For language learners, the idea of moving abroad for a while and doing an EUsolidaritycorps project sounds just perfect. You are surrounded by the language you are learning all day. You see movies in that language, read books, make friends and have conversations with native speakers. You will be learning to understand and speak it effortlessly.
That almost sounds too good to be true, right? It does, because it is.
As frustrating as it might be: Your EUsolidaritycorps adventure abroad is not a guarantee for future fluency.
Here is why - and how you can get the most language improvement out of your experience anyway.
In an increasingly global world and a connected Europe, your ability to understand and speak foreign languages can help to bring people together, to united them and to reduce intercultural misunderstandings. Did you know that it is one of the EU’s multilingualism goals that each European citizen should know two foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue? But the Eurobarometer survey from 2012 shoed that it still is quite a long way to reach this goal: Only 25 percent of the EU citizens reported to be able to have a conversation in two foreign languages. At the same time, 46 percent can not communicate in any language but their own. Sixteen percent of the EU citizens declare that they are discouraged to learn a new language because they lack the opportunity to use it with native speakers.
One of the biggest misunderstandings of language learning is the belief that a stay abroad is the
secret ingredient and the magical shortcut to language learning success.
But how many migrants live in other countries for years, working and raising their children there, but they are still unable to say more than a handful words and phrases? It is not because they are too lazy or too stupid. It is just because it is possible to build a life around yourself where the language youare learning does not play a role.
Especially in countries where most residents have a very high level of English, like Sweden or the Netherlands, it is easy to manage your everyday life without speaking a single word of the country’s language. You can often communicate with locals around you without knowledge of their mother tongue. Some volunteers even work in international, English speaking environments. But even when you only speak the country’s language at work, it happens very easily that you spend an entire weekend without even noticing that you are not speaking the language. You watch a movie in English, call friends and family at home (obviously speaking your mother tongue) and meet other volunteers from all over Europe, speaking English all night. A whole day passed without saying a single word of the language you are trying to learn.
There is only one secret ingredient and not-very-magical trick to language learning success: studying. It is unpopular, it is unsexy and it sounds too much like school - but it is true.
You need to know certain words. You need to know how words are pronounced. You need to know the structure of sentences. And you need some kind of systematic approach to learn and master all of it. There are stories of people learning languages just by watching movies or living abroad for a while. For them, language learning is a side effect of what they are doing. It is not impossible - but studying is the faster and safer road to language proficiency.
But here is the good thing: Your adventure abroad still is a great opportunity to master a new language. In a survey published by the European Commission in 2017, nine out of ten participants of Erasmus+ projects reported an improvement of their language skills. While living abroad, it is likely you will have a better access to resources you need to improve. There are cinemas, libraries with books and newspapers, partners for language exchanges, native speaking coworkers. Fifteen percent of EU citizens who speak foreign languages reported to the Eurobarometer 2012 that they learned the language during „long or frequent visits of countries where the language is spoken“. Your unique chance to learn a language is at your fingertips. Make sure you do not waste that.
To conclude, a volunteer experience abroad will not make you fluent in a language. Your success in language learning always depends on the effort you are willing to put into it. Without studying, you will not be able to reach a level which enables you to communicate.
A certain period abroad can be the unique opportunity to put into practice what you already studied. Especially when you already have an intermediate level it can be a huge advantage to transform theoretical knowledge into practical skills. Therefore, you can not rely just on living in the environment of your target language.
The key is to see which unique opportunities you have - and actively use them to increase your
language level. Living and volunteering abroad is a fantastic starting point to reach language fluency.
But just do not expect it to happen automatically.
Eurobarometer survey 2012: http://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/ publicopinion/archives/ebs/ebs_386_de.pdf
Erasmus+ survey: https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/erasmus-plus/sites/erasmusplus2/ files/e_30_book-november-web.pdf