Do you need to travel, study, work and live abroad to learn a language?

Which of my experience was the best to improve my language skills?

Throughout the years I have travelled and lived , studied and worked abroad several times and I’d like to share with you what expectations I had before and which results actually helped me most in learning languages.

As is often the case, it took a while before I could be honest to myself and see which of those decisions actually benefitted my language skills the most – and which were just a lot of fun and great experience to have.

  • How studying abroad affected my language skills
  • Internship Abroad
  • Working remotely
  • Van life – staying in Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan speaking areas
  • Travel for work
  • Work as a flight attendant and travel the world

How studying abroad affected my language skills

during an exchange program in Barcelona (Erasmus program)

My language expectations:

Spanish: become fluent

English: hardly spoken there

German: in Spain? Nein!

Catalan: ¿Qué?

As part of my International Business Studies I took about 6 modules of both my two compulsory languages, English and German and of my optional third, Spanish. As we had to do an exchange (half a) year abroad and I always had something with Spain (family, the amazing climate and the openness and alegría of the people) and -even though I had never been there- Barcelona sounded exotic and -as opposed to Madrid- had beaches by the sea. So a few months later I was an Erasmus student at the Universitat de Barcelona. The Erasmus students could select courses either in Spanish or Catalan. Having followed four modules in Spanish and without any knowledge of the regional language, I chose Spanish. All but one course (because it was lectured by a professor from Chile) ended up being in Catalan anyway! But looking in hindsight this was good for my Catalan comprehension skills. The students from our university didn’t seem much interested in the temporary international students and being in the same new boat, all Erasmus students and friends.

So during those six months I ended up speaking a lot of English and Spanish with my flatmates who also became friends quickly. We watched (American) TV shows and movies in Spanish. Amongst each other and with our new local friends (Catalans, Spaniards, those from mixed parents and Latin-Americans) we usually spoke Spanish.

Actual result:

Spanish: Only one course in Spanish. Became confident due to immersion speaking it with other Erasmus students, hearing it on TV, songs

English: spoken a lot with other Erasmus students

German: my comfort of speaking advanced

Catalan: all courses in Catalan gave me a high comprehension level of academic language only (not of basics. Felt confident hearing it a lot hearing/seeing Catalan in bars, shops and everywhere around you on the streets or in media.

Internship Abroad (again… Barcelona)

My language expectations:

Spanish: More realistic after my exchange, but still planned to increase my vocab hugely, speak it fluently and with less mistakes

English: Maintain the same fluency from international studies

Catalan: More recognition hearing it a lot hearing/seeing Catalan around me

German: my internship company was German so I was hoping to enhance my speaking skills

Actually I was supposed to go to a German speaking country, with German being my other language, but apparently I convinced my study coordinator about my love for Barcelona. So the year after I returned, for a marketing internship, actually at a website offering language courses abroad. At that time I just thought that was a fun product, not realizing I’d work in the area of language acquisition much more afterwards.

Like the exchange period in the same city the year before, I mingled mostly with international students, mostly speaking English and Spanish. Two of my German colleagues became good friends and flatmates, so I did hear and speak that language more, especially when their German friends visited.

Actual results

The most natural common tongue is always determined automatically within seconds. The chosen language is hardly a topic but is just something that occurs. Being with my German friend alone we spoke English, local Catalan friends spoke Spanish with us and with German friends visiting everybody spoke German.

Spanish: I hardly spoke Spanish at my internship company. I did become even more confident due to immersion speaking it with other interns, hearing it on TV, songs

English: spoken a lot with other interns, colleagues and friends

German: more comfortable speaking it

Catalan: More recognition hearing it a lot hearing/seeing Catalan around me

Working remotely from Spain and Italy

My language expectations:

Spanish: improve vocabulary and speed during more difficult conversations

Catalan, Italian: start building comfort actually speaking for the first time

We also have several experiences living abroad and work remotely. Again, we did this in vivid coastal cities like Málaga and Valencia, but also in smaller remote towns in the Italian region of Apulia. We got ourselves a gym subscription which really contributed to a routine and experience of living there as a local. It did create a lot of (language) opportunities and was just a lot of fun. But when it comes to language practice, I must say it really depends on your own actions. Initially I thought of taking a Valencian-Catalan course in Valencia, but ended up focusing on a writing project. As much as I loved our 2.5 months stay, I had spoken no Valencian at all and hardly improved my Spanish.

