Say you’re planning to go abroad to study a language, and you want to learn the language through immersion. How much preparation should you do beforehand, in your home country?
I want to tackle this question, for two reasons. First, because I want to dispel the common myth that all you need to do to learn a language is simply live in the target country. Second, because carefully examining this question also says a lot about the language learning process, and what to expect.
Why Showing Up Isn’t Enough
This attitude is a pet peeve of mine, in part because it dismisses the commitment and effort it takes to learn a language, and because it’s simply not true.
Most people who live abroad don’t learn the language of the country they live in. From my personal experience interacting with the expat communities, the majority of people who have lived in the country for less than five years cannot speak the language fluently. That is doubly true for Westerners living in countries with “hard” languages, such as China or Korea.
The inspiration for the No-English Rule during this trip was recognizing this. It is very easy to slip into an English-speaking bubble while you travel and never make more headway with a language than is necessary to order food at a restaurant.
Can You Go Full Immersion, Your First Day, With No Prep?
The closest thing I’ve done to full immersion with zero preparation was getting to Brazil with about 3-4 hours of Portuguese practice. Vat and I stumbled for the first two weeks, switching back frequently to Spanish to communicate with each other, but the process was mostly successful.
Unfortunately, our partial success with this in Brazil is probably the exception that proves the rule. Portuguese is incredibly similar to Spanish, with many linguists arguing they are technically dialects of the same language. While the difference is certainly much larger than, say American and British English, it’s less than English and Spanish, for example.
That means our “zero preparation” country actually had hundreds of hours of pseudo preparation from learning Spanish. The majority of grammar and vocabulary transferred with a little work and it only took about two weeks before we could translate a great deal of Spanish into Portuguese.
But even with the incredible similarities between Portuguese and Spanish, we still stumbled the first week or so. This suggests to me that full immersion without any preparation is either impossible or impractical for almost all cases. Either you arrive prepared, or you delay immersion.
What About Delaying Full Immersion?
There’s nothing stopping you from getting to a country, speaking English while studying the language and then later going full immersion. This approach may be best for some people, especially if you will have a lot more spare time to study in the target country than in your own country. It may also be okay if you plan to stay for a long time (say a couple years) so the pressure to learn efficiently is reduced.
However, I’m going to argue that this isn’t ideal. Whenever possible, you should try to put the minimum hours I’m going to list below in before you ever set foot in the country.
First, when you land in a country you have a unique opportunity to create a social circle. Friends you meet get used to speaking to you in one language. Abruptly switching that language will likely give a lot of resistance, and may not even be possible for the friends you make who can’t speak the language well.
If you have done the minimum hours I list below, and done them efficiently, you should be able to make friends in the language you want to master. Even if you don’t have a desire to live your life completely in the target language, you’ll have the option of adjusting the amount of friends you have with the language, thus controlling your degree of immersion.
Secondly, if you aren’t willing to do the minimum study before immersion can begin in your home country, what makes you certain you’ll be willing to do it in the country? Living in the country can provide motivation and opportunities to practice, but learning the language is still work and if you’re smart about how you study at home, the difference in environments shouldn’t matter in the pre-immersion stage.
A good rule of thumb to ask yourself in all situations is, “If not now, then when?” Many people delay important habits, work and goals for some hypothetical future. But the future quickly becomes the present and nothing will have changed. The minimal study I’ll discuss below will remain mostly the same whether you live in the country or outside it, so if you’re not willing to do it before you go to the country, you probably won’t have the motivation to succeed after you go.
The Minimum Prior Preparation You Need Before Living Abroad
When I say minimum, there are three things to keep in mind:
- Your starting point matters a lot. If you’ve studied another language through immersion before, you could probably subtract 25-50% off these numbers and still be okay. I’m also assuming English speakers. If you speak other languages which are closer in proximity to the target language you can cut the time considerably.
- Minimum doesn’t mean you’re already fluent. It simply means you have enough of the basics that going full immersion would be possible, albeit still difficult.
