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[dropcap colored=’true’]T[/dropcap] he other night I went to a mostly french-speaking event in Paris. A group of us were chatting (a Frenchman, another American and myself) when up walks a man trying to join in his very broken, “I-took-one-year-in high-school” french.  In an effort to make it easier for him, we switch to speaking English. We proceed with the typical conversation starters like “Where are you from?” … “oh the states, me too“. Then we get to “How long have you been here?” and he answers … 10 years! The other American can’t hide her surprise and says, “You’re kidding!” by which she means “I can’t believe you’ve been here 10 years and your french is that bad“!

Sadly, he is not alone. Immersion is a great way to learn a second language, providing great motivation, exposure, and efficient practice. But there are a surprising number of people who don’t learn a language even when they are immersed in the language and the culture. Here are the main reasons why: [hr]

1. It’s possible to stay in your expat bubble

Luckily and unluckily for you, English is becoming the “lingua franca” or the common language for international communication. So it’s pretty easy to find an English-speaking person wherever you are, especially in expat-heavy cities like Paris.  The problem is, surrounding yourself with other English-speaking expats limits your exposure and kills your motivation to learn the language. Make a few expat friends, find a job teaching English or in an English-speaking company, and watch American T.V. shows on your computer at night and it almost feels like home!  Now learning the language doesn’t become a necessity, which means you need to be motivated by something else, and by limiting your exposure, you fail to take advantage of the opportunity to practice the language with the people around you.

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2. Like everything else in life, it takes effort:

If there’s one element that impacts your key to success at learning a language it’s this … that it takes work. Quite frankly, it’s possible to learn a language in any environment, with just about any set of resources, if you’re willing to work hard enough. That experience can be enhanced by immersion through being more efficient and interesting, and thus motivating, but still requires us to put in some effort. What doesn’t work is just showing up and expecting that you will learn by some form of osmosis.  If you like this strategy, you’d be better off saving yourself the plane ticket and try putting your language book under your pillow at night instead, as you will likely return a similarly ineffective result.

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I don’t believe the man at the party was dumb, nor was he “just not good at learning languages“.  I think he fell into the trap of staying in his bubble, and not putting in the required effort, so he missed out on a great opportunity to learn a second language.  But the good news is, if your willing to put in the time and willing to break out of your expat bubble, you can avoid ending up like that man at the party, and learn a second language in much less time!

Having covered the cases when immersion doesn’t work, in the next post we will look at when immersion does work, the features that enable success, and how you can use this information to speed up your language-learning process.

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