I did have my first conversation in Italian from Italy then. But this was on the phone for work with language students.

Actual results:

Spanish: vocabulary and speed stayed the same.

Catalan, Italian: familiarity hearing it and confidence speaking it for the first time did grow

Van life – staying in Spain and Portugal

My language expectations:

Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese: surrounded by its speakers, I’d enhance my levels while having dinner and drinks with fellow travellers, interview locals and have chats in bars, restaurants and shops.

I have a Volkswagen van that I travel and sleep in with my boyfriend or, when he didn’t have the time to leave, by myself. We usually follow the Spanish costa’s and Portuguese coast stopping by lovely small towns and great cities like Málaga, Valencia and Barcelona, or cross country passing by Madrid, Granada or ‘the most 17th century town of Spain’, Ávila. Beforehand, I thought I’d really enhance my Spanish or finally give Catalan a serious chance, but traveling with my Dutch boyfriend meeting new people is limited and most chats stay at a basic level. After a few van trips, I expressed my desires to improve those languages many times to my boyfriend and he’d be totally fine with me leaving him alone for a few hours, but in reality it just didn’t happen. Why?

It was just great already to spend the day together and get to know a new place or simply relax. So the motivation was there somewhere deep inside, but another motivation (to have a great trip with my partner) was probably bigger then.

I did follow media in the languages we passed by more: I read a newspaper or Wikipedia article now and then, listened to a local radio station sometimes, started to read Dan Brown’s Origin in Spanish.

Although I usually greet our neighbours when we/they arrive/leave, the amount of times that I engaged in conversations that had a meaningful contribution to language learning are limited. When parking your van anywhere outside a camp site, it’s just nice to have your own life. In all these years we only stayed on a camping once, in our first week (as we were not sure about parking in public). The times I did have conversations in Spanish, Catalan, Italian or German they were usually between 1 and 10 minutes. Only at some surfer spots where there was more sense of a community feeling, it felt more common to have longer chats and more frequent ones.

Actual results:

Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese: no real improvement of speaking. More familiar with the sounds

Other European languages: Increased familiarity and speed of switching between Italian, German and above languages.

Work in international teams and travel abroad for jobs

I’ve always worked with colleagues, clients, language students and teachers from all over the world.

My language expectations:

Current languages like Spanish and German: enhance up to (higher) advanced level

New languages, s.a. Romanian, Portuguese, Slavic languages: start with basics and slowly move to more fluent conversations

Actual results:

Current and new languages: Hardly any progress noticeable. The common group language is English. As the native English speakers are outnumbered, we even copy each other’s mistakes.

Work as a flight attendant and travel the world

to push myself to speak current languages and learn new languages

The past years I only travelled within Europe, mostly in Spain. When a friend suggested me to become a flight attendant, I thought of all the new countries on other continents I could visit.

My language expectations and learning goals:

The trips would bring me experiences in completely new cultures and that way motivate me to learn very different (about) languages than the Germanic and Romance languages I had learned so far.

The next day I applied and once I got hired and decided to quit my other job, I kept on repeating to myself: I’m doing it to connect to passengers in their language while talking to them about food, drinks, their trip and lives and meet locals from multiple different cultures while exploring beautiful destinations.

Learning from previous(ly mentioned) experiences, I know that it depends on my actions on each moment, no matter where I am.

German, Spanish, Italian: maintain current level by speaking them frequently

Portuguese, Swedish, Chinese: start speaking them

SSS: Slavic languages, Sranantongo, Swahili, etc.: first: learn greetings and how-are-you’s. Later: serving and ordering food & drinks

Hindi, Korean, Japanese: learn the writing systems

Now I am actually a flight attendant! View my blog posts to see how I motivate myself to learn the language before trips, practice on destinations and read my findings about if work and life as a flight attendant helps to enhance your language level. But so far I can already conclude the following.

