Language Learning: Micro Environments or Macro Environments?
Can you really learn a language without living in a country where it is spoken?
Indeed, a commonly recurring question in the world of language learning. Although many expats, the majority being monolingual English speakers, never learn the local language despite being in the country for years, surely those wanting or needing to learn a foreign language must live in the country for a period of time. Most “useful” advice would say that there is no other way.
But wait. I mentioned above that many expats do not learn the local language of the country in which they reside. Far from being a wasteful use of their time, these non-language-learners can teach the serious learner a lot about how to learn languages.
The monolingual expats have no necessity, and therefore no drive. How can they actively ignore the language for so long? The key, of course, is their environment. No, I am not talking about their country of residence, which of course would be a treasure trove of resources if they cared for it, I am referring to their micro environment: the situations they most often, or always, find themselves in.
While they are immersed in their native language bubble, it is irrelevant what is happening outside the door. Immersed in a language bubble. An interesting thought. This seemingly oblivious group of people have actually discovered the key! That’s right, the micro environment is infinitely more important than the world at large, if the latter is of little importance to the ultimate objective – language learning.
In Moscow I once met a woman who spoke English with such great fluency and confidence that I thought she must certainly have spent time in the UK – she even had a regional accent, and used a range of colloquial expressions from that part of the country. But no, she had never visited the UK, or any English-speaking country. In fact, she had never set foot outside Russia.
Incredible, I thought, and actually doubted the truth of her claim. It was true, of course. But how? An English class, twice per week, was her first answer. Then she told me that she was addicted to a British TV series. Then, that she had the BBC news channel playing constantly while she was at home. Then, that she had, for a year, maintained a one-hour language exchange via skype with a native, for over full year. Yes, the internet is an amazing thing.
While she admitted that she would have benefited more from real-world immersion, she insisted that the only reason for this was that it took less effort. With effort, she had created a world for herself in which the official language was English, while outside the door, Moscow buzzed on relentlessly in its own tongue. Of course, she couldn’t avoid Russian, she had to use it every day, after all. But this was not a problem, she assured me – her home, (her sanctuary as she called it) was English-language territory. Isolation is achievable.
A friend once spent time on a compound while working as an engineer in Saudi Arabia. Fascinated, I asked him what the local dialect of Arabic sounded like. His response? “I have no idea…”