The Importance of Language Immersion For Expats

Language Immersion

While learning the language of your host country crosses the mind of most expats at least once during their time on the ground, many foreigners continue to “opt out” because of a variety of factors. Maybe they feel uncomfortable challenging themselves with something new and don’t want to go outside of their comfort zone. Perhaps they work in an English-speaking environment so they think they don’t “need” the language skills. You can shop at the supermarket in English by merely putting things in a cart and then reading the numbers off when the cashier rings them up, so many people think language isn’t a necessity in that regard. You can also point to the picture on the menu when you aren’t sure of what something is called in the local dialect. Not to mention, when all of your friends speak English, or your community and/or work environment is an expat community of English speakers, it tends to lead to insulation where you are living in an isolated bubble of expats who never really blend into the native environment.

There are a hundred excuses that one can create as to why you aren’t learning the language, but what many people don’t realize is that learning a language is about more than simply fitting into your new home. And it’s more than just respecting the local culture. Immersion in a language is, according to Michael Byram and Carol Morgan in their book Teaching and Learning Language and Culture, a way to get in touch with the social side of a culture. In regards to this social instrument, “the feelings…and motivations of learners in relation to the target language…, to the speakers of the language, and to the culture…, affects how learners respond to the input to which they are exposed.”

In other words, through language immersion you are also experiencing cultural immersion, which makes it impossible to ignore the culture of the language you are learning. You will begin to go native simply by immersing yourself in the environment, which transforms you from just another foreigner who has no respect for the locals into a native-speaking resident who the locals respect, feel comfortable around, can joke with, and who understands the native sense of humor and cultural values by the very nature of their immersion. You become more than just another expat; you become a resident who understand the local culture and why things are done the way they are, how the sense of humor works, why certain cultural values are observed and so on and so forth.

But language and cultural immersion is more than just learning another language and culture. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages along with Learn NC, individuals (especially children) who immerse themselves completely in learning a language experience a number of beneficial side effects, not the least of which are increased cognitive abilities, increased intellectual growth, a better understanding of local culture, enhanced flexibility in mental exercises, increased memory, creative, greater levels of divergent thinking and higher order thinking and reasoning skills. And once you’ve learned a second language it’s even easier to learn a third because you have the enhanced capabilities from the first time around, and the fourth time is easier than the second, etc.

The brain is like a muscle in the sense that it always has the potential to learn and adapt, and the same thing that is true for muscles is true for the brain: use it or lose it. If you are continually challenging it with new things to learn and overcome, it will always adapt, leading to stronger cognitive function. The ability of the brain to continually produce new cells even in adulthood means that you can continually adapt and overcome, and there is no such thing as “you can’t teach a dog new tricks”. Given our brain’s nearly limitless capabilities combined with the fact that you can stave off cognitive degeneration while building up your own mental prowess simply by learning another language, all of those excuses as to why you haven’t picked up the local dialect fade away into the background. If you won’t learn the language out of respect to the culture, at the very least do it for your own health and wellness.

These benefits are for adults as well as children. For adults it means increased chances at job opportunities on a global scale because you can communicate in more than one way and you have increased mental capabilities compared to your peers. For children it means the same increased opportunities later in life, but earlier on it means the potential for expanding the mind at those crucial years when the mind is open to greatest amount of absorption. For example, Dr. Harry Chugani from the University of California in Los Angeles stated in Reshaping Brain for Better Future that the most receptive time in a person’s life is between the ages of 10 and 12, when the mind can absorb things at a greater rate than after it has had time to stagnate as an adult with only one singular language.

Contrary to popular belief, the English language is not the most spoken language on the planet. Mandarin has over a billion native speakers, while English only has around 500 million, roughly the same as Hindu. Spanish is around 400 million, and Russian and Arabic are both in between the 250 and 300 million mark. From there it drops off.

And while in the past it used to be the case that English was the most spoken language in the business world, this is no longer the case. As the U.S. star continues to fade, other countries are emerging as leaders of the 21st century. Graduates and skilled workers are no longer looking for job opportunities on U.S. soil Instead, they are looking abroad to emerging markets in India, China, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and beyond. This is especially true if you happen to work in an IT field or as an SEO specialist.

The English language has had a good run and about two decades of a head start on everyone else in regards to the Internet, but as more and more countries around the world catch up in the online arenas, website development, SEO management and other online-related business opportunities are cropping up…in Mandarin, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, Hindu, German, French and beyond. The online  marketplace has been saturated with English-language content and now it is the other languages which are emerging as global leaders in the online revolution.

Learning more than one language isn’t just about cultural immersion…it’s also about ensuring your ability to remain relevant in your chosen field. While jobs might be scarce in the English-speaking sector for web development and design and SEO jobs, the Spanish language market (for example) is booming as South American markets are emerging at a breakneck pace…and their businesses and websites are not in English. If you want to find the best opportunities on a global scale, you have to keep your skills on par with the change of the markets.

With globalization comes a responsibility to remain globally aware and globally competitive. And that means speaking more than just English if you want to stay on top. The most successful entrepreneurs of the modern era are not merely relegated to English-speaking markets; they have their fingers in multiple pies in multiple different markets across multiple countries with multiple languages. And as the global market continues to diversify, the ante is continually being upped as more and more language requirements become par for the course.

This post originally appeared at The Social Expat earlier in 2012 in a shortened form. It has been expanded for the Marginal Boundaries audience.

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About T.W. Anderson

T.W. Anderson is the founder of the Marginal Boundaries brand. He is the writer, editor, videographer, photographer, and social media guru alongside Cristina Barrios, the other half of the brand. In his spare time, he is the creative director of the Saga of Lucimia, a forthcoming MMORPG from Stormhaven Studios, LLC.


