Why In-Country Language Classes Are Beneficial

The very first article I wrote here gave several reasons not to take a class.

It set the tone for the website. I wanted to focus on strategies for people who study alone, like I do. I also wanted people not to think of a lack of a class as a hindrance, but rather as something that offers a lot of benefits.

With that said, I do think classes provide value. For instance, I never would’ve learned Modern Standard Arabic when I was a teenager if I hadn’t attended an intensive course.

And after completing my MSA course, I took a one-month Classical Arabic class at a language institute in Cairo, which was an incredible experience. If I ever get the time to take a similar class for German, Spanish, or Tagalog, I’m going to do it.

View from Cairo Tower By Martin Steiger, CC0, Image Source

View from Cairo Tower
By Martin Steiger, CC0, Image Source

This is a tried-and-tested method to learn languages. Even the actor Bradley Cooper spent time in France and became fluent in French.

Here are six reasons why in-country classes are so great.

1. They give you an excuse to visit the country.

Really, you shouldn’t need an excuse to travel. But plane tickets and hotel rooms cost money, which some people are hesitant to shell out.

For some people, improving their language skills is exactly the justification they need. Maybe they want to travel, but can’t bring themselves to spend the time and cash unless they’re getting some kind of long-term benefit out of the trip.

Also, many language centers will hook you up with relatively inexpensive accommodations. Sometimes you might get to stay with a host family, or you might get put up at a modest apartment in a residential area.

2. The language surrounds you.

I think the term “immersion” has become overused, to the point of being trite. If you go to a foreign country and expect to learn the language just by virtue of being there, you’re in for a rude awakening. You would’ve made a lot more progress at home with Duolingo.

However, if you go to a foreign country and are actively studying its language, you will absolutely benefit from the total experience. During class time, you’ll get the active learning benefits. Then in the evening, you’ll be surrounded by street signs, media, advertisements, and random chatter in public places. You never get a break from the language.

Seeing and hearing the language in use in all aspects of everyday life will give what you’re learning some context. You won’t fall into that familiar trap of learning a language in a textbook bubble.

3. You know someone in the country.

Some people are just fine with solo travel. They go out, meet people, and have a great time.

For many travelers, though, the idea of chatting it up with strangers–strangers whose native language you don’t speak yet–is terrifying. So they end up spending the majority of their trip alone.

If you sign up for a class, even if you step foot in the country by yourself, you’ll soon meet plenty of people. You’ll meet the teachers and staff at the school, as well as other students. At the very least, you’ll have someone to eat lunch with every day.

Also, most language schools offer field trips and cultural outings for their students. So you’ll often have people to go sightseeing with. In Egypt, my school brought us on a boat ride on the Nile and a tour of the Pyramids of Giza. We students went on our own trips to the Egyptian Museum, the Red Sea, and Mt. Sinai, as well as countless excursions around town.

Nowadays I have a family, so I travel with them. But if I were single and traveling, I would without hesitation sign up for a language class just to have a way to meet like-minded people.

4. You have someone to speak the language to.

In some countries, a good portion of the population speaks English as a foreign language. Consequently, many people will insist on speaking with you in English, even if you’re there to learn their language.

Of course, there are ways around this. You could always ask people to speak to you in their language. But that doesn’t always work. I used to tell my Turkish-German Döner guy, “Ich brauche Deutsch sprechen” (I am in need of to speak German) and he’d gently correct me with “Ah, du musst Deutsch sprechen” (Ah, you have to speak German). And then he’d promptly switch to English.

On the flip side of that, sometimes people will hear you struggling with their language and not want to deal with you at all.

In a classroom, speaking the language you’re learning is kind of the whole point. So the teachers will actually speak with you, and you’re guaranteed a chance to practice.

5. The classroom is a safe space to make mistakes.

In Cairo, a group of us students got into a cab. I wanted to practice with small talk, so I said to the driver:

ما رأيك بالطقس اليوم؟” — “What is your opinion of the weather today?”

The Arabic word for weather is “Tuks” with a hard sound for the T. I pronounced it a little off, so I said it more like “Taks” with a softer T. The cab driver corrected me in English for a full minute and said I had basically asked him, “What is your opinion of the Taxi driver today?” He laughed at me, and I felt like garbage. Did I learn? Absolutely–embarrassment and discomfort tend to drive long-term memory. But a little of that goes a long way.

I was able to speak MSA with some people (a quixotic task in and of itself, considering that the spoken language was Egyptian/Cairo dialect) but there were plenty of times when I got corrected, laughed at, and given dirty looks. Residents of Cairo come in all manners and attitudes, but the city is big, so as in all big cities, everyone is in a rush, some people are rude, and some people are curt. They don’t always have time for your “What is your opinion of the weather?” nonsense.

The classroom is a place where you can speak slowly and make mistakes, while knowing that all that is completely expected. And after school, you’ll still have plenty of opportunities to get those character-building experiences as you stumble around town.

