“The best way to learn a foreign language is to go to a foreign country???” Of course, a big Nope from me
Many people seem to think that living in a English-speaking country means that you automatically learn English well. Perhaps the most prominent people who believe in this “common-sense truth” are Vietnamese parents who spend a lot of money sending their children to language schools in England, expecting that they will come back with a perfect English.
In fact, most immigrants in United Kingdom don’t speak English very well, even after living there for 10 or 20 years. Many of them have been making the same basic mistakes for decades — for example, saying things like “Me do for you?” instead of “I do for you”, or “I help you” instead of “I will help you”. They typically speak with strong accents, which enable others to instantly classify them as Asians, Latinos, East European, etc.
The reason why immigrants don’t do anything about their grammar and pronunciation is that there is little pressure to do so. Native speaker can understand them despite their mistakes (sometimes with some effort), and are normally too polite to correct them. If you are speaking to a native English speaker, rarely do they interrupt you to correct your minor mistakes.
The vivid example of immigrants in United Kingdom reveals a truth that many language learners find quite shocking: that living in a foreign country simply does not make you speak the country’s language well. It does not force you to learn good grammar, good pronunciation, or a large vocabulary, because you can do quite well without those things in everyday life. For example, you can skip all your articles when speaking English (“Give me cup”, “Bag is not good”) and still be able to shop in USA or Britain without much trouble.
Being in UK only forces you to learn what is necessary to survive — the ability to understand everyday language and just enough speaking skills to order takeaway, go shopping in TESCO, Sainsbury (supermarkets) and communicate with your co-workers or classmates. The rest depends on you, your self-motivation and ability to learn — which mean that you’re not much better off than someone who leans English effectively in Vietnam.
Additionally, being in an English-speaking country often forces you to say incorrect sentences, because it forces you to speak, even if you make a lot of mistakes. When you’re in a foreign country, you cannot decide that you will temporarily stop talking to people and focus on writing practice (which would enable you to learn correct grammar better than speaking, because you could take as much time as you needed to look up correct phrases on the Web or in dictionaries). You have to speak, because your life depends on it.
By making mistakes, you reinforce your bad habits, and after a couple of years of saying things like “He make tea?”, it’s really hard to start speaking correctly. It is important to remember that native speakers will not correct your mistakes. Instead, they will try to be nice and try to understand you, no matter how horrible your grammar and pronunciation are.
In a nutshell, while going to another country may seem like a sure-fire way to master a foreign language, it is not so. Without sufficient motivation, you will learn very little and are likely to end up speaking in an understandable way, but with lots of mistakes. On the other hand, if you have the strong self-motivation, you might as well simulate a foreign-language environment in your own home with foreign-language TV and the Internet. Such an environment will be safer, because it will not force you to speak and reinforce your mistakes. Instead, you can learn at your own pace and concentrate on pronunciation, input and writing before you start speaking. It is a little bit slow but effective.
The advantages of going abroad are:
- Easy access to native speakers that you can communicate with (though you can also find natives in Vietnam, or you can just talk with someone who’s learning English.)
- The opportunity to perfect your listening skills (trying to understand English-language TV and movies is not quite the same as trying to understand the speech of a teenaged supermarket clerk in H&M, Sport Direct)
- The opportunity to learn useful everyday words which are not frequently heard on TV or in movies, e.g. open-air market , ATM, carpool, parking space, detergent, deli, cereal…….
All things considered, learning in your own country will be a safer (and cheaper) option than going abroad, assuming you can motivate yourself and can find opportunities to speak in the language you’re learning. After you’ve learned to speak the language fluently, you can go abroad to polish your listening skills and make your vocabulary a bit more native-like.
Many people believe that best way to learn English is to go to an English-speaking country. What do you think?
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