The Key to Cultural Immersion– Learn the Language!

By Isabel Eva Bohrer

When you travel, you don’t need an app, guidebook, or gadget to show you where to find authentic, local experiences. In the quest for cultural immersion, a critical factor– if not the most important factor– is language.

I’m a big believer in learning the local language. At the tender age of ten days, I crossed my first international borders, from Switzerland to Germany by way of Austria. Ever since, I have enjoyed immersing myself in foreign cultures, and through my journeys, have been perfecting my fluency in six different languages.

By learning the local language, I’ve been able to transcend the label of just another tourist. If you show an interest in communicating with locals, they’re more inclined to take you seriously. It even opens doors. In Argentine Patagonia, I found myself making home-made alfajores with an Argentinean family one afternoon, simply because we had started talking in Spanish during El Bolsón’s artisan fair. Similarly, in Paris, I made friends with a Moroccan who taught me how to play his traditional instrument– again, because we had started speaking in French.

Consider making language learning the cornerstone of your travels by enrolling in local language classes abroad. Here’s how to get started.

How To Choose the Right Language School

Before even looking at language schools, think about your personal goals. For example, do you want to achieve complete fluency? Or do you see language learning more as a leisurely pursuit while you travel?

Once you’ve set your objectives, consider the following factors to evaluate which program is right for you:

  • Program intensity: Half-day, full-day?
  • Program length: Days, weeks, months?
  • Language level: Are classes offered at all levels? Will there be a placement test?
  • Participants: Classes are often a mix of age groups. Ask for the breakdown if you want to meet and study with people your own age.
  • Group vs. private classes: Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each– which will work better for you to achieve your goals?
  • Extra-curricular activities: Does the language school offer activities, such as museum visits, tours, cooking classes, sports, etc.? Sitting in a class all day can be boring. Plus, there’s no better way to practice than out in the real world.
  • Housing: Will the school help you find housing? Living with locals is almost always beneficial in terms of achieving cultural immersion and language fluency. Consider home stays as another kind of learning opportunity.
  • Cost: What exactly do the fees cover? Is insurance included?
  • Post-trip services: How will you make sure you don’t forget what you have learned?

Resources For Finding a Language School

  • Transitions Abroad: The most comprehensive web portal on educational travel abroad. Full disclosure: I’m the Student Advisor columnist for Transitions Abroad, but I wholeheartedly believe in their mission.
  • CIEE: A non-profit, non-governmental international exchange organization offering programs both for U.S. students, faculty and administrators to go abroad. Those interested in coming to the U.S. for an exchange program or internship can also consult CIEE.
  • Abroad Languages: Language schools in Europe, America, and Asia.
  • Language Study (part of A leading international education and experiential travel resource.

Last but not least, you can try an online learning portals such as Livemocha, Rosetta Stone, and others. While it is always ideal to learn the language first-hand in a setting among locals abroad, online language portals can help to get you started before your trip.

Isabel Eva Bohrer is a freelance writer and photographer who has written pieces from over twenty countries across five different continents. Learn more about her work at

[Family Immersion Programs]

Photo: Ted Attard/My Shot


  1. Bruce Jones
    Chicago USA
    February 8, 2013, 10:37 am

    One of the best ways to be able to learn the culture and the language is to live in a country for a year. The most popular way for Americans to afford to do this is to Teach English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) by obtaining a TEFL certification in a month. International TEFL Academy trains over 1,200 students a year and helps them to find work around the world.

  2. Ray Blakney
    December 6, 2012, 2:34 pm

    I tried italki, but I found that just speaking with a native speaker is not the same as speaking with a teacher who is a native speaker. You may also want to try classes with a teacher on a site like or That has worked best for me.

  3. David
    November 2, 2011, 3:41 am
  4. Reid
    New York City
    November 1, 2011, 12:06 pm

    Great advice Isabel! I agree with you: when traveling, it’s always more fulfilling to understand the local language. I feel awkward when abroad in a place where I haven’t learned enough to communicate freely.

    Another possibility is studying in an immersion program located in the US. I’ve learned more at these programs than at programs abroad because of the discipline that these schools attract. Here’s one for young learners:

    And a related program for adults:

  5. Pam Davis
    Raleigh, NC
    October 31, 2011, 12:22 pm

    Great article! Thanks for the helpful links to find so many study abroad opportunities.
    Language learners may also benefit from the article:

    costa brava
    October 28, 2011, 7:56 am

    Fantastic guide for choose the perfect school language.


  7. Petulia
    Rome, London, PAris
    October 28, 2011, 5:03 am

    Learning a language is the perfect way into a culture. Whenever possible, I think that private lessons, or on site language workshops are ideal. Readers traveling to Rome, may be interested in a Language workshop