas
Language International
Languages Abroad

Be aware that language school programmes can be intensive and require a large dedication of your time abroad (hence why they are effective). Most students attending them are on student visas and aren’t working on the side. They’re also focused on group lessons so if you prefer the tailored focus that one-to-one tutoring provides this may not be for you.

But if you’re ready for a heightened immersion experience with the view of becoming proficient in a language, this is an appealing option. Many programmes also integrate cultural studies and day trips as part of the package so you get a holistic experience while learning.

Learning A Language Abroad School


If language school programmes grant the possibility of a heightened language immersion, homestays provide it on steroids.

Not only are you in a native-speaking country and using the language often on a daily basis, you’ll also gain unparalleled insights into the local culture and way of life.

Some homestays even allow the possibility of living with your teacher(s) if you want a full dose of language learning intensity.

Some popular organisations offering language homestay programmes worldwide include:

International Language Homestays
Languages Abroad
Nacel International

Such a high degree of immersion can come with its restrictions. Since you’re living with another family, you’ll be expected to abide by any rules (within reason) that they have which can include curfews. These depend on the organisation and family so do your research beforehand and consider what’s appropriate for you.

If homestays suit your personality, the positives can be enormous. You’ll have unbelievable real exposure to expedite your proficiency in the target language and a chance to form lifelong bonds with locals.


Learning a language abroad can be one of the most exciting undertakings on a language learning journey. All those words and phrases you’ve hoarded in isolation can be applied at last.

The most obvious benefit of learning a language in a native-speaking country is the immersion potential. Continuous exposure around the language on a day-to-day basis provides the opportunity of incremental gains hard to replicate via other means. Learning real world usage of the language outside of scholarly texts and encountering many opportunities to practice what you’ve learned are some of the other benefits that come from learning abroad.

However, learning a language abroad isn’t always plain sailing. The idea that you’ll learn if your ‘hand is forced’ isn’t guaranteed. Moreover, the challenges of overwhelm from immersion and the difficulty of maintaining your language studies can apply for learners depending on their personality and situations.

To ensure you get the most out of learning a language abroad, apply specific methods the right way. Immersion can be the best way to speed up your proficiency in a language as long as you immerse yourself and not wait to be immersed. The boundary of your exposure in the target language will be the boundary of your proficiency—expand it by actively placing yourself in situations to engage with the people and their language and watch your level profit as a result.

Two other methods offer ways to enhance immersion experiences. Good language schools and exchange programmes let you benefit from country immersion plus formal study over the same period. Language homestays give you ample opportunities to use the language in real world contexts and understand the culture of the place you’re in.

Whether you’re in a country for a short or long period of time, learning a language abroad can be a life-changing experience. Do it well to get the most out of it.