To many of us, studying abroad for a semester or academic year seems like a pretty great idea. There’s nothing like experiencing a language and culture firsthand. And of course, time abroad also teaches students to be more independent, gives them amazing travel opportunities, and helps them meet and make connections with people from another culture.
As if all this weren’t enough, new research from the University of Tennessee has found another advantage: The study compared brain scans of students who had spent at least one semester learning Spanish abroad, to scans from students who hadn’t done language immersion. The findings show that people who learn or use a foreign language on-site are more likely to process that language like a native, rather than a foreign speaker. Even one semester of language immersion can have this effect.
The results were so compelling that an article about it on the university’s website declares that “an immersion experience may in fact be critical to attaining native-like brain processing of a foreign language.”
The article doesn’t go into detail about why language immersion has this impressive effect. But I think one reason can simply be chalked up to human nature. We tend to care more about, and pay more attention to, things that directly concern us. You may have trouble learning a foreign language in a classroom, but when you’re living with this language every day, you not only might feel, say, a little curious about what those newspaper headlines or advertisements mean – you also need to know how to express yourself to get by.
I can also understand how even students who do become fluent through classroom learning think differently than native speakers. There’s an enormous contrast between the standard, academic version of a language, and the way it’s spoken in its country of origin. I know this firsthand.
In my sophomore year of college, I arrived in Paris as what was considered a fluent French speaker. The minute I visited the market in the neighborhood I was staying in, though, I realized that wasn’t quite the case. Through an academic year of friendships, TV-watching, running errands, courses taught by French professors, and a powerful but (alas) ill-fated crush on a cold-hearted Parisian, I absorbed the language the way natives speak it, and definitely came to use and comprehend it more like that myself.
You might be reading this and thinking, “That’s all fine and dandy, but I never got the chance to study abroad; it’s too late for me.” Don’t be so sure! There are a number of ways you can go abroad for a while, even if you’re not a student (these will also save you the price of tuition!). Do some online research for English teacher or au pair programs in the country you’re interested in. Spending time abroad is an amazing experience on a linguistic, cultural, interpersonal, and personal level. If you can swing it, do it: it will not only make you better at speaking a language; it will also profoundly change you.