Exchange Programs and Language Learning

I have the opportunity to apply for a few exchange programs sponsored by the US Department of State. Some of them are 6-8 weeks while others last a whole academic year. A lot of applicants go in without knowing the language of the country they’re going to at all, but I feel like already having experience with the language would make the program even more effective. Students live with a host family and students in the academic year program go to local school.

I was wondering if anyone here had any experience with or opinions about exchange programs like this. Do you think 6-8 weeks is enough to really “activate” the language? I’m very interested to know, as my dilemma is deciding whether or not a 6-8 week program would lead to significant improvement. Students also spend time in a language classroom in addition to taking part in local social life and community activities.

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Having done a 6-month exchange at a lyçée in France, I would say 6-8 weeks would be helpful, but only if you have a good foundation in the language first. I had six years of school French before I left, as well as 3 years of Latin (which though it may not be French, helps tremendously with learning any Romance language). I really would not recommend spending the time and money with no prior knowledge at all, in fact, it could be a very bad experience. The less you know, the less you can interact, the more people will resort to speaking English with you, and the less you’ll get out of it. The hardest part for me was that the best friend I made there was also a very keen student of English and spoke English to me all the time! Regardless, immersion experiences depend on may factors, including how outgoing, talkative, and forward your personality is, how motivated you are, the relationship you have with your host family (anything’s possible there!), and how fortunate you are meeting people who want to put in the effort to interact with you (not in English!, Like I said, that was the hardest part for me, and I was not expecting that at all). It is laborious to interact with someone who struggles to communicate, and not everyone has the motivation or desire to put in the effort to communicate with you . . . so again, the better your language skills before you go, the easier it will be to interact with others, and the more you will get out of it. 6-8 weeks is long enough to improve, certainly, but not long enough to develop true ease and fluency, unless you’re almost there already. You would have to weigh the expense of the program/time commitment against your personal circumstances to decide whether a relatively short program like this would be worthwhile.


In my experience, you can activate your language in as little as 2 weeks if your previous passive knowledge is decent and you make sure that you really “immerse” yourself in the language, which your intended. programs seem to allow. Make sure that you really interact (almost) exclusively with native speakers in your target language. Most exchange students end up hanging out with other foreign students and falling back on their mother tongues, which completely defies the purpose of the experience.

Thank you. I think you’re really right about the fact that students tend to stay with one another, I’ve seen a lot of that. Even one girl who was in such a program told me that she befriended the other exchange students better than locals. That’s not necessarily bad, but I’ll definitely try to spend more time with locals and immerse myself as you say. Thanks for the advice!

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Thanks for the answer.

“ 6-8 weeks is long enough to improve, certainly, but not long enough to develop true ease and fluency, unless you’re almost there already. ” I’ll remember this!

The Hungarian polyglot Kato Lomb says that we‘re better off going to another country for immersion at the intermediate level, which you prove with your experience. I’m sure as a beginner it’s easy to get stuck with a crowd that only speaks English.


I was part of an exchange group from my university when I went to Madrid many, many decades ago. At the time, I only had a few years of classes and while I was good student, back then there was virtually no practice speaking or listening to anyone other than the professor. I went to Spain for a six week summer program specifically to gain an ability to speak comfortably and understand native speakers. While I Iived in a dorm with other American students and did some activities with them, I deliberately hung out with Spaniards. The first weekend I was fortunate to meet a Spanish guy on a long train trip who didn’t speak English. When we arrived in Madrid, I ended up hanging out with him and his friends virtually daily, meeting at the bars during siesta time and in the evening. Because no one else spoke English, I got LOTS of practice: sink or swim. It wasn’t easy – especially when the friends talked over one another and the wine flowed – but I definitely learned to speak well and developed a relationship that survived after the summer. I could not have become fluent if I didn’t already have a solid base in grammar and vocabulary. Nor would I have improved so much had I spent a lot of time with my fellow Americans. Another factor is that Spanish has a lot of Latin cognates so it wasn’t hard to gain additional sophisticated vocabulary. I don’t think I could have made so much progress if the language was not a Western European one.

Immersion is very effective when you have a good base but it’s not easy and it’s not automatic. You have to make the effort to speak with people in the target language even when you’re tired, even when the conversation flies over your head. It requires pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, socially, emotionally and linguistically. Yet the rewards are great. BTW, I never lost my conversational ability to speak Spanish until I started intensively studying Russian a few years ago. (I wrote about my experience in a previous forum post and how I regained – and superseded my previous Spanish skills.)

Bottom line is that you get the most out of immersion if you already have a base, the more the better. But you still must make the effort to speak and interact with natives who DON’T speak your language. Otherwise, you won’t improve much.