Looking Back at a Year (Almost) Without English

A few days ago I came back to Vancouver, marking the end of this project Vat and I started over a year ago. Together we lived in Spain, Brazil, China and Korea, all while trying to speak as little English as possible.

In this post, I’m going to recap the successes and stumbles of the project, along with what I think it means for travel and language learning.

Side note: I haven’t forgotten about the final update for Korea. I was hoping on releasing that article first, but we hit some delays editing the interviews, so I’m switching the order and putting this one first.

Was the Project a Success?

There were three dimensions of success I was interested in throughout the project. The first, was simply how well we avoided speaking English—the namesake and primary constraint of the project. Second, what level did we reach in each language? Finally, what was the overall experience of travel, did not speaking English improve the journey?

Did We Go a Year Without English?

No. I would have liked to report that we went an entire year without speaking any English. The idea was that I could come back to Canada, having removed myself from having conversations in English and really experienced different parts of the world completely in the language they use there.

From the beginning, Vat and I made exceptions to our rule. I was allowed to call my parents (Vat speaks Hindi with his parents, so he didn’t need the exception). I could handle necessary business calls in English. The restriction applied only to speaking. My work is in English, so eliminating writing and reading in English would have been impossible without simply abandoning my career.

Despite these exceptions, life in Spain nearly perfectly matched our original goal of not speaking English. Neither of us spoke a word of it to each other from the moment we arrived. Every friend we met was in Spanish, and I took the further step of changing most of my media to Spanish.

Brazil was a bit bumpier at the beginning. We had zero preparation for Portuguese, so despite its similarities to Spanish, we needed to use English during the first couple days. After the initial hiccups, however, it too was near our original conception of the year without English.

China was a mixed bag. I had done more prior preparation than Vat, so upon arrival, I was able to handle the transition to only speaking Chinese within the first few days. Vat oscillated between using English and Chinese, and although we spent less time together than in the previous countries, that also meant I frequently had to use English with him.

Korea was much worse than China. Neither of us had adequate preparation prior to arrival, so our method of avoiding speaking English became avoiding speaking entirely for the first month. Later on, we did speak more Korean, but we frequently switched back to English both in our conversations and with other Koreans. Struggling to find Korean-only friends in the beginning, Vat and I decided to cheat and do language exchanges as a means of making local friends.

The main takeaway I made from all of this was: Asian languages are hard, and attempting full-immersion without sufficient preparation is usually not going to work.

Still, even though we didn’t meet the rigor of our initial standard in Asia, we still achieved partial immersion—having full, lengthy conversations in each language and making friends with whom we only spoke that language.

How is Our Ability With Each Language?

The major justification for going without English was language learning. That is, we could learn the languages faster and better if we weren’t using English as a crutch. How did we do on that front?

All of the languages fall into an intermediate level of proficiency. Spanish is my best. I can converse on any topic, read books and even watch television and movies if I pay attention. Korean is my worst. I can have conversations in Korean, but my topic breadth is more limited and I need to ask for clarifications more often. Chinese and Portuguese fall somewhere in between.

The only language that I did a formal exam to benchmark my ability was Chinese. For Chinese I passed the HSK 4. The organization that conducts the exam recommends two years of study before tackling the exam.

Overall I believe this aspect of the project was quite successful. When Vat and I initially made plans, neither of us were confident that it would be possible to reach a conversational level in any of the languages. The fact that I can confidently say I reached a conversational level in Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese, and a near-conversational level for Korean is far above what I originally thought was possible.

The no-English rule was largely what made the difference. Although there are many ways of learning a language, going for full immersion made it possible to learn what would have taken years in just a few months.

How Did Not Speaking English Change the Travel Experience?

This entire project didn’t originally start as a language-learning mission. Instead, we had decided to do a world trip and the idea of learning languages and filming mini-documentaries came later.

It’s worth asking whether the no-English rule added or detracted from the travel experience. After all, if you’re busy language learning, you presumably have a bit less energy and time for other things you might want to travel for.

The experience of the trip was incredible. Partying all night in Spain. Surfing in the rain in Brazil. Ascending to mountain temples in China. Wandering the old Joseon-dynasty palaces in Korea.

But more than places, I’ll remember the dozens of good friends I made along the way. We both really got to experience the culture firsthand. Discussing mandatory military service over soju and salted fish. Sharing tea and talking politics with a tattooed Buddhist from Tibet. Paragliding over the beach with a girl from Argentina. None of those people spoke English, so I never would have met those people if I didn’t learn these languages.