- These numbers are made up. I’m just estimating based on my progress curves having done this five times previously with French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and now Korean. The feedback you get from your conversational tutoring (discussed below) will be the ultimate arbiter of “readiness”.
I’m going to discuss preparedness in two parts. First, how many total hours I estimate is advisable before going to the country. Remember: going in with less doesn’t mean learning the language is impossible, just that you’ll either need more willpower or you’ll suffer from the problems I mentioned above. Going in with more is always good, of course.
Baseline Number of Hours by Language Type
I’ve only learned five foreign languages before, so my breadth of all the permutations of linguistic difficulty is an undersampling. However, the Foreign Service Institute, of the US State department, has a nice categorization of languages by difficulty for English speakers. They divide languages into roughly three categories:
- Category I – Languages similar to English
- Category II – Languages with significant cultural/linguistic differences from English
- Category III – Languages which are quite difficult for native English speakers
The list largely conforms to my experience (Spanish, French and Portuguese are all Category I, Mandarin and Korean are Category III). The FSI recommends 600, 1100 and 2200 hours for fluency in each respectively, however I’m going to ignore those numbers because we’re not looking for fluency, but rather, minimum required time for proficiency to enable immersion.
If you’re not sure where the language you want to learn lies, check out this table which has a full listing and should be fairly accurate for assessing the baseline hours needed.
My recommendation for minimum prior work, assuming English as a reference point:
- Category 1: 50 hours
- Category 2: 100 hours
- Category 3: 200 hours
All of these minimum amounts are higher than the amount I had before entering any of the countries that we’ve gone to, so perhaps I’m being too conservative. However, Spain was the only country for me where going no-English was relatively smooth and successful from the first day (for which I had the benefit of previously learning French, probably halving the necessary prep time). All of the others were fairly rough for the first few weeks, and I had the ability to devote all my time to language learning when I arrived, which may not be your case if you have to work or study in another language.
Chinese was the country I prepared the most for, with 105 hours. However, going full-Chinese was still enormously difficult from the beginning and it took a couple weeks of extremely aggressive studying before I felt making friends was possible. Korean I prepared less and I’ve currently spent nearly the entire first month doing what could have been done at home, unfortunately effectively wasting my first month of potential immersion.
What Should You Do to Prepare Yourself?
There are far too many language tools to name and although I’m familiar with a good deal of them, I haven’t fully explored them all. Therefore this set of tasks shouldn’t be viewed as the perfect setup for preparing to a language, but rather simply one that works and the one I use.
Here’s what you should do:
- One month of Pimsleur = 15 hours. Pimsleur is my favorite starting point for a new language, although it quickly experiences diminishing returns. I recommend it simply because no other tool I’ve found gets you armed with some basic phrases as quickly or with as few frills. It’s main disadvantage is being boring, but it’s only thirty minutes a day for a month.
- Conversational tutoring = 30-50% of preparation time. Sign up with iTalki and either pay for a tutor, or recruit a conversational partner who can help you out with the basics. The aim should be to find a tutor who will have conversations with you (even made up, unreasonably basic ones) and every day try to push closer to having that entire conversation in the language. Use Google Translate or a dictionary if you have to. You’ll know you’re ready when you can do the entire lesson in the language (even if you’re still speaking very slowly, making lots of mistakes or have to get the tutor to repeat for clarifications).
- Basic textbook study = No more than 15% of preparation time. This is good for familiarizing yourself with the basics of a language. Knowing that Chinese has four tones, for instance. What the Korean hangul sound like. Understanding that Spanish verbs are conjugated by subject.
- Vocabulary building with Anki = remainder of preparation time. I prefer full-sentence decks with audio since they give you exposure to sentence patterns and phrases, rather than isolated words (which are harder to remember if not attached to context).
The conversational tutoring is the most important part. You can get away with doing it a bit less for harder languages since you’ll need to do more vocabulary building anyways. A good rule of thumb should be that it should start no later than when you’ve finished Pimsleur and be at least 50% of your time spent when you reach the end of your preparation time.
