As travel ground to a halt in 2020, travelers had to get creative to satiate their desire for escapism. While some chugged German beer online, others tore through mystery novels set in far-flung locales, and Zoom backgrounds of idyllic beaches became the norm.
But one of the more inspired ways people fueled their travel urges was through languages.
Free language app Duolingo welcomed 30 million new users in March and April 2020 alone, a 67 percent growth compared to the same period in 2019. At the same time, Rosetta Stone said attendance at its virtual tutoring sessions was up by a whopping 635 percent last year.
As a multi-linguist versed in French, Spanish, and German, I have experienced the many benefits of learning languages.
Not only is learning a language a great hobby to keep your brain active, it can directly influence the way you travel. Suddenly, those No Entry road signs make sense. You can read the specials board at a restaurant. You can chat to local kids who want to pet your dog. You can flick through local magazines. And on a larger scale, languages can open up opportunities for working and living abroad.
A recent British Council survey echoed these sentiments with 73 percent of respondents saying learning a foreign language makes international travel easier, and 70 percent said it increases understanding of different cultures. In essence, learning a language can help you get away from the well-trodden tourist path.
So much like the way The Lord of the Rings drove a 50 percent growth in arrivals to New Zealand since the first movie was released, the 2020 spike in language learning will likely have an impact on our future travel plans.
“I think in 2021 people will be excited to get out and use their languages in new ways, including in the countries that speak the language,” said Dr. Cindy Blanco, Duolingo’s senior learning scientist.
“I’m especially curious about travel to Japan and Korea: Japanese and Korean grew in popularity worldwide in 2020, and so many learners also spent the pandemic getting to know these cultures through media and music, that I expect people will want to take that next step and try out their new language skills on the ground,” she added.
Even though travel has not yet returned to normal, the vaccine rollout can help us look forward to a future where we can put those newly acquired language skills to the test.
While repeating phrases while sitting on your sofa is a great introduction to a language, it’s nowhere near as effective as immersing yourself in a country where your target language is spoken. So once borders begin to open again, here are some of the best language immersion programs around the world.
Immersive Japanese courses will recommence in May at NILS Language school in Fukuoka, Japan. You’ll join classroom-based learning in the morning, before participating in extra classes in the afternoon such as sushi making, cooking ramen, Japanese washi paper-craft classes, or attending a sumo tournament. Plus, the homestay program will provide a full Japanese immersion.
With Korean culture entering the Western mainstream through K-Pop and the Oscar-winning movie Parasite, it makes sense that Korean is the second fastest growing language being learned in the world, after Hindi.
For those wanting to travel to Korea to practice their new language skills, courses such as Lexis Korea’s intensive course and homestay program ensure you’ll be totally immersed in the language and the culture.
Spanish has risen to the second most popular language on Duolingo “likely due to the movement of people between Latin America and other parts of the world for tourism, immigration, and education,” reported Duolingo.
Diverbo offers week-long camps in Spain where adults can immerse themselves in Spanish, the most studied language on Duolingo in the United States, while Fluenz’s luxurious retreats in Mexico offer week-long language camps inclusive of delicious food, yoga classes, and nights out.
French is the third most popular language being learned, and is a hard accent to pick up, which is why an immersive experience in a 16th-century French chateau is a great option for adults, couples, and families.
An immersive experience at the Edulingua Italian laboratory in Italy will be appealing to students who “don’t want to live like tourists: they want to change their lifestyle for the duration of the course and live like Italians,” said Giorgio Massei, director of Edulingua.
Immersion at home
If you don’t think you’ll be able to travel in 2021, there are ways to immerse yourself in a language even without having to board a plane. Switching your phone language, watching foreign films, finding an international radio station, and looking up recipes can all help. Plus, thanks to new technologies, finding a native speaker to chat with is now easier than ever.
The Tinder-esque Tandem app allows you to swipe through language exchange partners to find someone who speaks your new language, while you can help them practice English. Find people who share common interests, or who can share local insights and customs from your dream destination. You can chat, call, and send voice notes as often as you like, and it’s completely free.
Finding a native speaking tutor is another great way to improve your linguistic skills. Find language tutors on virtual platforms such as Preply, Chatterbug, and iTalki and recreate the magic of travel by meeting people from around the world. Without the structure of a lesson or curriculum, you have the freedom to simply choose a time that suits you and start chatting about whatever takes your fancy.
In Minnesota, US, Concordia has designed culturally authentic villas representing the architectural styles of Germany, Russia, Spain, Finland, and France, for a truly immersive language experience. A week-long stay includes language study, as well as culturally-specific games, sports, arts and crafts, music, and cooking to help you progress rapidly while having plenty of fun.
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