Some tradeoffs were inevitable. First, we opted to go for depth, not breadth, in each country. Meaning we visited far fewer places, choosing to stay in one city for all or most of the stay in each country.

Second, language learning meant we didn’t meet as many fellow travelers. We spent most our time with locals or people who were staying long enough to have learned the language. I actually preferred this, but it does change the travel experience because you’re meeting people who are just living their lives, not sharing an adventure with you.

Again, in Spain and Brazil, the costs of learning the language and not speaking English were quite minimal compared to the benefits. Looking back, I can’t imagine being in those countries not being able to use the language well. It would have held us back from many of the experiences we had.

In China and Korea, the language was so much more difficult that it took up a non-trivial amount of time just learning it. I wouldn’t opt for the approach we took for anything less than three months, unless you’re certain you’ll either be returning to the country for more time or have done a fair amount of prior study.

Learning in China I felt struck the right balance for me. I had learned enough beforehand that transitioning to no-English was difficult, but possible. The Chinese I learned also allowed me to interact with a lot of people who don’t speak English and have experiences I felt would have been inaccessible to an English-only traveler.

Korea was a bit too far on the underprepared side for me, however Vat managed just fine. This seems to indicate that at least some of the problem was trying to tackle Korean immediately after my intensity of learning Chinese.

One way of evaluating the experience of something is to imagine taking a magic pill, and forgetting everything that happened immediately afterward, would you still bother doing it? Since I believe I would still answer “yes” to this question about the trip using the no-English rule, I’d vouch for this approach to travel for anyone in the future.

Going full-immersion is more difficult than other types of travel. However, you also get a one-of-a-kind experience, really getting to step outside of your own culture and assumptions instead of just visiting a place and expecting people to step into yours.

What Does This Mean for Travel and Language Learning?

When Vat and I set out on this trip, we didn’t expect it to be a model for everyone, or even most people. Most people can’t take a year off to travel. Most people aren’t going to speak zero English. Most people don’t want to film mini-documentaries.

As with the MIT Challenge, the hope wasn’t to set some kind of standard for others to follow, but to tell a story that hopefully encourages other people to make up their own.

I think it’s also unwise to assume a single story can be all things to all people. Here’s a blog article encouraging people to learn languages more slowly. Why do you have to learn a language in three months? What’s the rush?

I actually agree with almost everything that was written in that article. But I’d caution, there’s always more than one perspective, and showing one needn’t detract from another. Just because we attempted to learn with intensity, doesn’t denigrate learning languages through slow, patient habit. Now that I’m done the trip, my language progress will naturally switch to the second, so I hardly see them as contradictory.

Similarly, just because we opted to learn the languages of the countries we visited, doesn’t detract from people who travel without doing so. There are many ways you can design an adventure, so I don’t want to imply ours was necessarily better.

What I do hope, however, is that hopefully the trip convinced a few people that it is possible to travel, immerse in the language and succeed, even without decades of prior study or years living in the country. Neither Vat and I were convinced of this before we started, so doing the project has, at the very least, convinced the two of us.

  • FAN Yuping

    你真了不起!能通过汉语水平考试 4级 很不简单! 从学汉语到通过汉语水平考试4级花了多少时间呢?
    You’re great! It’s difficult to pass HSK 4 for a English speaker! How long did you got it?

  • Baptiste

    Congratulations Scott!
    You inspired me to do the same kind of immersion in Spain and in Sweden in the future.
    I hope the return home is pleasant.

    Baptiste

  • Gustavo Larenas

    Feliz Cumpleaños número 26.

    I remember when I get 26. It was a inflection year in mi life when my future was defined. Congratulations.

  • Shait

    Impressing. What’s next?

  • Auga

    Are you going to do a full wrap up post for Korean?

    And I don’t understand – why did you break your no-english rule with Vat in Brazil and China when you could have spoken to each other in Spanish in Brazil and Portuguese in China? You’d have 1. avoided english and 2. snatched a rare moment to keep up the languages already learned…

  • Curran

    Do you think burnout factored in at all? What if you had gone to Korea first and Spain last? What if you followed up the difficult Chinese with the easier Spanish? 9 months of being away from home and learning other languages seems very intense, do you think fatigue affected your ability to learn Korean near the end? I ask because I feel like endurance when it comes to studying and learning so much on an everyday basis hasn’t really been touched on in research having to do with learning.

