Do I Have to Live in a Foreign Country to Learn a Language?

The answer to this question is a resounding no but there are some important follow up points that come with it.

You’re surely going to benefit from living in a country where your target language is spoken. Very often how much you benefit is your choice. First and foremost, you need to take advantage of the opportunities that come with living in the country.

Even when you’re living in a foreign country you still want to study from your residence, or through an in-person course if that’s your preference.

Studying in an organized matter provides necessary structure to progress in a foreign language.

You may have a lot of opportunities to practice your target language in a foreign country but if you don’t have at least some knowledge of it, it will make the process of learning new things painfully slow.

Say for example that you’ve just decided to become a digital nomad and travel from country to country while working online.

Photo by Olya Kobruseva on

You’ve just gotten to your first destination, Italy, and you’ve decided to learn Italian.

Now that you’re in the country you think it will be easy to learn the language.

You have gotten settled into your new apartment and the first morning you’re there, you go to a nearby coffee shop to have breakfast.

You sit down with a menu after an awkward interaction with your waitress, who doesn’t speak English. You look at the menu, and with the exception of a few coffee items that seem to have familiar names in Italian, you realize you don’t understand anything on the menu.

You can order a new item every day to figure out what each of them is over time or you can study the terms in a phrasebook at night before you go to sleep in preparation for your morning visit to the coffee shop.

As you start studying menu items in your phrasebook you also spend some time learning some social phrases to allow yourself to get to know the waitress you see at the restaurant every day.

This example is a great metaphor for the point I’m trying to make. Doing some kind of regular studying when in a foreign country will accelerate your progress in a language tremendously.

People often say that the vocabulary learned on Duolingo is very random, but when you’re in a new country, learning words for what seem to be random fruits and vegetables, this vocabulary doesn’t seem so random because these words could very well serve a great deal of purpose in your daily life.

In a sense, learning a language is a numbers game. You absorb as much input as possible with hopes of opportunities to use it at a later date.

When you’re living in a foreign country, new opportunities to use new vocabulary will appear frequently.

Let’s go back to the digital nomad example. Let’s say that after 3 months you’ve started to get the hang of Italy and Italian. You’ve made some new Italian friends and start spending your evenings with them 3 or 4 times a week.

You begin having more dynamic conversations and start reading articles online to boost your vocabulary.

Maybe you start using tools to study like LingQ or Kindle. With time your ability to engage in more intermediate conversations increases and it’s easier to learn new vocabulary from the context of discussions.  

It’s possible you find an Italian girlfriend or boyfriend and begin using Italian on a daily basis.

Let’s say that you didn’t move to Italy to work as a digital nomad but rather to work on a yearlong project for your company.

In this scenario, you’re likely picking up Italian even faster than the digital nomad if you’re studying the same number of hours and taking advantage of opportunities to engage with coworkers. A digital nomad might be stuck in an apartment all day.

The Pisa Cathedral to the left and the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the right of it in Pisa, Italy. Photo by Rachel Claire on

These scenarios that I’m describing may seem idealistic, but they properly describe the nature of the progression that someone can make while living abroad. Even listening in on someone’s conversation at the grocery store is input that’s going to contribute to your learning.

How does this accelerated growth compare to studying in your home country?

You can make a lot of progress studying a foreign language from home with the resources and tools available on the internet today.

Even booking a lesson with a tutor to practice is a simple and an affordable process today with platforms like italki. You can get an American English tutor for $10 an hour. I’ve found really great Spanish and Portuguese tutors for $6 or less, people that have even become my friends.

Listening, reading, and writing can be practiced with an online tutor alone at home for free or with affordable paid resources.

Besides the exposure and immersion that you get from being abroad, the one big thing that studying from home lacks is context. Sometimes it’s not about how many words you know but about when and how you use those words.

I often use to take Uber rides in Brazil with a Brazilian that would say “bom trabalho” to the driver at the end of the Uber ride. At first it sounded extremely demeaning. The phrase literally translated is “good work”.

It was as if they were telling the driver they did a good job driving the car or even talking to them like you would a dog when they’re playing fetch.

After asking why they were saying this, I properly understood what they were trying to express. “Bom trabalho” in Brazilian Portuguese is like saying “have a good work” like you would tell someone to have a good morning or afternoon.

This phrase is something that I imagine would never appear in a phrasebook or textbook and quite frankly it probably rarely comes up in conversations or instruction with a tutor.

You can become conversationally fluent in a language just by studying and practicing from your computer, but you won’t become an expert in it that way.

Living abroad carries with it intangibles that you can’t find at your desk at home. Aside from enhancing your language skills, living in a foreign environment can help you grow as a person tremendously, regardless of what country you go to, and I would recommend it to anyone.

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