6. You get a hefty dose of the culture.

I do most of my language learning right now in the United States. And I definitely get some cultural exposure, even from my living room. Listening to a country’s music, watching its movies, and reading its news will key you in to what the culture holds dear.

But when you go to a country, where you’re surrounded by that culture day in and day out, you really–really–understand its culture, viscerally.

Before moving to Germany, I had heard the stereotype that some Germans are sticklers for the rules. But not until my wife got screamed at for walking the dog off the path and in a drainage ditch–by someone who didn’t even own the land the ditch was on–did I get it.

And before my trip to Egypt, I knew that the vast majority of Egyptians were devout Muslims. But not until I saw people shutting down shops for prayer times, and separate fitness center times for men and women, and both men and women not wearing short sleeve shirts so as to be modest, did I understand exactly how big a role religion played in all aspects of people’s lives.

This is the stuff that’s vital to know and that you unfortunately can’t get from an app or textbook or even, I’d say, a Skype conversation. It’s something that has to be experienced firsthand, and an in-country language class will provide that opportunity for you.

Wrapping Up

Maybe you’re not able to take an in-country language class right now. But if the opportunity opens up for you, I’d definitely consider it.

In the meantime, keep doing what you’re doing and just remember that the option is out there.

  • http://allthetongues.hol.es/ Roman Shinkarenko

    Nobody ever says that in-country classes can be harmful. As written on Natalie’s blog, “да отрежут лгуну его гнусный язык”.
    If you don’t mind a little whine, I’d like for a short time to envy people with opportunities to visit another countries.
    7. You have more chances to be taught by a fluent speaker of the language. I still shudder at the thought of the quality of English teaching in Ukraine in 2000s.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      I can imagine that it’s frustrating to get bad instruction. I sympathize with language teachers, especially people teaching a language that’s not their native language, but I know how tough that situation can be on students.

  • Tante Leonie

    You make some great points, Ron.

    But on the other hand, one of the many reasons I don’t like in-country classes [I am an expat living in Europe] is that you have to listen to everyone else’s bad accents. To me, it is just frustrating. That’s why I quit taking classes. I perfer to use audio materials and television to cement correct pronunciation and cadence.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      That’s my personal preference as well. At heart, I’m a solo learner for sure. But I can put up with some of the stuff I hate about classes to mix things up–as long as the price is reasonable.

  • Michael

    Good post Ron. I would also say that adding a home stay (organised by the language school) to a one-on-one language class has been hugely beneficial for me learning Spanish. Really supports each point you mention.

    I especially find it forces you to speak the language everyday, something that as you know can be hard as a tourist, unless you’re at a reasonable level in the language and are quite outgoing. Home stays have been some of my most memorable travel experiences as well!

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Absolutely. I’ve never done a home stay, but I have to think it’s really beneficial.

      I did stay in a residential area of Cairo, where I had to speak Arabic since people didn’t speak English the way they did in tourist areas. (Tried to haggle with a pharmacist over protein powder the way I haggled at the bazaar, lol. Learned that it didn’t work that way.)

  • ToGusDS

    Totally agree!!!

    The time I spent in Italy (when studying Italian) totally boost my italian you have no option but to use the language, so you start thinking in Italian, and understand a lot of things you read on books.
    And been surrounded by the signs, the sellers, the museums, everything is written in your target language, i think it’s just the best way to practice

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Right? It’s very difficult to get a replacement for that depth of experience. It’s like language becomes 3D when it’s all around you like that.

      • ToGusDS

        Yep, First I was afraid that I couldn’t understand a thing, but then it just came naturally :p
        And i love the experience.

        • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

          Very cool. Really appreciate you sharing your experience.

  • http://www.fluentlanguage.co.uk Kerstin

    Great summary, Ron! I’m even considering a language-trip in the same country (technically), to join an adult learning class in Wales. Language learning in the country is not something I ever tried at beginner level so it makes me quite nervous. Sadly most people in that particular country speak English…well, really that should encourage me more because the comfort zone won’t be stretched so far.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      I think that’d be awesome. I’ve heard Wales is beautiful, so it’s an excuse to travel anyway. 😉 Would be very cool to hear how that goes.

      • http://www.fluentlanguage.co.uk Kerstin

        Oh my GOD their COAST. It’s so beautiful. It’s stupidly cold but just gorgeous.

  • http://fluenthistorian.com/ Natalie

    Sigh. I wish I could take a Russian class in Russia or Ukraine, but there’s that little issue of not being able to get enough time off from my job. I wonder if there’s a ten-day intensive course or something, because that might be doable!

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      I know that feeling. I’m having that issue right now myself. A ten-day intensive class would be awesome. Maybe you wouldn’t make a *huge* improvement–like if you were to stay there six months or a year–but it might recharge you. You’d get a burst of motivation prepping for the trip, some good experience in country, and a burst of motivation back home.