Period living overseas - is this essential?

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this issue: do we need to experience complete immersion in a language in order to make that all important breakthrough towards fluency? If so, how much immersion? 6 months? 1 year? Or maybe longer than this?

There are folks who insist that immersion is unnecessary - and that may well be true for a Dutch guy learning German, or a Spanish guy learning Italian, etc. But let’s take something highly exotic like Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, etc; how likely is it that any Westerner could achieve even very basic fluency in one of these without living for a long time in the country in question…!?

And if a period of residence overseas is not a viable option, then why waste the time trying to master one of these tongues?

I sometimes wonder whether we all need a reality check here?

Maybe we should just concentrate on languages that are, so to speak, ‘closer to home’?

I don’t think it’s essential to get to a very good level. That level might be enough for you. For some languages, I just want to be able to read and watch things. I don’t mind if I never go to the country - that would just be a bonus. For some languages, I think it’s really a must. Not because you can’t learn the language without it, but because of the culture difference. It’s the mindset which you fully want to experience. if you love the language enough, you’ll keep pushing forwards with it until you finally get the chance to go to a country where people speak it. I’ve witnessed people getting to very high levels in Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, without ever leaving their monolingual English speaking wastelands. :smiley: Chinese languages - you’re in luck: Chinatown. haha

That’s my take on it.

This is why I really admire the guy from He said that he learned Japanese in the U.S., and was fluent enough to be able to do things like apply for his visa and conduct a job interview all in Japanese, before ever going to the country.

However, could I do it? I don’t know. But I won’t stop trying.

aybee77, I can easily believe that. I don’t know how long it took him, but to get conversational in Japanese isn’t as hard as you might think, even to conduct and interview. In my experience the hard bit comes after that! The main issue is motivation. If you’re motivated then you can do it. If you’re not prepared to dedicate a huge amount of your spare time to a potentially fruitless exercise just for the love of it, then you won’t get very far.

Jay, why do you wish to impose your goals or reasons for learning a language on others. People should learn what they want to learn wherever they want to learn.

A period of living in the country is helpful, and a reward for our efforts, but not necessary. I have not lived in 11 countries. You can achieve a lot with enough language content around you. The Frenchman who is so fluent in Chinese did the same as Khatzumoto. I became quite fluent in Mandarin while studying in Hong Kong where hardly anyone spoke Mandarin.

I don’t think Jay is trying to impose anything on anyone. I would agree though that different people might have different reasons to learn different languages and that is perfectly ok.

I do not think that living in a foreign is necessary to learn a language, however it is much easier to stay motivated learning it abroad. It takes much more discipline to keep at it in your homecountry.

Jay’s comment was

"And if a period of residence overseas is not a viable option, then why waste the time trying to master one of these tongues?

I sometimes wonder whether we all need a reality check here?

Maybe we should just concentrate on languages that are, so to speak, ‘closer to home’?"

Steve did it; Katz (Ajatt) did it; Julien did it…! No one, and I mean no one can convince that I cannot do it. It takes time, tons of time.

There is a wealth of language learning material out there. The world is smaller in terms of gaining access to other countries via the internet. We can create environments, adjust our attitudes, commit ourselves tirelessly.

Living or visiting the country of my target language will be the icing on my cake! (It’s in the oven, it’s baking! It’s going to be delicious!)

“And if a period of residence overseas is not a viable option, then why waste the time trying to master one of these tongues?”

I’m assuming, my dear, that you’re posing a fun, rhetorical question here. Otherwise you’re venturing into the “why bother getting a pet if it’s just going to die anyway” territory. Although if you’re looking to ponder the question of why bothering to do anything given the inevitable end of anyone’s ultimately pointless human existence, I can certainly support that. :wink:

I wouldn’t consider anything that you enjoy and broadens your horizons to be a waste, no matter how long it takes you. I think Yvette summed it up perfectly above.

If I may ask, how long did you live in Germany? Your German here in the forums always looks great to me. I’m envious! Do you feel that if you hadn’t lived there for x number of months/years that your German studies would have been a waste of time? Honestly, I don’t know what level of German I can realistically reach without living there, but it’s still worth it given the immense amount of enjoyment I’ve derived from my studies. (And I WILL learn at least passable Russian someday, even if it kills me).

Immersion in a language is great - as long as you also study. In my experience (I have lived in countries where languages that are not my native one is spoken) just being in the country is not enough for fluency; you also have to put in a considerable amount of effort learning, reading, writing and speaking and yes, grammar if you want to know the language properly. You have to make the same stupid mistakes, and also cope with inevitable culture shock.

I know very intelligent, educated people who have lived overseas for years - in one case 15 years - and cannot speak, cannot read and cannot write the local language, apart from very simple phrases, because they live in an English bubble and have convinced themselves they cannot and don’t need to learn.

There are no short cuts or “hacks” that will make you fluent, not even in an immersion situation… there are ways to help yourself learn better and faster but with today’s technology you don’t need to be in the country to use most of them. You just need to be very determined.

