Is living in-country strictly necessary to learn a foreign language?

Since moving to Paris, meeting foreigners is a snap for me. I go to the Polyglot café bar (featured on the CANAL+ show). People meet up there to practice their languages. You get a badge as you walk through the door and you write your name and the languages you speak on it.

It is a fantastic opportunity to practice your languages on a weekly basis. Since my language exchanges have become so frequent, I have noticed a few recurring questions and reactions. When people find out that I speak ten languages one of the reactions that I get the most is: “Oh, you must have lived abroad for a long time, right?” or “You must travel a LOT”, right?
That final “right” got me thinking. I have never thought that living in-country was strictly necessary to learn a new language. I have picked up all of the languages I know without living abroad. So why do so many people think it is impossible to learn a language in the comfort of your own home?

Are your objectives clear enough?

Terms like “fluency”, or “speak”, or even “learn” are the subject of fierce and heated debate in the language community. “How long did it take you to speak language X?”, “Do you speak it fluently?” are questions that throw me a bit, I must admit. They are really too vague to be answered accurately.
I have my own definition of what it means to become “linguistically autonomous” and therefore able to “speak” a language with a reasonable degree of fluency and ease (video LINK). That said, it is not something you can explain with accuracy in the type of language exchanges you have at the Polyglot meet-ups.

Polyglot meet-ups.

Before you delve into the question of whether living in country is strictly necessary to speak a language, you should clearly define your long-term goals. If your goal is to speak and understand a language with ease, then living in country is not necessary. Before the Internet I didn’t need to travel, but nowadays learning from home is even less of an issue. With the Internet we can literally surround ourselves with any given language. You can speak it on Skype, watch movies or YouTube videos or listen to it over the radio. There is no shortage of interesting and engaging experiences that we can have via the web.

If the main goal is to speak like a native though, the Internet is not enough. You need real, face-to-face contact with native speakers AND the natural environment where the language is spoken. Let me explain you why.

My experience with Dutch and French

A good example to explain the difference between speaking a language fluently and speaking it at a native-like level is to show how I learned both Dutch and French, and compare the two experiences.

“Why would you learn Dutch”? This is a typical question I get from Dutch native speakers. Yes, why? Normally, you would want to learn Dutch if you had to live in The Netherlands. And even in that case, most people resort to English, given that 95% of the population there speaks it fluently.

I learned it because of a girl. I met her 13 years ago in Sardinia. She could speak English, but not that well. That frustrated me quite a lot. When you meet somebody you really like and communication is limited by language, you yearn for a stronger and deeper knowledge of a common language. But even then communication would not be the same as if you were speaking to her directly in her native language.
After Sardinia, I had planned to tour Europe with my friends, and one of the stops was The Netherlands. Just a few weeks after meeting the girl in Sardinia, I met her again in her country. I paid her a surprise visit, and she was speechless when she saw me standing in front of her house.

She let me in, I talked to her parents and I had the chance to interact with Dutch people in their country. I didn’t speak a word of Dutch so everything was in English, but it was still a breakthrough for me. The frustration first and that visit later prompted me to start learning Dutch.

As soon as I arrived back in Rome in September, I bought the ASSIMIL Dutch course and started my adventure.
Dutch is not a popular language to learn, so there were practically no resources at the time. I had no Internet, which made things even more challenging. I decided to rely on ASSIMIL and I found out that you could get the Volksrant in Italy. Friends would also bring back books for me from their vacations to Holland. I spent quite a few years only reading Dutch without practicing it. I did meet Dutch people or Belgians from time to time, but they all switched back to English very quickly.
My Dutch remained dormant during the years. I started speaking it more and more since I made my first video in Dutch on the Internet. The reaction was so overwhelmingly positive that it motivated to practice and to perfect the language. I started speaking it more and more on Skype, especially with my friend Richard Simcott, and then I became friends with two real nice Dutch girls, with whom I speak regularly. I started watching interesting documentaries on YouTube, as well as TV shows such as Paul&Witterman. Constant practice did change things, and I feel like my Dutch has become much more fluent than 4 years ago. Despite my progress, I know what I am missing in Dutch as I am able to contrast my abilities in Dutch with my knowledge of French after having lived in France.

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