Despite my harsh views on formal education, one of my biggest regrets in life is passing up on the opportunity to study abroad. I was close at times, and even attended a [random] day of physical therapy classes in Lübeck, Germany, but for whatever reason, I just never ended up taking the plunge. It’s not that I didn’t want to, I just didn’t make it a priority at the time. Before I knew it, I was graduating and missed my chance. That said, I can’t help but notice that a lot of people who do study abroad inadvertently end up sabotaging their own experiences and needlessly waste a lot of their time. How? By trying to learn a language while studying abroad. More specifically, by trying to learn a language before reaching what I call threshold proficiency. That being said, the points below come from not only my own travel experiences, but from the dozens of students that I’ve met during my travels around the world, as well as many of my friends who have spent a semester abroad. So without further adieu.
The whole point of learning a foreign language is to be able to use it when you travel or are in the context where knowing it is useful. Waiting until you get there to start learning or improve your elementary knowledge misses the purpose (and the opportunity) entirely. By time you actually reach “the threshold”, you’ll already be on your way home. Your time abroad is limited, use it wisely.
It’s almost impossible to find a place without at least a few people who can speak English—especially at an international school. If you show up unable to speak the local language, guess what you’ll have to resort to? You guessed it, English. And once you start using English, it’ll become the drug you can’t live without. More often than not, you won’t just start with English, you’ll continue to rely on it until the day you leave. Old habits die hard—trust me. If there’s anything that will doom your language learning, it’s getting in the routine of speaking English. Instead, the moment you set foot on foreign soil swear off English entirely.
Do you really want to spend your limited time abroad sitting in a classroom for hours on end? No, of course not. Yet, languages class are notoriously inefficient and operate on a linear model—doubling your learning speed means you have to double the hours you spend in a classroom. Doubling the hours you spend in class halves the hours you can spend doing cool stuff like going on adventures, exploring, interacting with the locals, eating awesome food, starting trouble, getting lost, making friends, and generally doing your best to live like a local (i.e. have the time of your life).
Costs fall into two categories: time costs (opportunity costs) and monetary costs ($$$). Now I’ve already addressed time costs in #3, but language schools (okay, virtually all schools) also get away with charging an absurd amounts for their services. Sure, if you keep going to classes for a year or two you’ll eventually get there (fluency), but expect to be paying a hefty price each step of the way. This goes double for intensive learning courses, which increase learning times by doubling the hours you spend in the class each day, not by improving instruction (while often more than doubling the price). Add living and travel expenses to your already inflated education prices, and you’ve got yourself a super expensive trip mostly spent in some white-walled classroom instead of the experience of a lifetime that you could/should have had. Finally, and most importantly, actually paying attention and keeping motivated in such a slow, time intensive learning environment is a daunting prospect—especially when there’s a whole new world and culture sitting just outside your classroom door.
Immersion. That’s the secret, right? No. Stop. Immersion is obviously useful, but only truly powerful if you’re already at or past the threshold. Simply put, immersion helps you help yourself—it’s not a magic bullet. That being said, if you still insist on immersion, you don’t need a plane ticket. With the simple click of a button, you can be face-to-face with a native speaker of virtually any language you’d like to learn in just seconds (Skype, Verbling, etc…). If face-to-face is more your thing, language and international meetups are happening in nearly every major city across the world. The world is more diverse and interconnected than ever. Creating your own immersion experience has never been easier.
Language schools are falling behind the curve. Since their revenues increase with longer graduation times there is little to no incentive for them to help you learn faster or better—it would only cost them money. The result is an entrenched industry that hasn’t changed in decades, if not centuries. However, there is hope. Bilder Languages is leading the movement to defeat the traditional establishment through radically transformational teaching methods. New techniques, such as Scalable Mnemonics, are enabling learners to reach the language threshold in as little as 20 hours— reducing total learning times (to fluency) by nearly 90% and saving learners between 500 and 1,700 hours of study. Not only that, but Bilder’s methods are so fast and predictable that fluency is guaranteed. Of course, if you have the time and can stay motivated you don’t even need that. Just head to your local library, grab a book, get a [free] Skype username, and dive in. A Better Idea Living abroad could be one of the best experiences in your life, so don’t want to waste it speaking English or sitting in a classroom. Am I saying that shouldn’t study abroad at all? No. Definitely not. In fact, I think it’s one of the best things you could possibly do—just don’t study a language. It’s an inefficient use of your money, and more importantly, your time. Instead, take classes in foreign languages, not about foreign languages. Finally, the best possible way to use your time abroad is to reach the language threshold before you set foot on a plane. Yes, it takes some effort and commitment, but it will make your trip and experiences that much more enjoyable.
Graham Mumm is the CEO and Chief Product Architect at Bilder Languages, a virtual education institution named “the greatest learning breakthrough since the printing press”, and LeanMill, a company reshaping global commerce through “Personal A.I.” He’s been to more than 44 countries, will soon be a hyper-polyglot, and spends his free time reading, tinkering, and exploring new opportunities and strange lands.