So, you’re going on a trip. You have in hand your plane ticket, passport, and plenty of excitement. What else do you need to make it a true language learning experience?
You already know that one of the best ways to improve in your target language is to spend some time in a place where it's actually spoken. Simply booking plane tickets will provide a very strong motivation for you to improve your target language. However, immersion alone won't automatically give you knowledge of a language as if by osmosis. You also need to make an effort.
So how exactly can you avoid staying in your “English bubble” and actually absorb a language? This article will give you a few tips.
1) Learn as much as you can before you go
Immersion is most effective when combined with prior knowledge. You don't want to spend your first few weeks barely being able to communicate. So, study as much as you can before you go. This way you'll find that you will have a lot of “Aha!” moments as you make connections with things you have studied but now see in a new context. At the very least, you should have a clear grasp of the sounds of your target language and be familiar with its writing system.
As preparation for your trip, contact your tutor via italki (preferably one from the same place where you plan to go). They can give you some insights on what to expect and things to do, as well as even teaching you a bit of the local slang.
If you have friends living in the country you're going to visit, these friends can arrange for you to...
2) Stay with local
If you always stay in hotels that cater to foreigners (or stay with other foreign friends), you'll get lazy and just end up speaking English. Step out of your comfort zone and stay with locals. If you have friends living or studying in the country, ask them to make the arrangements with their local friends. If not, you can always “find an app for that” (services like Airbnb and Homestay are very effective).
Staying with locals is, of course, less comfortable and provides less privacy than staying at a hotel. But it provides a “high pressure” situation that actually forces you speak the language. You'll learn bits and pieces of language that’s related to everyday life, such as cooking, eating, cleaning, and using the bathroom.
During and after your stay, keep in touch with your hosts and local friends in the same way locals do.
3) Use local apps
Before your trip, inform yourself of the most popular apps that locals use. These could be anything from texting apps, social media or mapping apps. Don't expect the apps you already use to be popular (or even to work well) while abroad. Local apps might only be only available in your target language (which can be another bit of a “high pressure” practice).
Have these apps installed on your phone beforehand, as you can't always rely on having good WiFi while traveling. Which reminds me! You should also...
4) Bring an unlocked phone and get a local SIM card
Having a local number to give to your new friends creates a great opportunity for them to call you and invite you to join them when they go out, thus providing even more opportunities for language practice. Without a local phone number, it's a lot harder for these spontaneous plans to happen.
Now that you have your local mapping app coupled with a local SIM card, you can...
5) Use local transportation
Armed with your local mapping app and your language knowledge, you can both save a lot of money and get to experience local life by taking buses and trains. Research as much as you can beforehand about how the public transportation system works. The experience of being the only foreigner in a local bus is priceless!
In some places, renting a bicycle could be another good option. Again, do your research beforehand, preferably in the local language. A bicycle allows for more serendipitous encounters with locals.
These options are, in my opinion, better for immersion than riding a tourist bus full of other foreigners. That said, it might be a good idea to...
6) Use local travel agencies
In smaller towns without good public transportation, it might be a good idea to join a tour… as long as it’s in the local language! Tours aimed at locals can be cheaper than those aimed at foreigners, and you'll get lots of practice trying to communicate with the guide and fellow travelers. Even just asking a fellow traveler to take a picture of you can be a good conversation starter.
As a bonus, when you're with a local tour group you'll surely...
7) Eat what locals eat
Food can be a big part of people's identity. You're probably learning a lot of food-related vocabulary while studying the language, so make sure to try plenty of local food during your trip. If you're near any universities, try eating at the student cafeteria. You'll find cheap, tasty food and maybe you will even be able to strike up a conversation. Another option is to look for a (clean) restaurant that looks full of people.
Going to a local supermarket to buy food is another linguistically and culturally enriching experience. As you struggle to understand the shop assistants, get to know local brands and explore aisles full of snacks that you likely have never seen before.
While you're out and about shopping, you could also...
8) Visit a bookstore
Books and movies in your target language might be expensive or hard to find in your own country. So while you're abroad, find out where the biggest bookstores are and look for content you find interesting (but isn't too difficult for you). There may be graded books for foreign language students, and the comics or children's book sections might also be a good option if they suit your level. You can read my article on “8 Ways To Find Good Reads In Any Language” here on italki for more ideas on what you can bring.
When you go to checkout, it might be the first time you hear the common phrase “Do you want a bag for that?” in the local language. You should really...
9) Keep track of the new, interesting words and phrases
All your travel efforts would be for not if you forget the new insights you come across during your trip. So, write them down somewhere, be it in a notebook, your phone, or anything else! Even something as simple as taking a screenshot on your phone every time you lookup a new word in your dictionary app is a quick way to keep a record of the new words you have accumulated. When local people say something that you find interesting but unable to spell, don't be afraid to ask them how or type it into your dictionary app.
If you see a sign, menu or flyer with a new, interesting word or phrase, take a picture! Even better, shoot a video while you read it aloud and explain what it means to an imaginary audience.
If you happen to use Anki, you can use it to create cards with pictures and sound. You can therefore review new words on the go.
Of course, in the end, language is about communicating with people, so don't forget to...
10) Keep in touch with new friends after you return home
Just as important as keeping track of new words is keeping track of the new people you meet. Something as simple as asking them for their texting username, number or QR code could be enough to maintain an ongoing conversation.
However, there's always the possibility that their username and picture for their texting or social app does not help you remember their faces and real names (or even how you met them). So, before you go, install an app specifically designed to keep track of new friends and all this extra info (for example Evernote Hello), and add their picture as well as notes about the encounter. You can also just add the picture and notes in your native contacts app and take a screenshot, so that the new contact does not get lost among a sea of others.
Or you could try taking a crazier route (which I often did): shoot a video with the group of new friends and ask them to introduce themselves! Or, ask your new friends to introduce themselves to an imaginary audience as you record a video.
Conversely, having personal cards printed with your name and picture on them can be useful in helping your new friends remember you!
Once you're back home in your daily routine, it's easy to forget about all the people who were friendly and helpful to you during your trip. If you're too busy to send out individual messages, you can take a picture of your lunch and forward it to your new friends. Your lunch might look unremarkable to you, but exotic to your new friends! Keeping the conversation going is even more language practice in and of itself -- and you could even make some lifelong friends.
The common thread here is to go and get out of your comfort zone: do as locals do, go where they go, use what they use, and learn to speak the way they speak. If you're traveling with friends, particularly friends who tend to act as your interpreters, you might find it extra hard to get out of your English bubble. So, try and venture alone from time to time, even if it's just to the supermarket. All this requires effort, but it will be totally worth it.
So, what are you waiting for? Try and apply all these tips on your next immersion trip! If you have any other ideas, feel free to leave them in the comments.