You Don’t Need to Study Abroad to Learn a Language has  been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube Channel. This video originally aired on November 27th, 2013



Hi there, Steve Kaufmann. Here I am in our little yard. We’re in Palm Springs, my wife and I, so I want to talk about travel and language learning. People have asked me to present my conclusions at the front so they don’t have to listen to my ramble. Three questions:


  1. Is travel a major motivator for language learning?


Yes, absolutely.


  1. Is it necessary to travel to the country in order to learn a language?




  1. If you travel to the country where the language is spoken, will that help your language learning?


Not necessarily.


So those are the conclusions, now let’s get into detail.


For me, travel has always been one of the main motivators in language learning, but there are other motivators. I’m motivated to learn about a country’s history. Having a friend in the language can be a major motivator or a relative. So there could be many motivations or motivating factors; however, travel is a major motivator. Having a goal, in my case when I learned Czech, I wanted to study it for a year and then, after a year, go to Prague and speak. So that was a major motivator. It made it very concrete. I had a specific goal so, to that extent, wanting to travel to the country.


Even if you can’t travel – this is the other thing – if you’re located somewhere where you have perhaps only a slight possibility of traveling to a Spanish-speaking country or to China, still the thought that one day you might travel there can become a motivator because motivation is so important to language learning. So travel can be a major motivator, but it needn’t be the only one. As I say, it can be an interest in the culture, in say anime for people. I’m not interested in anime at all, but some people are. I’m interested in history. So travel can be a great motivator.


Why you don’t need to study abroad or travel to learn a language

Now, the second question is do you need to travel to the country in order to learn the language. There the answer is no and I’ll give you a number of examples.


First of all, in my own experience I learned Mandarin Chinese in Hong Kong. Hong Kong in the ‘60s was not a Mandarin-speaking environment, so I was not surrounded by Mandarin. I didn’t hear Mandarin on the radio. I couldn’t go out and talk to shopkeepers or passersby in Mandarin. The only people with whom I spoke Mandarin were my teachers and a very limited number of Mandarin-speaking friends whom we met. I might just as well have been in New York, Paris or Tokyo. For me, I didn’t need to be in a Mandarin-speaking environment and after nine months I learned a lot of Mandarin, but I was motivated by my interest in the history and the literature, my reading, my listening, all of the things that kept me going at my Mandarin studies.


I’ll give another example. Even with regard to Czech, I spent a year listening to Czech radio, an hour, hour and a half a day, studying at LingQ with the goal of going to Prague. But in the end, I spent five days in Prague. I spent a year working on my Czech, so the five days in Prague were an opportunity for me to sort of convert my somewhat passive learning into more active learning. In terms of the amount of time that I spent, I spent a whole year studying Czech on my own in Canada and five days in Prague. So being in Prague, per se, was not the condition for learning. That’s the second question.


The third question is does going to the country insure that you learn the language. There, again, the answer is no. Most people, if they have an opportunity to travel to Mexico, Spain, Italy, Prague, China, probably are only going to spend a week or two weeks there. They can’t learn the language in one or two weeks. Even if they spend two or three months there it may not be enough. It’s the amount of study you do beforehand that will determine how well you can take advantage of your stay. Even living in the country doesn’t insure you’re going to learn the language.

Here you can read: The best way to learn a new language


Being in a country doesn’t mean you’ll learn the language

When I lived in Japan very few foreigners learned Japanese and, for that matter, even if you’re in the country where the language is spoken. I went to Japan speaking, essentially, no Japanese. I was surrounded by Japanese people, but most of my learning activity was listening and reading to things of interest to me. I had to build up my capability in the language before I could actually interact with people. So regardless of whether you’re in the country or not, the strategy has to be – I mention this in my book – to build up your own language world of things that are of interest to you. Things you can read and listen to and build up your vocabulary allow your brain to become sort of accustomed to the language and start speaking with people, which we can do.


This is another point. Today with the Internet, access to people via Skype, access to tremendous resources on the Internet, you can build and create your own language world wherever you are. That’s the major sort of activity. If you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to the country where the language you’re learning is spoken so much the better. That can be a major motivator as you prepare yourself for that opportunity and, eventually, if you do go there, obviously, the more time you spend there, the more you’re interacting with people, the better you’re going to get. But the foundation can be built at home and then when you get the opportunity you can really take advantage.


That’s kind of a summary of this whole issue of travel and language. Yes, it’s great to travel and I love going to countries where I can speak the language. It’s a major benefit, bonus and reward for learning the language, but it’s not a condition. You can learn the language very well at home. Even if you do go to the country where the language is spoken, if you haven’t put that effort into preparing yourself using your own language world you won’t be able to take advantage of it. So there you have it.


Unfortunately, we are going to have to leave sunny California in a few days and go back to Canada where the weather is not as nice. Thanks for listening. I look forward to your comments and I want to hear about your experiences. Thank you.