  • Heather S says:

    Learning languages is hard – yes. But the benefits are pretty much off the charts when it comes to cultural adaptation as well as brain health (as you mentioned).
    I’m constantly astounded at the number of expats who “don’t bother” to learn the local language despite setting down permanent roots in a country. Especially a Spanish-speaking country.
    I just returned from Laos, and while I only spent a year, I managed to learn to read the language, if not speak it very well. My comprehension was OK, and it came in handy so many times I won’t bother listing them.
    And Spanish is UNBELIEVABLY EASIER THAN LAO. You can goddamn read it, for one. It’s not tonal, and the pronunciation nothing fancy. What’s so hard about that? Not much.
    OK, end of rant. Great post, and good points about job opportunities at the end.

  • Every little bit helps, Mary :)

  • I agree with you in that language learning is essential if you are going to delve into the intricacies of a culture and there are so many fantastic approaches to in-person and online language learning. I always learn the basics when venturing to a new part of the world, though of course there is a world of difference between travel and longer term expat life!

  • Absolutely, Jennifer.

  • Jennifer says:

    Good post. We’re expats in Italy and the area where we live, it is a necessity to speak Italian. We are by no means fluent, but we can interact in our Italian community. Not only does speaking at least some of the language make daily living less frustrating, it also helps us feel part of where we live. As you said, you don’t want to isolate yourself. That totally can be easy to do when you have other English speakers around.

  • Tim, Good Stuff. When we were in India for 5 weeks, we made it a point to learn as many phrases and words that we could while we were there. It really helped when negotiating and such, but it also warmed up some of the locals that were expecting us to be the typical tourist.

  • @ Noel.

    The best possible way to learn is to go to a country where Mandarin is the primary language and live there for 6 months to a year and force yourself to “sink or swim”.

    That is, practice language immersion by actually living in the environment as opposed to only using it in a classroom setting. When you are forced to use it on a daily basis, not just in the classroom but also out in the real world to grocery shop, use public transportation and “get around”, your mind will take over and literally kick into “survival mode”, where instincts take over and you learn far more rapidly than in a “safe” environment such as a classroom.

    Good on you for realizing the importance!

  • Noel says:

    Hello mr. Anderson, what you said in this article is real. Three years ago, I tried to learn the Mandarin to help me in my job because I’m working in Singapore. In fact, I bought one or two books and even VCDs just to learn the language. However, I found it hard to learn and had this excuse I cannot do it because I’m already adult. After reading your article, I have this strong urge again to learn the Mandarin not only for my work but now as an advantage in finding an extra job. This will also help me in communiting easily with people speaking the Mandarin. The biggest challenge now is how to keep the adrenalin going learning the Mandarin. I also have this question in mind — how to start?

  • @Will

    Yep, it’s absolutely more than just communication. Language immersion is also the backdoor into a culture….without it you will never understand the sense of humor, certain cultural points of view and beyond.

  • Will says:


    From what I read above sounds like you are saying language is more than just about communications.

    I agree that much can be learned about the culture by speaking in the host country’s native language. If you know anything about mirroring it shows that people like people who are like them – it’s just human nature.

    I used to work in a dental office where the patients were mostly non-English speaking Asian immigrants. Many of these patietns, especially the older ones, could go through the day not speaking one word of English. To me this was amazing and a little sad because I knew they were missing out on many opportunities.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.


  • Thanks for your comment, Travln

    Hmm, I don’t recall saying anything about “fluently”. Just as long as an effort is made to speak the local language and respect the local culture and heritage.

    Anyone who spends a significant amount of time in a country (more than a few weeks/as anything other than a backpacker passing through or a vacationer) who doesn’t take the time to learn the local language and communicate with the local residents on their own terms absolutely lacks respect for the culture or the people.

    If someone wants to live in the United States they are expected to speak English. If you want to live in Germany you are expected to learn to speak German. If you want to live in Spain you learn Spanish. Italy you learn Italian. And so on and so forth.

    Expats, by their very nature, are not backpackers passing through. They are not vacationers or tourists. They are people living in a host country. And as such they should be speaking the local language.

    When in Rome, do as the Romans do. It’s a matter of respect.

    Now, if you are just backpacking through or visiting on vacation, no harm, no foul. But if you are in a country for more than just a few weeks, temporary or not, an effort should be made to pick up the local lingo. And if you are an actual expat, someone who is living in a host country, you should absolutely be speaking the local language, not your own, at every opportunity.

    Just as much as the local laws in a host country are to be respected and adhered to, the local language and culture should be held in equal regard by expats living there.

    Plus there’s just so much you miss out on by not speaking the local language…cultural immersion brings its own level of understanding about a culture and brings you that much closer to the people and its heritage.

  • TravelnLass says:

    Woa. All well and good about cultural immersion and all. But I must say, statements like:

    “…which transforms you from just another foreigner who has no respect for the locals”

    …give me (as one of the aforementioned “expats”) more than a little pause.

    I mean, how on earth do you manage to deduce that just ‘cuz someone doesn’t speak the local language fluently – they likewise have “no respect for the locals.”???

    Nonsense. And I dare say a bit condescending.

    I’m surprised at you T.W. As you yourself say, there are a myriad reasons why every expat doesn’t hunker down and tackle the local language within moments of settling in. None of which necessarily equates in the least to a lack of respect for the locals or their unique culture.

    I heartily agree that learning at least a semblance of the local language is a plus for both expats and the locals they meet. But let’s not wax dramatic and suggest that all expats that don’t happen to speak the local language utterly lack respect for the citizens of their (often temporary) adopted country.

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