Why Learning a Language Abroad is the Best Bang for Your Buck

by Rebecca Murphy

It doesn’t take a MBA professor to realize that studying a language abroad is without a doubt the most economical (and fun!) way to learn a foreign language. Immersion creates fast, concrete, and actually interesting language skills, in addition to the potential for meaningful relationships with locals and worldly adventures in foreign places. After all, no one wants to be the Joey in their friend group when it comes to learning a language; just because the guy on the tape says you’re doing a good job doesn’t mean it’s true.

Close up of a Spanish textbook
How much can you really learn drilling vocabulary in a classroom all day?

Immersion always gives you the best bang for your buck, even if you’re only able to go for a few weeks to a month (but hopefully you can, and should, stay longer). Two to three weeks of complete immersion will give you language skills that would take you months of “repeat this phrase” on Rosetta Stone, so you will learn exponentially more by studying it abroad than at home. PLUS, you’ll get to experience the world while you’re doing it. For serious language learners and hopeful polyglots, the only question is why wouldn’t you want to learn a language abroad?

You’ll actually have tangible results.

It’s normal for students to feel discouraged in language classes, which is why many students jump ship after only a short time of studying Spanish, German, French, Mandarin, etc. It’s extremely difficult to evaluate your progress and see real results when you’re surrounded by struggling students or non-native speakers, unable to really test yourself. Whooping your classmates’ butts at vocab games will only make you feel fabuloso for so long.

When you’re learning a language abroad, however, you’ll see your progress on a daily basis. You might feel completely overwhelmed the first few days or weeks, but it is amazing how quickly your brain will adapt and start to pick up new words and phrases. Before you know it, you’ll understand things that you knew you couldn’t just a short amount of time ago. That kebab vendor you couldn’t communicate with last week will hold an entire conversation with you about his obsession with cats and you’ll actually understand most of it (and probably fall in love with him). Recognizing your results on a consistent basis will only encourage you more, unlike the piecemeal you find in a regular classroom in your home country.

Old man smiling at a market stall
Practice your conversation skills with your neighborhood market vendor

You’ll fall in love with your host culture.

Studying abroad brings not just stronger conversation skills, but also a guaranteed passion for a new culture. If you spend a prolonged period of time immersed in a new culture and language, there is no way you will leave with anything but great respect and admiration for this new corner of the world.

It is all too common when learning a language in a traditional classroom to not obtain a firm understanding of the host country’s culture, as students are often too busy freaking out over their conjugations to think about why something is said the way it is. Most teachers try to mix cultural lessons in with the grammar ones, but witnessing two locals dancing a tango on a street corner in Buenos Aires beats watching it in a movie in class any day.

Experiencing the culture first-hand pays dividends for future language learning motivation, because once you see how easy it is to fall in love with another culture, you won’t want to stop.

You won’t be able to escape to your native tongue.

Remember all those incredibly awkward games your grade school language teacher used to make you play where you’re forced to partner up with that mean jock you didn’t like and only converse in the new language? Despite how you felt, your teacher wasn’t doing it just to piss you off. It was to prepare you for being in a situation where you can’t just slip back into what you’re familiar with even when you’re uncomfortable.

Diving back into your comfort zone is the most lethal part of learning a new language. When you immerse yourself in a language abroad, there is no switching back to your primary dialect when things get weird or you don’t know how to say something. You simply have to work your way through it in the new language. If you give yourself the option to escape to what you’re more comfortable with, it’s human nature to rely on that. It also acts as a lingua franca, since most intensive language courses are through international schools where your fellow classmates might not even speak your same native language.

Calculator and coins sitting next to glasses and a pen
You’ll stretch your dollar further with full immersion classes in-country.

It will be a lifelong investment.

Spending the money to learn a new language abroad is something that you will have forever. For many people, studying a language is a fleeting activity; they set a really optimistic New Year’s goal, spend $400 on Rosetta Stone, get bored or discouraged, and move on within a few months. For those who study abroad, it is an experience that will always be part of who they are, rather than just a hobby to add to their Tinder profile.

It might seem out of the question to spend a chunk of money on flying to a different country and enrolling in a language class, but break down what your money would be actually going toward. Language classes in certain countries can be very affordable, so you might spend less money on the actual class than you would if you took it back home, enabling you to spend the rest of your dough on travel and cultural experiences. Would you rather fork over $400 for an online language class to beat your head up against your computer screen, or $80 to enroll in a French class in Senegal and spend your free time continuing to learn the language while traipsing around Dakar? Is this even a serious question?

These experiences will shape who you are, even if you only study the language abroad for a few weeks and see a small part of your host country. Spending money on meaningful experiences and skill-building is always the better route. Plus, if you get good enough at the language, it is something that will be in the back of your mind forever. Even if you lose some of your vocab or forget how to conjugate certain tenses, picking your language skills back up is like riding a bike. Give it a couple tries (and a few beers) and you’ll be back at it in no time.

It will provide context for the language.

As much as this pains language learners to hear vocabulary and grammar are only half the battle when studying a language, there are truly many outside factors that make a language what it is. Idioms, slang, words used only in certain instances, and cultural references are all parts of the language that can only truly be learned by studying abroad and immersing yourself in the culture. You probably want to scream at your German teacher when they tell you over and over again that doch is just a “word for emphasis” because you still have no clue what that actually means, but it’ll make much more sense when you hear a native speaker throw it into a sentence.

People sitting on a ledge talking
You’ll learn with the culture and landscape as your backdrop, providing proper context for your lessons.

You’ll be exposed to native speakers 24/7.

There is no better way to learn a language than by listening to and communicating with native speakers constantly. Collect all the data you want about learning a language online or “immersing” yourself back home, but we promise you that your skills will always be stronger having studied it abroad. You can use all of the supplements you want (which we encourage to start!), but at a certain point, all language learners hit a wall.

Not only is exposure to native speakers great for your listening and speaking skills, but it forces you to learn how to think in a different language on your feet. This is an entirely different skill that you simply cannot get by taking casual language classes or studying it online. By surrounding yourself with native speakers, you’re creating an environment where you are constantly having to be in “spotlight” mode, and the more practice you have at working through your vulnerabilities, the better.

You know that oral exam in French II you were super worried about flunking? Or that presentation in Russian 103 you were so nervous about giving? You were scared about it because speaking a language that is unfamiliar to you is uncomfortable, and this feeling never goes away unless you make the language comfortable for yourself (aka. IMMERSION). The most important part of learning a language is being able to stay out on your toes, responding even without thinking, and without this quick transition skill you will never be able to truly wow that tall, dark, and handsome gaucho you’ve been eyeing.

When all's said and done, there is no question that immersion is the only way to go if you really want to learn a language and have it stick for life. Not only is learning from locals the best way to develop real language skills, but it is also the most fun way to do it.

Studying a language should never be boring or discouraging, as it opens up doors to all kinds of amazing people and places around the world.

If you have the choice to become fluent in a language by staring at a textbook or by learning to make wine in Italy, are you really going to choose the textbook in a cinderblock classroom?