Until last month, all of my travels had been to places where I already spoke the language. But when I went to Poland last month, in spite of the fact that I had learned a lot of Polish in a very short amount of time, I was not fluent and there was a lot I didn't know. (There still is.)
Learning in the country
This was an interesting new experience for me, because for the first time, I was able to experience what it is like to learn a language while in the country where it is spoken. People often say that the best way to learn a language is to learn it where it is spoken. Some even say that's the only way.
I didn't move to Poland. I was only there for two weeks, but it was long enough for me to get a sense of how learning in the country is different from learning at home. And it gave me an opportunity to see things a different way.
There are a lot of things that are easier in the country. Everywhere you go, people speak the language. When you turn on the TV in Poland, all the programs are in Polish. When you go to the store, all the product labels are Polish. In the book store and in the pub, everything you see is Polish. Restaurant menus, street signs, bus schedules, newspapers... you get the idea.
When you're in the country, you don't have to look very far to find something to learn. And if you're lazy, that might sound like a pretty good idea. But then again, if you're lazy, you probably aren't going to do the work to learn anyway, are you?
It's not necessary...
All of these things can be done at home. I know this because I've done this. When I learned Spanish, I surrounded myself with Spanish. I watched only Spanish television channels and Spanish movies. I read Spanish books and newspapers. I listened to Spanish music. I ate at Mexican restaurants, and went to Mexican bars, and talked to South American bartenders.
When I learned Russian, I read Russian books and Russian web sites. I joined Russian social networks. I listened to Russian music and watched Russian movies and subscribed to the Russian newscast online. I changed my computer and my iPod to Russian, and I hung out with Russians and Skyped with Russians.
None of those things that I found easy in Poland are impossible at home. They can be done, no matter where you are. You may have to do more work to download music, or to subscribe to a video stream. You may have to search more to find books and printed materials, but you can find them.
There is an exception
There was, however, one thing I experienced in Poland that isn't so easy to simulate at home... There was a sense of urgency.
When you're in the country and you need to eat, there is an urgency to get food — whether you know the words or not, you will open your mouth and speak, or else you will go hungry.
If you need a train ticket, you will go to that window and talk to that cashier, whether you're comfortable or not. There is no waiting until you feel more confident. You just do it.
And every time you do it, you realize that it wasn't so scary and it wan't so hard...
One of the hardest aspects of learning a language at home is that of actually using it — of opening your mouth and saying the words. It's easy to just keep studying and thinking you're getting it, while never actually being forced to use what you've learned. But if you do that, you'll find a surprise when the time comes that you need to speak!
So give yourself a little stress. Create a bit of urgency. Put yourself into situtations where you need to use the language you're learning. If you're learning Spanish, go to the hispanic neighborhood to buy groceries. Here in Chicago, I like to do my grocery shopping at Polish stores. And now I do it more confidently!
Change your language settings on Google. Sure, the search may remain easy for you, but just wait until you experience the surprise in the language menu on Google Translate! And while you're changing settings, change them on your phone, and your computer, and on Facebook. If you want to use those things, you have to do them in your target language!
Go to a restaurant in that foreign part of town. Greet your waitress in her language. When you use the cash machine at the bank, choose to use it in your foreign language... there's no sense of urgency greater than the one that involves your money!
Do things that require you to use your language skills under pressure. There's no better way to learn.