I don’t mean to hijack this thread, but this does tie in with the original post. With immersing yourself in another country, how long does it take to achieve the listening breakthrough? Seeing the words everywhere and hearing the language all day long in different contexts?

With the original post, i believe all things being equal, immersion is of great benefit. Then again, i know of people who live in different countries but just hang around with their own native speakers thus not really improving.

Just think of all those Chinese and Swedish kids who speak very good English without ever leaving their homeland.


Raising a perfectly legitimate question is not the same as “…trying to impose goals or reasons for learning a language on others.”

Even if I wanted to do so, how do you suppose I could “impose my goals or reasons” on other people? (By telepathy perhaps? Or by Jedi mind tricks…!? :-0)

You are right to say that: “people should learn what they want to learn wherever they want to learn.” Of course they should. But my question is whether the goals people have are actually realistic?

I myself would simply love to believe that I could master something like Chinese without ever leaving home. But I gotta tell you, Steve, I have some real serious doubts about whether it could be done.

Yes, I know that you learned Mandarin while living in Canonese-speaking Hong Kong. But your book “The Way of he Linguist” says that you were spending many hours every single day in the company of Mandarin speakers during this time - not least because you were doing a Mandarin immersion course for diplomats, funded by the Canadian government. The book also says that you spent some considerable time travelling around in mainland China.

If you ask me, that kind of beats the heck out of sitting in a chair and listening to podcasts…

@JayB - It seems like the implication in your first post is that immersion = living overseas, but in my experience this is not necessarily the case.

I have learned Korean here in Vancouver for the past ~4 years, and have up until now only spent a total of 2 months in Korea (over 3 visits). However, there were plenty of Koreans around, not to mention countless resources on the internet allowing me to immerse myself in all things Korean.

I think it has less to do about your physical location and more to do with how you use your time. Even if you live in a remote area, you can still have regular conversations with native speakers via Skype or other programs.


To achieve fluency in Korean is a tremendous accomplishment under any circumstances. To do so while living in Vancouver marks you out as a person of rare and very special linguistic talent, in my opinion.

Normally I would tend to equate full immersion to living overseas. But I can see that there are kinds of semi-immersion too. (To give just one example: the kids in a Mandarin-speaking family living in North America or Europe.)


I actually know a Korean girl at work who was brought up in England via Korean parents. She understands Korean completely but is only below average at speaking it. Obviously due to not having many Korean speaking opportunities apart from at home but many years of her parents moaning at her has worked a treat!

It’s definitely possible to reach fluency without immersion.

In the past 3 years, I learned Japanese from scratch to a level where I’m comfortable having Japanese only conversations, even with several other Japanese people at the same time. Some have told me recently that they now speak to me more or less the same as they would to a native speaker. I think I’m past the “basic fluency” you mention.

I went to Japan, but only twice, for 11 and 21 days, after 6 months and 18 months of study, respectively. I don’t think you could call that a substantial immersion.

Jay, you did not say " I don’t think it is worth my while to study these languages if I cannot go to the country, I am wasting my time, it is better for me to concentrate on languages closer to home". Instead you talked about a reality check for all of us, that we are wasting our time, and we should concentrate on languages closer to home. You cannot speak for “us”.

My point is that “we” have many motives for learning languages. Your point about my exposure to Mandarin speaking tutors is valid. I think that we can achieve a lot of this on our own, using LingQ for example. I have done so with great pleasure with my Russian, but at one hour a day of mostly listening, it is taking longer than full time Mandarin study. But I was rewarded with a delightful trip to Russia. So I do not accept that we should focus on languages closer to home, but on languages that interest us.


you are outspoken, Jay is and so am I. Jay expressed his opinion with which you may or may not agree. Jay phrased his views as questions which shows that he does not see them as absolute. But even if he did, he has now power to “impose” anything.

The reason I am a bit allergic to your use of the “i” word is because I see everyday a lot of things of much greater importance being in fact imposed on people against their will. I do not always agree with Jay’s world view or opinions on other matters but I like his passion. Nothing arrogant or disrespectful at all in what he said.

I kind of agree with Jay, in that we need to check the reasons why we are learning a language. Mainly because learning a language is very time consuming.

If you have valid reasons (for love of the culture, because it sounds beautiful or whatever) for spending time learning a language then great!

I also think ‘spending some time’ in your target language country is a great reward for learning the language.

Several people have mentioned AJATT as an example of someone exceling in an ‘exotic’ language before he even got there. And ‘Roan’ mentioned ‘motivation’ being the main issue. My understanding of AJATT is that he doesn’t think motivation is important and certainly not something to focus on. Instead he recommends focusing on your ‘environment’ and getting resources in the language that you love. This way it’s not a matter of motivation but making it easier to do, listen, watch stuff in Japanese than in your native langauge.

Orange, that’s something you’ve not understood of AJATT . He’s totally for motivation. If you don’t want to do it, then why will you? He wanted to learn Japanese like nothing else - so he did.

How does one ‘focus’ on motivation anyway? I’ve never been able to falsely create ‘motivation’ that I haven’t had. It’s a spontaneous thing.