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Can you learn a language just by living in the country?

Many people believe that they can learn a language or ‘pick it up’ simply by spending time in a place where it is spoken and being around the language all the time.  Is it possible to learn a language through ‘osmosis’ or through total immersion?

The answer is both yes and no.

Let’s look at the no part first. If you travel to a country with no basis in the language and make no effort to study the language actively, and just count on ‘picking it up’, then it is unlikely to be very effective. The reason is because you have no reference point. If somebody holds up an apple and says to you the word ‘apple’ then it is easy enough to learn the word. However, if friends around you are having a conversation about apples, you could have no idea at all what they are talking about, because there is simply no context. You could live in a country for 20 years, and just hear the language as noise, not learning anything because you have no reference points to allow your brain to learn. It does require study of some description to de-alienate a language and allow you to progress in a natural environment. ‘Total immersion’ language programs can work, but they rely on having some kind of pictures, guide or reference points to help you to understand.

So when can you ‘pick up’ a language from being in the environment? Well, if you already know a bit of the language and can communicate on a basic level, you can pick up a lot. You can ask native speakers how to say different things, if you know many of the words in a sentence you can often guess unknown words, and pick them up in this way. This is the key, if you are fed a bit of extra unknown information, you can often guess what it means, or understand a lot from the context. If you are in an environment where you know nothing, you have no context from which to start to understand. Babies learning their first language are constantly taught to associate words with objects, they don’t understand just by listening to fluent speech in the language.

Bearing all this in mind, you can maximise your learning of a language when you live or study ‘in-country’.  I have learnt so much Chinese from living in China, but my best decision was to get to a functional level before I went. It allowed me to increase my ability much more quickly once I arrive.

Learn the basics before you go, so you have something to build on. Take some classes in the country to give you a foundation. Start to speak to people and they will respond at your level of ability. Then you can take full advantage of your environment, and not just expect your environment to ‘make you fluent’.