My notes on preparedness assume you won’t be learning Chinese characters/Japanese kanji. If you want to do both, you might need to tack on an extra 50% to the above estimates since studying these don’t directly contribute to your speaking ability until more advance levels.
Conversational tutoring defines your readiness. If you can mostly get away without using English in the tutoring session, you’re probably ready. If you can’t even keep up five minutes without using English, you probably aren’t.
Let’s say, after I finish reaching an intermediate level of Korean, and after having reached an intermediate level of Chinese, I wanted to tackle Japanese by living in Japan. How much prior prep would this rubric suggest I do?
The baseline amount would be 200 hours, but given my experience with Chinese and Korean, I could probably reduce that to 100-150 hours and have roughly the same results as someone with no background in Asian languages.
First I’d do a month of Pimsleur. I would also get an Anki deck that had some basic phrases and words with full audio to study. That first month would probably also need about 10-30 hours studying the absolute basics of Japanese sentence formation and phonology. If I devoted an hour and a half per day, I could get the first 45 hours done in a month.
After getting to about 30-40 hours, I’d make sure at least 50% of my studying time is conversational practice. I could start tutoring even earlier, but I usually find lessons when even basic phrases are unknown tend to be less efficient than just reading from a textbook. However doing a test lesson or two near the beginning to hunt out a good tutor or conversation partner would be wise.
At roughly 90 minutes per day, this would mean roughly four months of preparation would put me in a position where going full-immersion in Japan would be challenging, but reasonable. If I only had 30 minutes per day, a year of prior prep would probably put me in the same position.
What if I wanted to tackle another European language? The FSI puts German in a special category, suggesting 750 hours for fluency, which is slightly higher than the Category I languages. Scaling appropriately, that suggests roughly 60 hours of prior preparation.
Once again I’d do a full month of Pimsleur. I’d probably spend another 10-15 hours to familiarize myself with German sentence construction and phonology. That should be enough to understand how extremely basic and common sentences are put together. I’d would start conversational tutoring after 2-3 weeks. After Pimsleur was finished I’d use the time I spent on Pimsleur on a full-sentence, audio-included Anki deck.
Given a 90 minutes per day, I should be ready in roughly one and a half months. Half an hour per day and I could probably be ready in around four months.
What to Expect with Minimum Preparation
I get a lot of emails from students, nervous about exams, who share with me their studying schedule and ask if it’s enough. I always have the same answer: I can’t tell you what’s enough—the results of your self-testing efforts will tell you what is enough. What is enough for one person may be insufficient for another depending on intelligence, motivation and prior knowledge.
This is especially true for languages. Depending on your linguistic background, picking up a new language may be a breeze or it may be the hardest achievement you’ve ever won. The measure of readiness isn’t my estimated hours, but your level of comfort speaking with your tutor.
Readiness here is also a far cry from fluency. Rather, I would consider it the minimum you would need so that going no-English in the target country is possible from the first day (or making no-English friendships, if you aren’t planning on being strict with immersion).
Readiness also doesn’t mean that you won’t ever need further studying, and that everything can be picked up from immersion. A good ratio is probably 25-50% studying and 50-75% immersion for maximizing your learning rate.
These hourly figures also assume the studying method I used. I believe classrooms tend to be less effective for preparedness, because you spend much less time speaking (and in the case of Chinese, a lot of time memorizing characters). If I were learning in a classroom, I’d supplement my time with one-on-one conversational practice so that I was spending at least 30-50% of my total time speaking. Otherwise, it might not be unreasonable to add another 50-100% to the total time needed, depending on the quality of the teacher.
What happens if you go to a country and you’re not prepared? It’s not the end of the world, it just probably means you’ll have to do a lot of learning that could have been done just as easily at home and you may find yourself with a bit less control over the degree of immersion you experience.
These numbers conform to my experience, but perhaps they’re a bit too high or low. Other language learners who have studied abroad? What was your level of prior preparation? How much immersion were you able to achieve once you got to the country?