Langauge Immersion: How long until the payoff?
August 12, 2006 9:49 PM   Subscribe

How long would it take a 'proactive' person to pick up a language if living and working in a foreign city?

Hi there, I am a scientist close to finishing my PhD and I am currently looking at postdoc positions overseas. A large proportion of available jobs are in non-English speaking countries, particularly Germany, Swtizerland, Scandinavia and a particularly attractive job in Montreal, Quebec.

Most lab groups in these countries speak English in the lab, so functioning at work is not an issue for me. But I am curious as to how long it would take a person, immersed in a foreign language to become a confident, possibly fluent speaker. I have heard that a person, if totally immersed in a foreign langauge can become quite profficient in a matter of months. On the other hand there are people who have been in a country 20 years and still struggle with the language.

Let's assume I take up the job in Montreal and I am proactive about learning the language in my everyday life (I have previously studied French, but I am far from profficient). How long will it be until one can confidently read the newspaper, watch the news and have a good conversation with someone in their native tongue?

I would love to hear some examples from people who have been in a similar situation. How long did it take you?
posted by TheOtherGuy to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
One problem you might have is that most of the people in the places you listed will know some English. So you won't be forced to learn their language and they may prefer to communicate in their poor English rather than your beginner's German/French etc. You'll have to insist on not using English.

The exception is probably francophone countries where they might not only refuse to speak English to you but may also deliberately ignore your attempts to speak French.

Personally, I lived in Japan for a year and ended up with no more than basic greetings, numbers and common expressions used while shopping, even after attending lessons, hanging around with locals and spending a long time with books. This was partly for the reason above and partly because I couldn't pick up vocabulary from reading signs and similar things (stupid pictographs).
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 10:09 PM on August 12, 2006

There is no good answer for this, because it varies so much. I had two friends who spent a year teaching English in China recently - one speaks Chinese very fluently, the other struggles with it as much as he ever did. Just do your best.
posted by borkingchikapa at 10:24 PM on August 12, 2006

The exception is probably francophone countries where they might not only refuse to speak English to you but may also deliberately ignore your attempts to speak French.

So true.
posted by rbs at 10:35 PM on August 12, 2006

using the immersion method is the best way to learn a language- I went to Russia/Ukraine for a month and by the time i left am able to read the cryllic alphabet and speak enough russian to makemyself understood- i'm sure if you go to a foreign country (not montreal- say spain, ukraine, israel, switzerland) you should be able to pick up the language within a few months- just make sure to focus and absorb every sign and converse as much as possible without feeling foolish at your mistakes...
posted by Izzmeister at 11:01 PM on August 12, 2006

I agree with those who say it hugely varies depending on your own typical speed for picking up languages, and the language itself (French will probably be quicker than Arabic, for instance).

That said, an example of someone's speed in learning a language: a friend of mine studied Spanish all throughout high school in college, studied in Peru for a summer, then right after college graduation taught in the Dominican Republic for a year. I'd say she's at or beyond the newspaper-reading/conversation-holding level of proficiency you're aiming for.
posted by hazelshade at 11:16 PM on August 12, 2006

Anevdotally: My brother did an introductory course in french (a single class at uni) then went to live in France. He started with a one-month immersion course, then just worked in a bar, and within a year he was extremely fluent - able to hold discussions on politics and abstract/complex topics like that. He was pretty motivated, and it helped that he started going out with a french girl.
posted by jacalata at 11:54 PM on August 12, 2006

>it helped that he started going out with a french girl.

I think that's the best possible motivation technique for learning a foreign language, getting a Significant Other who speaks it.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:33 AM on August 13, 2006

Montreal is a great opportunity to learn french.
You can always ask your coworkers to teach you new words every day, or ask them to speak french to you. Also you can attend language classes. It's obvious that immersion will make it easier for you to learn another language. However if you try to speak french and speak it badly, most people will switch to english. I know several people where I work that didn't speak any french and they are learning all the time. Plus Montreal is just so awesome :)
posted by PowerCat at 12:38 AM on August 13, 2006

The situation with respect to languages in Switzerland is rather complex.

