Studying abroad does help you become fluent in a foreign language, but it still requires language study and a lot of practice to become fluent. Immersing yourself in the language and studying abroad in a country where you have to speak the language will go a long way but it doesn’t guarantee fluency.
On the other hand, if you’re studying abroad and take language courses, immerse yourself in the language, let yourself make mistakes, and interact with locals, you may realize that you’re well on your way to becoming fluent.
You see, what matters is practice. That’s one of the wonderful things of studying abroad: you can study the language and immediately apply it by immersing yourself in the culture and daily rituals. That’s what’s going to make you fluent—interacting as much as possible with the culture and people. Going abroad and sticking with other foreigners and never practicing the language will still be a great experience but not one that will make you fluent.
People also ask if you can learn a language by going to that country. It really is the same question. Yes you can, but without language learning and practicing, you’ll probably learn little.
The best way to learn a foreign language is to go to a foreign country because you can immerse yourself in the language and culture. It’s definitely not the only way, but if you’re determined to become fluent, take lessons and practice, living in a foreign country is the most effective way to learn a foreign language.
How fast and how long it takes you to learn a language living in a foreign country or doing a study abroad totally depends on the amount of time you invest in it. The more lessons you take, and more importantly, the more you practice what you’ve learned, the quicker you’ll get there. The FSI has a great categorization of languages by the amount of time required to reach basic fluency.
So say you want to learn Spanish abroad, which requires about 600 hours to reach basic fluency. If you take 4 hours of Spanish lessons a day and then are practicing another 2 or 3 hours, you may very well become fluent in a semester.
When we speak of fluency, many of us get confused since it seems like such a vague word. Fluency really is about dominating a foreign language to the point you: can interact with native speakers easily, can understand complex topics, and express your viewpoint spontaneously and without much difficulty.
Europe has the European Common Framework of Reference (CERF) that classifies language proficiency into 6 different levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2. A1 is basic beginner, and C2 is 100% mastery of the language (you can pick up subtle jokes and all). But you don’t have to have 100% mastery to be fluent. At the B2 level you are considered independent and many foreign colleges will allow you to study there if you’re at that level. So, if a college considers that you only need B2 to get a whole degree, then it’s safe to say that you can become fluent in your study abroad by getting to B2, an advanced intermediate level. That’s the goal you should target when studying abroad to become fluent.
When you reach that language learning goal, you will be able to converse at a dinner table, talk about multiple subjects, understand what others are saying, and read whatever you desire.
There’s more to studying abroad than becoming fluent, though that itself is a mighty goal. When you study abroad you also:
Improve your communication: Everyone’s a stranger so you really get good at talking and communicating with others. Even more if it’s in a foreign language.
Improve your independence and self-reliance: When you study abroad, many times you’re on your own. This really helps you learn to become self-reliant even in scenarios when you can’t understand a word around you.
Become more cultured: You are learning about a whole different culture than your own when you study abroad.
Improve your self-discipline: No one’s going to force you to practice the foreign language more, or interact with people. But if you work on achieving your goal, it’ll also improve your self-disciple as you drive yourself towards progress.
Of course, there’s so much more to be gained. I absolutely loved learning more about wine and cheese from living in France. It’s a small thing but I genuinely savored those experiences and knowledge. Even those smaller things are something to enjoy and be proud of. Wherever you study abroad to become fluent, there’s numerous additional benefits to studying abroad.
Studying abroad changes you. It forces you to explore, and in that exploration you rediscover the things you love or discover new ones. In one study abroad in Ireland, I learned how much I loved sitting down with people and just hearing their stories. I never realized how much I appreciated conversations with strangers (and later new friends) until then.
Maybe you will discover that you have a deep passion for architecture. Or love learning how local dishes are made. Whatever it may be, studying abroad will not only help you become fluent. It will help you discover more about yourself. That is priceless.
So, take the reins of your study abroad. You’re in control. If you want to become fluent, you can get there: you know what’s needed. It’s not just about studying abroad in a foreign country, but immersing yourself in it. Making local friends, interacting with the culture, exploring new things. The more you put into it, the more you will get out of it. And that experience will be something you’ll always be fond of.
I still daydream about my times in Ireland and France. They were totally worth it and they absolutely changed me. So, where will you study abroad?
If you’re looking to study Spanish abroad, check out these fabulous Spanish language schools: