Myth #1 - is it really a myth?

Pawel Kowalczyk   Sunday, July 04, 2004, 10:32 GMT

I don't quite agree with the points you've stated in the article 'Myth #1: "The best way to learn a foreign language is to go to a foreign country"'. Although I haven't been in any English-speaking country yet, I'm convinced that it's one of the best possible ways to learn English for a motivated student.

The thing that you don't consider in your article is "what's the aim of learning a foreign language?". If someone wants just to be able to read books and write grammatically correct letters, they indeed may as well learn at home. But what if one wants to be able to communicate easily in everyday situations? In my opinion, it's hardly possible without contact with real language in REAL situations. It's just something you can't do alone at home. I wouldn't came across words such as 'nail clippers', 'a Coke can' or 'coat-hanger' if I weren't forced to describe such objects when I was staying at my friends house in Germany. Okay, maybe I would do so reading a book or something, but I wouldn't remember them so well (and also I might for example dismiss word 'coat-hanger' as not being useful enough).

Moreover, being forced to speak gave me plenty of motivation for learning. Only then I realized how much I don't know and how much I can learn. I also imagined myself a few years later, speaking in fluent English - great prospect :-). I wouldn't become aware of that, if I weren't forced to use my English.

I agree with the point that being forced to say incorrect sentences may reinforce one's mistakes. But I often feel that I'd just said something ugly. That's always a cue for me: "Hey, you should concentrate on this or that grammatical point!". I then add some correct sentences to SuperMemo and it helps me fix the problem.

It's true, that several weeks in a language school in England wouldn't make anybody speak fluent English. But it's an invaluable help to a motivated learner, assuming it's not the only activity. Reading books, repeating sentences with SuperMemo, studying grammar etc. is still necessary.

Anyway, at the end of next week I'm going to England for my holidays, so I'll be able to verify my views on the issue :-).

Pawel Kowalczyk
Damian   Sunday, July 04, 2004, 13:38 GMT

Are you really, really sure you haven't been to an English speaking country? I enjoyed reading your post very much. If your conversational English is as excellent as your written then you will have no problems when you come to this country.

As has been said in this forum, the best way to learn a language is to mix with the natives...then your standards will plummet as you pick up all the bad habits! :-) Only joking! But you will pick up all the colloquialisms and informal slang terms and idioms we use in everyday speech if you hang around long enough.

Spoken English has changed quite a lot really, and the text book versions of the language bear little resemblance to what you will hear around you. It depends whereabouts in England you go, too. You could end up speaking perfect Estuary. Even where I am in Scotland it has an influence but to a much lesser degree.

I hope you have a good time here....I'm certain that you will ...and benefit from the experience.
Pentatonic   Sunday, July 04, 2004, 15:13 GMT

I have to agree with you. The article is correct that going to a country where the natives speak the language you are learning is not a magic ticket to success. But then neither is buying SuperMemo and entering some example sentences. You still have to put a lot of effort into it.

It seems to me that a motivated student would learn more in a native environment than at home as long as he works at it and immerses himself in the culture. IMHO the reason many immigrants never get beyond a basic communication level is because they tend to socialize with other immigrants of their own culture and because they don't really want to. Not everyone cares if they master the language. I think most are just trying to get by.
Abdullah Amer   Sunday, July 04, 2004, 16:41 GMT
Dear sir,

I have read your article ‘ update ; learning a foreign language’ and I found it very interesting. In fact I was one of those who went to Britain to study English and I found that mixing with the people is good and improved my language, but as you mentioned the native speakers don’t correct our mistakes.

On the other point you suggested learning English in our country, which is good , but having the chance to speak with native speakers is not available.
So, can you suggest ways or techniques to improve the spoken language even in our homeland??

Awaiting to hear your suggestion.

Abdullah Amer
Damian   Sunday, July 04, 2004, 16:55 GMT

maybe the English are too polite and sensitive to your feelings to correct you...I know that is the wrong attitude but there you go! If they really knew you were keen to learn, believe me they would put you right. So would the Scots btw! I assume the Welsh would as well
Boy   Sunday, July 04, 2004, 21:55 GMT
I'd say that the article is true to an extent. Going to a native country and living there isn't a ramrod straight recipe to master the language. I encountered this sort of similar example a while ago. An American male has been living in my country for 15+ years and whenever I have a chance to listen to his urdu (my native language) I feel that he has not mastered the language yet. Just learned some common vocabulary words and only good at short conversations. But I still admire him because of his pronunciation skills. He has a good pronunciation of words. It looks like to me that he has listened to native speakers alot but hardly practiced the language in day to day life situations. Not very fluent though but won't face any problems in conversing with people with that level of proficiency. It shows that it all goes down to individuals to learn and practice the language on their own accord! My question here is : Won't I improve my pronunciation of words by living in the native country?

Before reading this article I always used to think that going to the native country would be the best way to brush up my language skills. I'd suppose to make lots of friends and have an opportunity to hang around with them and that way I'll improve. I still stick to this assessment of mine. The most important reason for that matter is I'll have the apportunity to brush up my spoken English unlike in my country where I'll hardly find one with so much difficulty! Even he/she won't be a perfect model to converse with!

Staying at home and developing a native country like ambience around me will only help me to improve my skills at listening, reading and writing not at speaking. You learn the language because you have to communicate! You can't be a master at it without playing a role of an active player! This is the only disadvantage I feel as a learner lacking.
Tom   Monday, July 05, 2004, 00:56 GMT

Many thanks for your insightful post.

You write "But what if one wants to be able to communicate easily in everyday situations? In my opinion, it's hardly possible without contact with real language in REAL situations. It's just something you can't do alone at home."

You are of course right, but you can also get real-life practice by talking to someone in your own country (a teacher or someone who's learning the same language). In high school, Michal and I used to get together and speak English all the time. We had to learn how to talk about everyday things, almost as though we were in an English-speaking country.

Now of course this sort of practice does not teach you everything. First, it does not teach you to understand sloppy spoken language, since other learners and teachers tend to speak clearly.

Second, it does not teach you how to handle everyday questions such as "cash or charge?", "paper or plastic?", "for here or to go?", "how would you like your eggs?" or "how are you doing?".

Finally, it does not teach you useful everyday words such as:
parking space, request stop, parking meter, turnout, matinee, concourse, mezzanine, organic food, store brand, carpool, HAZMAT, ATM, deli, transfer ticket, collect call, toll booth, interstate, Kleenex, ziplock
...and many others

However, staying in your country has the advantage that you are not forced to make mistakes. If you're just talking with your friend or teacher, you can always speak very slowly, look things up in a dictionary, ask them how to say something, etc. You can't talk like that in real life. That is why I say beginners should first try learning to speak a foreign language in their own country.

Of course, for a person like you, who's already quite advanced, motivated, knows how to handle mistakes, and can probably speak English quite well already, mistakes may not be a problem. I am mostly worried about people who can't speak English at all or speak with lots of mistakes. Most people don't go to England to perfect their English skills -- they go there because their skills are inadequate.

"Moreover, being forced to speak gave me plenty of motivation for learning."

My guess is that if you tried speaking English in your own country, you would get motivated, too.
And don't tell me you need to be forced to speak -- a guy who works with SuperMemo, reads books, and uses dictionaries?

Congratulations on your vacation! I'm sure you're going to have a good time.
Tom   Monday, July 05, 2004, 01:01 GMT
A couple corrections -- I know you like those:

"I wouldn't came across words such as 'nail clippers', 'a Coke can' or 'coat-hanger' if I weren't forced to describe such objects when I was staying at my friends house in Germany."
I wouldn't have come... if I hadn't been forced...

"Only then I realized..."
Only then did I realize...

"I wouldn't become aware of that, if I weren't forced to use my English."
I wouldn't have become aware... if I hadn't been forced...

"It's true, that"
It's true that (no comma)
Tom   Monday, July 05, 2004, 01:07 GMT

If going to an English-speaking country is your only way of finding someone to speak English with, then by all means go to an English-speaking country.
Pawel Kowalczyk   Monday, July 05, 2004, 16:02 GMT

Yes, I'm pretty sure I haven't been in any English speaking country ;-). But I'm reading a lot of books and articles on the Internet. With the help of SuperMemo it gives me good enough results - my reading and writing skills improved significantly over the past two years. However, I'm still not satisfied with my speaking skills - so I'm going to England to converse a bit with the natives :-).

I don't care whether I pick up many slang words or not. Spoken English changes quickly. After several years my "cool" phrases would get a label "old-fashioned" in the dictionaries ;-).



There's no magic ticket to success in any field, not only in English. Going to a foreign country won't take the pain of learning a foreign language from you. Someone who is not motivated will not improve their English just by going to England.



I was looking forward to hearing your opinion :-). I agree with you. Just two small comments:

1) I've tried speaking English with my friend once or twice. Generally positive experience, although it's a bit artificial to talk in a foreign language with someone I can easily speak to in Polish ;). Also, I often send text messages in English to my friends who also learn English - that's always a bit of everyday language, isn't it? Anyway, I don't like the idea of talking about an imaginary things just to practise the language.

2) To sum up: unmotivated beginners are not likely to benefit from going to a foreign country. But for dedicated, more advanced students it's a great chance to significantly improve their skills.

Sorry, I'm in a rush today, maybe I'll write more some other day.
Damian   Monday, July 05, 2004, 18:58 GMT

I hope to start a gap year as I have just sat my final exams at uni (university...we always call it uni for short) at Leeds, England. Throught the three years I have had to do a part time job to enable me to earn money to survive, of course. This is essential for most students as we build up massive debts - to the Government mainly. These have to be repaid when we get a permanent job earning, currently, over £15,000 per annum. So I currently work an average of 21 hours a week in a supermarket... on a checkout till. I did this at a local store in Leeds and now I am with the same store but here in my home city of Edinburgh, Scotland.

It's good fun on the whole and now the summer is here we have huge numbers of students from the Continent (mainly Eastern Europe) in the UK doing seasonal work in all sorts of jobs. Apart from earning money they also have the opportunity to improve their English skills, as well as to see Britain (the first time for most of them).

A very few have only a basic knowledge of our language, but mostly they are really proficient and seem to like conversing with us. I have met some from Poland and they seem to be especially good at speaking English. Unfortunately we are not really encouraged to engage the customers in conversation, but merely scanning the goods as they slide along the conveyor belt does not require extreme mental concentration even though we do have a surprising number of other aspects of the job to be aware of. However, I do try and have a wee bit of a chat ;-) It's all a matter of common sense really.

I enjoy it when they come in as we are all more or less in the same age group. As I have said, in no time at all you will pick up new phrases commonly in use and you will soon be using slang terms along with the rest of us. I try and use my best English in his forum because of the "effective English" label....of course I don't usually speak this way informally..who does?

Again, I compliment you on your written English. I do not know one single word of Polish. I can check it out on the Internet of course, but I know the words LOOK difficult to pronounce. You seem to use the letter Z a lot! ;-)

Enjoy this country and Happy Chatting.
Criostóir   Tuesday, July 06, 2004, 00:01 GMT
If I may add my two cents' worth:

I think living in another country is immensely helpful in learning the language, but as people have said before in this thread, it is important to be active. Just sitting at home and listening to others speak is only half of a language. We are listeners but speakers as well! I lived in Ireland, Germany, and Québec (long story), and everywhere I was in school and had to speak in class, or write essays, and interact with classmates, and I think that's what helped me achieve fluency.

Is mise le meas,
Pawel Kowalczyk   Tuesday, July 06, 2004, 08:24 GMT

Most foreigners regard Polish as difficult. But words that are hard to pronounce make our language unique and beautiful :-). My German friend couldn't make a single word out of our conversations - it all sounded to him like strange rustling and hissing. Many Polish tongue twisters are full of sounds like 'sz', 'cz', 'rz' (all with the famous letter 'z' :-)) - for example "W Szczebrzeszynie chrzaszcz brzmi w trzcinie" or "W czasie suszy szosa sucha". But of course there are others, like "Jola lojalna, Jola nielojalna" (try pronouncing it fast!).
Tom   Wednesday, July 07, 2004, 08:42 GMT

"it's a bit artificial to talk in a foreign language with someone I can easily speak to in Polish"

Well, it's a bit artificial to sit in front of the computer and type in SuperMemo items. It would be easier to sit around and watch TV, wouldn't it?

"Anyway, I don't like the idea of talking about an imaginary things just to practise the language."

Who says you have to talk about imaginary things? Michal and I used to talk about very real things happening in our lives.
Mi5 Mick   Wednesday, July 07, 2004, 11:48 GMT
He makes a good point there regarding the artificiality of talking in a foreign language with those who primarily speak your mother tongue. And the main problem with that is, you can be mislead or mislead each other as was the case when I tried (in vain) to learn German with classmates when I was a little younger. As you can guess, our German was hopeless in every way possible; pronunciation, grammar, you name it and I wasn't going to rely on the "wiz" of the class who was supposedly very good. The teacher wasn't even German nor was her accent and she couldn't answer simple questions even though they were outside the scope of the class.

So maybe watching more German TV was the way to go? Well one solution was easier than all of that - ditch German! I did. It was either that or fork out some more bucks; probably a futile outcome too anyway.