One big advantage of doing a postdoc here is that you would be exposed to many different cultures and languages.

Becoming fluent in any one of them in one or two years, however, would not be easy and would depend largely on your own motivation and ability.
posted by booksprite at 12:58 AM on August 13, 2006

I lived in Barcelona for almost four months last year, and my language abilities actually peaked about halfway through the stay. I was occasionally having complete conversations in Spanish; though my grammar and vocab were poor I was able to make myself understood and understand what was going on (sort of) after a few months. I'd guess that 8-12 months of effort would have been enough to learn Spanish to the extent that I would be functional, though it's complicated in Barcelona (never a simple thing, language) in that Catalan is the most spoken language there, though everyone knows Spanish.

When schooling and our design studios forced us to work all day with my classmates (English speaking) I lost some of it, as well as my confidence. This may be a big factor if you'r eworking in English. I found the secret was to force onesself to speak in the foreign language even if the person to which you are speaking knows English, and (this is most important!) to not be afraid of making mistakes. People will not laugh or put you down, but rather appreciate the attempts.

I will say that this is especially important somewhere like Montreal, which is essentially bilingual. Force people to speak French to you, and speak nothing but French. It's a good place to learn French, but not as good as, say, Quebec City, where more people speak French and are less likely to hear your accent and start speaking English back to you.

I second the language classes idea. Having a situation where you can learn and then practice right away is great.
posted by jimmythefish at 1:43 AM on August 13, 2006

I've been in China a month and am startled at how little I know by now. I assume languages like Spanish and French are a bit easier. The very sounds used to construct words here are completely different, so it's not just a matter of learning vocabulary. I can memorize a street name, recite it to a cabbie, and get only a confused look until I take out an index card with the Pinyin written on it.
posted by trinarian at 3:31 AM on August 13, 2006

It helps if, before you go, you can get enough language instruction so that the stream of language you hear on the street isn't just a sea of noise; this is one reason the 2nd-year students of my acquaintance who went to Japan didn't get as much out of it as the 4th-years.

Immersion is great, but what you can't make heads or tails of doesn't help that much.
posted by Jeanne at 4:23 AM on August 13, 2006

The exception is probably francophone countries where they might not only refuse to speak English to you but may also deliberately ignore your attempts to speak French.

I've had this happen occasionally (never in Montreal but a few times in Belgium - one slip and they pounce!) and found that pretending not to be able to speak English is the best way to force the conversation back into French. Do it with a smile, it's a game after all!

It helps that I don't speak any language with an English or American accent I guess, so work as hard on perfecting your accent as you do on grammar and vocabulary learning.
posted by ceri richard at 4:58 AM on August 13, 2006


You already speak French... about 50-60% of English has French origins, if I believe what I was told in high school.

Nonetheless, what else is there besides vocabulary, grammar/syntax/construction, and eventually style?

As a scientist, I'd guess you have the basic skills of observation needed. You also have a decent memory, no doubt. I'd be willing to bet you'd pick up on French, for instance, to a decent conversational level, in a few months.

A Berlitz course will give you the two or three hundred words that form 80% of daily-speak, and you've got the rest of your life to add enhancements.

An aside....

I have a Mexican friend from Mexico City, via LA, whom I met in NC a few years ago. He told me that he had trouble speaking to his MOTHER when he visited her in Mexico a few years ago. He had so thoroughly integrated English that he had trouble with his native tongue. Also, a local Russian friend here in Vermont says his friends in Petrosovosk accuse him of having an American accent in his spoken Russian now.

Basically, I believe that if you swim in grape juice, you're going to get purple. Immersion in the society of choice, and dedication to the goal of becoming fluent, will result in competence faster than you think. ... months, not years.

I say that even though most of my American cohort hasn't managed to master their own language yet, however! YMMV!
posted by FauxScot at 6:24 AM on August 13, 2006

If you make the commitment to speak French only, and I mean only, and have a friend that is willing to correct you constantly, and you speak mainly with native french speakers, and you have bit of a gift for languages, you can be quite good in a couple of months. If you already know other langauges, it will come quicker. Fluency seems to take around a year or so, from my experience of moving to France and not having any sort of language skills at the begining.
posted by blue_beetle at 6:49 AM on August 13, 2006

I'm about to do something like this myself. My next job requires French.

