culture

Language Immersion

The Importance of Language Immersion For Expats

Posted by | culture, language, Live Like a Local, Quality of Life, Traveling Tips | 11 Comments

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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Nessebar, Bulgaria

The benefits of immersion travel

Posted by | culture, Live Like a Local, Quality of Life, Traveling Tips | No Comments

A few weeks back I did a YouTube video on the subject (see bottom of the page for the embedded version for those of you who aren’t subscribed to the channel), but I wanted to cover the topic a little more in-depth in a blog post/newsletter so that you can understand more than what I rambled on about in the vid.

I promote immersion travel; that’s the basis of my immersion guides sold here through Marginal Boundaries, as well as in The Expat Guidebook. But there’s much more to it than simply the early retirement, absolute freedom and debt-free living. It’s also about The Human Experience. It’s mentioned in all of the guides but I haven’t ever written a blog post about what I mean by that…and exactly why I feel that immersion travel is superior to all other forms.

We are all of us One People living on One Planet. We all have the same blood flowing in our veins. Black, white, Asian, Canadian, African, homosexual, heterosexual, man, woman, child…it doesn’t matter. And one of the foremost reasons that those of us who do this for a living choose to do so…is because we get to connect with people on a personal level versus only ever exploring the world through the television, Internet, magazines and books. There’s something lost in the transition from human connection to media format, and while you can appreciate from afar you can never really know the people in another country…until you go there.

Something I think is lost in the backpacker lifestyle is cultural immersion. Flitting about, hostel to hostel, making brief stops in destinations to snap some photos for the blog, taste some new food, see some new sites, explore a new part of the world, experience a new adventure and so on and so forth, never really qualifies as knowing a destination. Experiencing, yes…at least from a traveler’s viewpoint, but you can never truly know a destination by only spending a few days, a few weeks or even just a few short months in it. If you want to experience the real culture you have to spend time immersing yourself in the depths of everything that makes that place so unique.

Forget the cost of living benefits. Forget the fact that for you, the universal healthcare plan allows you to save tens of thousands. Forget the relaxed pace of life and the sense of adventure and excitement of exploring a new place. Forget the international investment opportunities, lower tax rates and secondary passports/residencies. Immersion travel is also about connecting with the people. It’s about going native, learning how to understand the cultural sense of humor, the religion, the lifestyle and the people. 

The average backpacker only ever samples the wares, taking little bites of each cultural dish as they pass but never really dipping into any one portion more than the others and moving on to the next buffet once they are finished sampling the wares from the first one. It’s a lifestyle of adventure and exploration, no doubt, and it’s one that suits some people very well, but it’s not the type of travel that allows you to really sink your teeth into a dish.

Immersion travelers, on the other hand, are eating large portions of each dish, choosing to stay at one buffet and stuff themselves on as many helpings they can fit onto their plate, moving on from the appetizers to the main courses, the deserts, aperitifs and beyond. The thought of the next buffet is the last thing on their mind; they are intent on exploring the diversity at this table as fully and as completely as they can before they worry about the next one.

It’s an unfortunate aspect of backpacking and being nomadic; you never really get to explore the depths of a country. I may have spent days and weeks traveling to Macedonia while I was living in Bulgaria, and I may have gone to Greece and Italy multiple times, but I never really experienced those cultures because I was only ever passing through, spending a few nights here, a few nights there, taking pictures, hanging out with people at hostels, kicking back beers with fellow nomads and enjoying myself…but never really getting to know the people behind the place I was exploring.

Through immersion, however, one gains the ability to connect, to explore the full potential of The Human Experience, to become one with the culture you are living in. You spend weeks that turn into months that turn into a year and then into two years and before you know it you’ve set up a new home…which can either become your permanent base of operations or you can use it as one of many different hubs as you work your way around the globe, setting up bank accounts and secondary passports and citizenships for your investment opportunities and medical tourism. But by spending time there, by living on the ground, speaking the native tongue, making local friends, dating local people, shopping at the local markets day in and day out, getting to know the names of the street vendors and the shop owners and the discount days and the best subway routes and which hours are worst for traffic…only through immersion do you actually transition beyond just-passing-through. 

And only then can you truly know a destination and its people. A couple of nights of bar-hopping with locals while you are staying at the local hostel will never achieve the same level of connectivity that weekends of bar-hopping and hiking and movies and actual friendships and relationships can bring, and without that friendship, without those connections, you will never really experience the true nature of a city or a country. Instead, you are merely passing through, sampling the wares as you go.


Don’t forget to sign up for our free newsletter for several-times-a-week, your-eyes-only travel and entrepreneur tips, plus receive a complimentary copy of our 85-page starter book on location independence and living abroad, 30 Ways in 30 Days.

With over 1,500 copies sold, our flagship 568-page eBook is what started it all. Learn how to travel the world like I do: without a budget, with no plans, funded completely by your website and online ventures.

The Expat GuidebookGet Your Copy Today!

Unplug from The System, cure yourself of The Greedy Bastard Syndrome, tap into your universal potential and create your own reality. Build a brand, travel the world and realize your cosmic consciousness.

Beyond Borders - The Social RevolutionGet Your Copy Today!