Is it ideal to learn Japanese in Japan and Mandarin in China or Taiwan? Yes. Is it a mandatory condition? Absolutely not. Let me be clear: living in Japan and Taiwan for a number of years was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I go back to visit as often as possible. But while living in a Japanese or Mandarin speaking country can certainly provide learners of these languages many advantages, it’s critical to understand that it’s not a requirement for success. In today’s world, “I can’t learn Japanese because I live in rural Kansas” is an excuse, not a reality. With Internet access, a little creativity, and a lot of hard work, you really can learn any language, anywhere. As Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months puts it:
“…where you are isn’t what decides whether or not you’ll be successful. Attitude beats latitude (and longitude) every time. It’s more about creating an immersion environment, exposing yourself to native speakers, and doing everything you can in that language.”
Acquisition Depends on Active Learning, Not Osmosis
On the flip side, living abroad is no guarantee that you will pick up the language. While immersion is essential, language acquisition depends on active learning, not passive osmosis. Consider the ridiculously high number of Western expats who spend years in Japan, China, or Taiwan and never reach even a moderate level of fluency in Japanese or Mandarin. Or take the case of English speakers learning French in New Brunswick, Canada: despite being surrounded by French both in and outside of the classroom for 12 years, a government report showed that only 0.68 percent reached even an intermediate level in the language! No, my friends, exposure is not enough. You have to be hungry to learn and do everything you can to actively assimilate the language.
You Can Always Find Native Speakers to Practice With
There is no shortage of language learning communities, exchange sites, and tutoring services online today, with more and more popping up every year. And with the advent of free VOIP (voice over IP) services like Skype, you can talk with native speakers right from your computer or smartphone no matter where you live. If you prefer speaking face to face, find a local language and culture group on Meetup.com, or if you live near a university, see about volunteering to help tutor exchange students.
You Can Practice Listening & Speaking On Your Own
It certainly helps to speak with native speakers, and I suggest doing so as much as you can. But in cases where you don’t have anyone to talk with, you can always get more listening input via podcasts, videos, etc., and then practice using what you’ve learned by recording an audio journal, talking to your smartphone as if you’re on a call, or just saying in your head what you would say in various scenarios you are likely to encounter.
Detailed Tips on Developing an Immersion Environment
For heaps of resource recommendations and how-to tips for creating an immersion environment no matter where you live, check out my step-by-step language guides.