I'm not sure how long it will take me to learn it, but I've been watching the French In Action videos. They are all available, on demand and free. It's a good way to brush up before plunging in.

Good luck!
posted by Topkid at 6:58 AM on August 13, 2006

A big factor is your previous exposure to languages. If this is your first foreign language, it will take longer than if you learned at least a little of another language when you were a kid. There's no way to answer your actual question other than "it depends," but with your attitude, it shouldn't take too long. (Montreal is a great place to learn French, but expect to have your accent sneered at by Parisians!)

You already speak French... about 50-60% of English has French origins

That's completely ridiculous. You might as well say he already speaks Proto-Indo-European because 98% of his vocabulary has that origin. (Percentage invented for the purposes of this comment but probably not too inaccurate.) I appreciate the desire to encourage, but please stay within the bounds of reality.
posted by languagehat at 7:07 AM on August 13, 2006

I studied abroad in Prague for about 6 months, and while we were given a crash course in Czech upon arriving, it seemed none of us could grasp the Slavic language beyond numbers, greetings, and fending off conversational advances with "I don't speak much Czech." Since most of the young Czechs wanted to practice their English on Americans, meeting new and interesting people actually became mutually exclusive with learning the native language.

Flash forward to a year later: I'm sitting in a coffee shop in DC, minding my own business, benignly eavesdropping on two women who are chatting about the lack of towels in their hotel room. It took me a minute to realize they were speaking in Czech, and I could understand 90% of the words they said.

It's great that you're going to be so pro-active in learning the language of whatever country you decide upon, but it's such an organic process that sometimes you won't even know how much you're actually absorbing. Good luck!
posted by zoomorphic at 7:25 AM on August 13, 2006

The exception is probably francophone countries where they might not only refuse to speak English to you but may also deliberately ignore your attempts to speak French.

This has pretty much never happened to me, despite having spent quite a bit of time in fracophone countries.

I'm often told that I'm extremely easy to talk to, though, so maybe that cuts across international borders. (or maybe they like that I cut right to "Je suis desole; Je parle francais comme une vache espagnole." as soon as I encounter trouble.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 11:47 PM on August 13, 2006

My example with italian: Age 22 I find myself working in Rome, with the only previous foreign language experience being a pathetic study of French in high school for the requisite two years (I say pathetic due to my teachers' fantastically horrific Texan accents when speaking: Ge sweez amur-e-can y'all)

I took no formal classes, but did the self-study thing with books, pointing at everything in eyesight with Come si dice?, and forcing myself to speak (badly) in Italian to Italians even if they responded in English.

It took me about nine months for comprehension, and probably the equivalent before I truly was able to converse in a normal paced discussion.

A complicating factor was that my job required more English than not and it was a rather insular environment with a variety of nationalities all speaking pigeon Italian only when necessary. I subsequently have an accent, but not an easy-to-pinpoint one.

I also had/have found myself an Italian boyfriend, which arguably helped/harmed as I still speak more Roman slang to this day instead of polite correct Italian. I can manage the latter when situations require (ie formal situations with strangers, interaction with utility companies) but the former comes raging out when I get frustrated or pissy (see also: said utility companies).

All that said, eight years later I've found only a certain small number of my italian acquaintances/friends will correct the smaller mistakes i make. And while I have developed a lovely habit of discerning meaning from context ont the fly, it's almost as if my brain has separated into Italian/English halves with limited connections between them. Which is a load of laughs when my rellies come visiting and I sputter "uh...dunno" when asked to translate something.

As a last parting thought, you'll know your fluency is improving when you have your first dream in that language and/or you can follow and/or hold an conversation in a state of inebriation. Inebriation will knock down many inhibitions about speaking FOO like a incompetent prat as you suddenly become *totaly* fluent, or at least until you wake up the next morning :)
posted by romakimmy at 6:30 AM on August 14, 2006

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