    Curran

  • Scott Young

    FAN Yuping,

    我在加拿大学了百个小时。在中国三个月。你会看我的文章关于这个项目:

    http://www.hackingchinese.com/

    Baptiste,

    Thanks, I wish you the best of luck!

    Auga,

    Yes–as mentioned the Korean post hit some delays, but it’s coming soon!

    We did do that as well. In Brazil for instance, we spoke more Spanish than English to cross the gap.

    Part of the difficulty explaining is that breaking down into English is usually out of frustration. For both of us the default language is English, so when we slip up, it goes to English, not a tertiary language. Admittedly, we could have handled this part of the challenge better, but we could have handled it even better by simply speaking the language of the country.

    Curran,

    It definitely did. Although it was only really relevant for me in Korea. Chinese was so much harder than Spanish and Portuguese (not to mention that I really pushed myself on it) that it made tackling the similarly difficult Korean quite frustrating.

    Attempting an Asian language in three months is doable, but it requires such an intense amount of concentration it was difficult doing them back-to-back.

    That being said, it was hardly a waste. I’m continuing learning Korean and I did make substantial progress, just not quite as much as Chinese.

  • Aidan

    Inspirational summary of what is a remarkable year. I commend you entirely of what you both did. I have been learning Spanish for a few years now and always find myself leaning on the crutch of English when I get nervous or get stuck. How you two managed to stick at it for so long is a credit to you and Vat. Look fwd to hearing what your next adventure will entail.

  • Sebastian Aiden Daniels

    Damn that sounds intense. I think I would have loved to been with you guys. I love meeting locals when I travel. It is one of my favorite parts. I think that it is awesome that you guys challenged yourself to not speak english at all in these countries. The effort is what counts man. You are truly inspiring.

  • Patrick Newman

    “Yes I started with HTML then on to c++
    I enjoy perl and Java to and i also like VBA 6″
    I enjoy gaining knowledge in these languages

  • Kelly

    What aspects of the korean culture did you enjoy/find interesting? Are there any traits you have adopted that are specific to the culture of the countries that you lived in?

  • Indira Jayaraman

    Dear Scott,
    I was inspired by the interview you gave to our Professor Barbara. I enrolled for ‘Learning how to learn’ on Courseera. In fact, I wrote a poem titled “Tips for learning” and mentioned your name in it. You can find the poem in the Hall of Fame created by one of our classmates-Cristian Artoni. Here is the link:
    https://sites.google.com/site/

    I am from India and teach Russian-learnt it at the young age of 10 at Moscow!
    Sincerely,
    Indira Jayaraman

  • Donovan

    “Asian languages are hard, and attempting full-immersion without sufficient preparation is usually not going to work.”

    No. It’s not that Asian languages are difficult at all.

    I would bet first and foremost that the fact you were travelling with a companion was hugely detrimental to your immersion experience in East Asia and this is one of the main things that made it seem harder. Even if you two weren’t speaking English at all, the mere fact that you’re in the same room as each other would have subtracted heavily from the experience you would have had if you were on your own with Korean people.

    It wasn’t that you weren’t prepared enough with the languages but rather that you weren’t prepared culturally. I’m assuming based on what I’ve been following and what you’ve summed up here that you expected the social element in East Asia to be somewhat similar to what you experienced in Brazil and Spain (of course they’re completely different).

    I made the same mistake in the initial months of my immersion year in Korea but in the end Korean was one of my most fruitful immersion projects ever.

    While it is true that a lot of people speak at least some English in Korea, it’s also a cop-out used by too many people. Koreans are shy about using English even if they know it and will immediately speak Korean if you start to speak to them first so this is hardly an issue or a valid excuse.

    I think the best take-away from this project has been that you’ll get much more out of a single, long-term immersion experience than several back-to-back short trips.

  • Scott Young

    Donovan,

    Couldn’t disagree more.

    Asian languages coming from a European linguistic background are demonstrably harder in nearly all elements of the learning task. It’s simply not fair to reduce the difference to “culture”. The linguistic difficulty far outstripped the cultural difficulty in both China and Korea. I personally believe the difference in how Westerners and Asians think to be greatly exaggerated.

    Socializing also wasn’t difficult for us in either China or Korea. I, for instance, found it easier to make friends in both Korea and China than Brazil (largely due to living in a small town in Brazil). Again, the major setback is simply the amount of work it takes to have a functional conversation.

