Studying abroad can be a very important step in one’s language learning journey. The benefits of being in a native environment are invaluable, but the cost of going abroad can be quite steep. Based on my own experience, I’ve come to a conclusion about when to study abroad, and for how long.
Should you go abroad if you’ve never studied the language before?
This is most likely a waste because you’ll be learning basic information that you could easily have just taught yourself at home. After the initial feeling of novelty with the language, you’ll become frustrated by your lack of vocabulary. Not being able to do anything in the language will be a struggle, and much of your life will depend on the patience of others. My recommendation is to stay in your country and learn the basics first in your native tongue, and go abroad later.
Chinese should not be underestimated just because a beginner can start speaking relatively fast. Since the language is so unrelated to English, you can never guess a word you don’t know like you can for Romance languages. You will not pick up the language like an American expatriate living in France who miraculously learns French. The only way to learn Chinese for a native English speaker is to sit down and study. Don’t waste your time and money coming to China or Taiwan thinking immersion will take you from zero to fluent.
Go abroad when you’re conversational
If you can converse even at the lowest level, you’ll make serious language gains when you go abroad. This is because the point of going abroad is to interact with the locals, and try out what you’ve learned. When a native speaker replies to you with an appropriate response, your brain will register what you said as being correct, thereby reinforcing the language in your mind, and “making it real”, as I like to say.
How long to go abroad for
I studied for one year at National Taiwan University. Throughout that time my Chinese was constantly improving. However, I believe the first four months I was there gave me the most benefit. Of course, you should stay for as long as you possibly can, and you’ll continue to reap the benefits.
Most college students that go abroad do it for three months, that’s one semester. But talking to a lot of my classmates that left Taiwan after that amount of time, the majority wished they could stay for longer because three months is right about the time most students feel they are on the cusp of a language breakthrough. Because of this, I recommend four months at least.