Actual results:

German, Spanish, Italian: maintaining current level by speaking them frequently

Portuguese: prepared the days before my flight by listening to news, songs, watched a movy and Netflix series. As a test, I decided to actually add it to my profile at work so colleauges can see I speak it and I started speaking it on board, which was both very exciting and a lot of fun!

Swedish: currently preparing in the same way for my first trip to Stockholm in a week. Unsure at this stage if it makes sense to add it to my profile for the crew.

Chinese: no Chinese encounters yet, which actually allows me to focus on the other languages for now!

Slavic languages: only greeted and thanked some Polish passengers in their languages (often mixed up with other Slavic languages, it appeared). I asked some Czechs for the basics and tried to repeat it.

Sranantongo, Swahili: learned and forgot greetings and how-are-you’s. Prepared vocab material for serving and ordering food & drinks

Hindi: learned the alphabet mostly

Korean: I haven’t managed to learn Hangul yet, even though it’s supposed to be easy 🙂

Japanese: learned about particles, for a possible flight there next month

Conclusion: So which living abroad experience language is the best for language learning? Answer: it depends on the following factors.

Being in the country itself doesn’t necessarily mean that you will acquire and enhance your skills in the local language. How well you learn a language is determined by internal drivers and characteristics in your environment:

  • motivation
  • (dedicated) time
  • introduce a regularity / maintaining a structure
  • realized actions:
    • how often you speak the language.
  • exposure
  • surounding people: the spoken common (group) language(s)


Wait, didn’t I know this? Yes! But give it a deeper thought for a moment. What drives you the most internally? What do you base the bigger choices in life on, such as a certain job? Once you get to know your intrinsic motivation and personal dreams, it will be one step closer to determining your language goals.

(Dedicated) time

I knew this too! Yes! And maybe not. Learning Spanish is not guaranteed when you decide to live in Spain for half a year.. Or working for a German company doesn’t mean that I’ll enhance my German skills. Nor will my job as a flight attendant and travel the world mean that I’ll speak worldish, even if I’ll do it for 20 years.

Introduce a regularity / maintaining a structure

You can only reach higher levels in a language when your brain is in contact with the language at a frequent base. So some learners create schedules, others just let their feelings on that moment decide and engage in spontaneous language learning. I tried both. Structures have worked sometimes, failed many other times. Spontaneous moments worked for me, but are not always there regularly. This also depends on motivation, dedication and focussing skills.

Realized actions

This makes sense, right? It does! But every time I sell myself the same dream: If I travel, study, work and live in a country, I will easily learn the language in no-time. That statement per se can be an illusion! It takes more than that: continuous effort. And it might take less than that: it doesn’t have to be in another country, as long as the other factors apply. I just have to learn from my (above) experiences: whichever plan to learn a language I make, it will always be more difficult in reality. Cause the desired situations don’t occur. Often because you don’t go out and look for them and favor the more comfortable current situation. challenge yourself to


Learning a language has to do with familiarizing yourself with the sounds from different speaker types, even dialects, with the words and sentence structure. It’s hugely determined by the amount you hear and read something in your target language. So to enhance your passive skills: listen to podcasts, audio books, radio programs, music. Read newspapers, books, articles, whatever interests you.

Surrounding people and common (group) language(s)

As the spoken common (group) language(s) is the most naturally spoken tongue of all members, your chances of speaking your target language obviously depends on the people you surround yourself with, wherever that may be. So the people you speak most may be your colleagues, partner, friends, family, neighbors or whatever. Possibly you don’t want to give up meaningful relationships for your new love, Italian, or whatever language. But while writing this, my boyfriend asked me if I wanted to watch a movie tonight, so I’m thinking of one that’s not in English or Dutch. (Most Dutch movies are not the best anyway, so I’d only recommend watching them in order to learn Dutch).

And if one of your existing colleagues, relatives, friends or neighbours speaks your target language, can you get yourself to the level of speaking it with that person?

Also, use the other tools that I will suggest and provide on this website to immerse yourself with the language. My point is that you can create your own learning environment