Is travel still essential to language learning?

A quick Google search will tell you that there are numerous opinions on how best to learn languages. Some language learners swear by a particular method, while others highlight the importance of tailoring study techniques to suit each individual. 
There is also an ever-widening range of products designed to facilitate language learning, each claiming to be more effective and less time-consuming than the last. “Learn Chinese in 1 week”, “Become fluent in Russian in only four hours”. The list goes on.
My experience of living in Spain this summer, however, has taught me that the simple and traditional methods should not be overlooked, and that there are many benefits to old-fashioned language immersion.
Language acquisition through travelling can be both hugely enjoyable and enlightening, and is a fantastic learning tool in our multicultural and multilingual world. 
The first thing worth saying about travelling to learn a language is that it need not be expensive, and in fact may be more economical than many other learning methods. Travel itself has become relatively cheap in recent years, and there are plenty of ways to keep expenses low while abroad. 
Teaching English, working as a camp instructor or couch-surfing are all viable options that can help you to cover your costs and even make money while learning a language in a foreign country. 
I’ve been working as an au pair in Spain for the last six weeks, which has given me access to full-board with a host family during my stay, and even enabled me to cover the cost of my flights.
I´ve no doubt that the trip has proved a very cost-effective way of learning Spanish, especially when I consider the price of textbooks, or that hour-long lesson in Dublin that might set me back 35 euro.
Learning languages by travelling is not only a cheap method, however, but is also a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
It allows you to actually use the language you are learning, rather than merely study it. Many people’s idea of learning a language involves conjugating irregular verbs, writing letters to imaginary pen-pals or sitting the dreaded Leaving Cert orals, while travelling offers an experience that could hardly be more different. 
In the past few weeks I have bought ice-cream, ordered pizza and given directions in Spanish, each time improving my speaking skills in new situations and each time interacting with real people. I have made friends and had arguments, all while improving my competence in the Spanish language.
It is important to realise that the process of learning a language need not be the painful effort we often make it, and that, when combined with travel, it can in fact be a memorable and life-changing endeavour. 
While I hope you have been convinced by now that travel can make the language learning process both economical and enjoyable, one question does still need to be answered – does it work? 
Travelling may be cheap and it may provide great opportunities to experience new things, but if it doesn’t actually improve your fluency it’s not worth considering as a method. 
Thankfully, if my own immersion in the Spanish language and culture is anything to go by, it is an extremely effective tool in the language learning process.
I´ve found that it is virtually impossible not to learn when surrounded by a foreign language, and that my Spanish has improved greatly without any effort on my part. Immersion enables you to pick up words and phrases through context and interaction, making what you learn much easier to remember.
It also improves various aspects of fluency (including reading skills, aural comprehension and speaking) simultaneously, and therefore provides a comprehensive grounding in the language. 
It’s clear that travel is one of the best tools available to people who want to learn languages. The immersion experience it provides is enlightening and enjoyable, and offers lessons, challenges and memories to anyone willing to embrace it.
So for those CAO applicants still mulling over whether or not to accept a language based course, know that studying languages at Third Level opens up a world of possibilities – the most exciting of which is undoubtedly the opportunity to travel, with Erasmus and exchange programmes readily available in most Third Level institutions. 
Language courses are among the most rewarding – just think lazy summers in the Mediterranean or a year of study spent in the sunshine – so for those willing to work hard and reap the rewards, a language course really is the right choice for you. 
Photo: Ventura Carmona/ Flickr