Living in a foreign country is not a certain route to fluency in the language. Many expatriates spend years overseas surrounded by a foreign language and yet never advance beyond a very basic level. There are several reasons for this, but here are some of the most common that I have encountered.
- Language study is seen as a distraction from their job, rather than part of it. Having achieved a moderate level of communication, they consider that the time spent continuing language study as a waste of energy and abandon both lessons and private study. Sometimes this is because of lack of motivation, sometimes because of time pressure, but in both cases it is a question of priority.
- Formal language lessons are quickly abandoned because they are time-consuming, expensive and unnecessary. If you are disciplined and motivated and surrounded by the language it is easy to think that there is no need to keep having lessons, and if you really are disciplined and motivated and do keep studying by yourself, then you will continue to progress. Unfortunately, what normally happens is that you are too tired, too busy, and too distracted to spend that time, so without the regular commitment to meeting with a teacher your language starts to stagnate.
- Local employees have some English and want to improve it. This is another reason for continuing to meet with a language teacher regularly, because you will be making progress in their language and can therefore help them by using English without neglecting your improvement in their language. There are two sides to this: a. The better your grasp of their language, the more help you can give them in understanding shades of meaning in English; and b. Sooner or later you will be in a situation where the local language is being used, and you do not want people to have to translate everything for you if you have already been in the country for several months or years.
- You are not planning to stay very long and it doesn't seem worth the effort. This is really quite an arrogant attitude, even if you are only there for a short time. Even a slight understanding of the local language gains a lot of goodwill, and a deeper understanding of it gives you an insight into local culture, and widens the number of colleagues with whom you can communicate. If you can only speak with people who know English, everything you hear will be filtered through the few people who speak English and you will effectively be cut off from the opinions and inputs of others. Even when information is translated for you, you will lose important details, especially if they are things with which your translator disagrees. You do not know for certain how long you will be there, or when you will come back so the effort will not be wasted.
- There is a large expatriate community and you don't need to speak the local language very much. It is quite natural to gather with others who speak your language, and who understand your struggles, but it does remove a big impetus to learn the local language if all your social needs can be met in English. Unless you make a conscious effort this is what you will end up doing, especially if the local culture does not welcome foreigners. Once again, you need to think about what you are doing and make a conscious effort to learn the local language and to reach out to people so that you can use it.
It really boils down to the question of how important you really think it is to be fluent in the language, and that will be influenced to a large degree by how committed you are to understanding and communicating with people, and whether you want to add to your own skills.