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.

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.

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