    -Scott

  • Mu

    Read this and thought of you:
    http://www.theguardian.com/edu

  • Catherine Cavanaugh

    So glad my husband Richard pointed me here! This is so inspiring. We’re now planning a trip across Europe and Asia set for early 2016 which is much sooner than it sounds when you start planning for it. We’re going to follow your words and your wisdom and see how far we get. No English at all is going to be tricky, but total immersion is the best way to really learn. 🙂 We’ll post updates if welcome?

  • Glenn

    Hey Scott,

    Quick question about overwhelm. I’m starting to learn Arabic and I’m hitting a bit of a wall after three days lol. This is three days after a month of casual study…

    I’m a great language learner, and progress is coming quickly. I’m just wondering why it feels a bit… overwhelming? I study about 2 hours per day. Perhaps it’s like returning to the gym and being sore the first week? I’m not doing 50+ hours per week like you but there is a sort of break-in period at the beginning, it seems.

    Thanks,
    Glenn

  • Zack

    When will a video documentary be available to watch? I enjoy the videos.

  • Daniel

    Felicitaciones Scott! looking forward to share with us how to maintain your new languages learned now in your country. I believe many of your followers, at least me, had the experience of living abroad with a different language and we would like to know what to do to keep the level of what we have learned. thanks

  • Alex

    How did you choose your cities? Specifically, how did you choose them in China?

  • Scott Young

    Alex,

    With difficulty. China was the hardest–there are so many cities, and so few I had heard about before going. In the end we settled on Kunming for a few factors:

    1. The weather would be nice when we were going to go (late February to April).
    2. Low pollution.
    3. High diversity (although, in retrospect, this factor wasn’t important)
    4. I had Western friends who lived there and loved it.

    Vat disagreed with our choice and said he would have preferred to stay in Shanghai the entire time, but I’m not so sure. Had I gone in the summer, I probably would have picked a more northern city, closer to Beijing, but not inside Beijing. That way there’s less problem with the natives not speaking standard Putonghua.

  • Ivan

    Thank you Scott (and Vat) for sharing your experiences. I started loosely following your progress mid-way when I was planning my own short trip around the world and found your site. Needless to say, it’s inspiring, and it’s also an invaluable resource for other people. In fact, I’ve always wanted to live in a foreign place, learn the language, and just enjoy life like a local more than a traveler, and your project has proven that it’s possible and has given me ideas for how I can adapt your approach to fit my goals. Thank you very much!

  • Kunal

    Scott your journey is very intriguing

    can I ask – what actually did you and Vat do all day? my girlfriend and I would like to emulate what you have done by living in Spain, but we want to know what would keep us busy all day during our stay in one place? did you do language school in each country during the day?

  • Scott Young

    Kunal,

    We did private tutoring every day of about an hour per day. On top of that Vat was doing a lot of photography every day and I usually studied for another hour or two (in China I studied full-time). Otherwise, we hung out with friends a lot (Spain has a real employment problem so many of our friends were students/unemployed and had a lot of time to hang out during the weekdays).

    -Scott

  • KJ

    Scott, you mistyped the URL of this blog post when referred to it in your page about this travel experiment, scotthyoung.com/blog/myprojects/the-year-without-english-2/. “in-depth summary” is the link anchor, and the link itself has /blog-new-new/ piece instead of /blog/, so it brings a 404 error…

  • KJ

    Scott, you mistyped the URL of this blog post when referred to it in your page about this travel experiment, scotthyoung.com/blog/myproject…. “in-depth summary” is the link anchor, and the link itself has /blog-new-new/ piece instead of /blog/, so it brings a 404 error…

  • Nicholas Bremner

    Scott – just wanted to say thank you to you and Vat for having the courage to take on such an amazing project and for documenting your experience and providing guidance and tips along the way. I plan to move from Canada to Chile in a couple months to spend an entire year there and intend to speak English as little as possible. After reading about your project, I’m considering shooting for the goal of zero English. Thanks for the inspiration, guys. I’ll be following your future projects as well. Cheers!

  • Nicholas Bremner

    Scott – just wanted to say thank you to you and Vat for having the courage to take on such an amazing project and for documenting your experience and providing guidance and tips along the way. I plan to move from Canada to Chile in a couple months to spend an entire year there and intend to speak English as little as possible. After reading about your project, I’m considering shooting for the goal of zero English. Thanks for the inspiration, guys. I’ll be following your future projects as well. Cheers!

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