THE BLOG
04/25/2014 02:00 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2014

Can You Learn a Language While Living In Another Country?

The topic of this week's post was inspired by a question a friend of mine posed to me. After reading my blog, she asked how easy it is to learn a language while living in a country where that language isn't spoken. She noted that while learning French, I have had both the time and the obvious advantage of living in France. Both of those are true, and don't get me wrong: living in a country in which the language you're trying to learn is far easier than living elsewhere. It is not, however, an impossible feat to accomplish.

You can find various posts -- like this one, or this one -- by people who have dedicated for more time to this question than I have and can speak far more languages than I can. I won't attempt to rehash their advice; rather, I'll share my experience of learning Turkish in Washington D.C. with you.

Why did I decide to learn Turkish? The ostensible reason was because I had planned a trip to Turkey last February, but I had been to Turkey before and made my way around just fine without knowing any Turkish. Remember, as I stated in my first post, I'm a huge nerd who loves to learn languages in his spare time. I decided, then, to give it a try and see where how far I could go with it. The problem was, not only was I living in the U.S., I was working full time.

I first bought a phrasebook and a small book on Turkish grammar. I then went on Craigslist and found someone who was willing to speak Turkish with me and teach me a few phrases. He, in turn, gave me a Turkish movie -- Aşk Tesadüfleri Sever -- and some Turkish pop music. Those were the extent of the resources I used.

Since I was working full-time -- not to mention that my efforts to learn Turkish coincided with the "fiscal cliff" crisis that Congress was trying to sort out, so we were a bit busy -- I had to find clever ways to work Turkish into my schedule. Given how busy I was, I essentially had to cut out all pleasure reading, TV shows, movies, etc for the duration of my three month language mission. For me, that was not such a problem. I don't usually watch TV ever -- I didn't even own one while living in DC -- and I substituted what movies I would usually watch with the Turkish movie I had. Granted, watching a movie for educational purposes is much different from watching a movie for pleasure. I spent hours upon hours pausing, taking notes, looking up words, and repeating phrases before rinsing and repeating. Then, when that was all said and done, I watched the movie again -- and then again.

I also began incorporating Turkish into my workout routine -- yes, my workout routine. I would run through Turkish vocabulary on my phone using a flashcard app called Flashcards Deluxe while using the elliptical machine. When I ran, or when I was too lazy to run through flashcards, I would listen to Turkish music (which can be surprisingly great for working out).

I even started squeezing some Turkish in during downtime at work. Whenever I had to take the subway from the Capitol to one of the Senate office buildings -- the ride lasts probably about a minute and a half to two minutes at most -- I would pace through my flashcards. I added the Turkish language account of Hürriyet Daily News to my Twitter feed and would surruptitiously translate tweets and articles when I had a spare minute.

Finally -- and this is always the first step I take when learning a new language -- I began to live my digital life in Turkish. I changed the language preferences on my gmail account, my Facebook account, my Twitter account, and my phone so that all were in Turkish. I'm continually amazed by how much you can learn by making such a tiny change. Passive learning is a wonderful tool that quite literally takes almost no effort -- harness it.

So what was the cumulative result of all my efforts? Did I set foot in Turkey last Febraury speaking fluent, flawless Turkish? No. Not even close. I was probably at a low B1 level -- that's not fluent, but that's not bad either considering that I spent three months learning Turkish while working full time. I was able to have conversations that were much more interesting than, "Where's the Hagia Sofia?" or "Good morning." I met far more people on my trip than I would have had I never tried to learn Turkish. Perhaps my favorite moment came when I was able to talk with my seat mate -- an elderly Turkish woman -- on my flight from Istanbul to Izmir. She spoke no absolutely no English whatsoever, but I was able to talk with her about her family and what was what like to grow up in Turkey. Cool, huh?

Look, frankly, the question of whether its possible to learn a language while living in another country isn't a very interesting one -- yes, of course it's possible. Your ability to realize that goal, however, is entirely a function of your own motivation. Have you tried seeking out a native speaker who lives near you? If you can't find a native speaker, have you tried searching for someone to speak with online? Sites like iTalki have tons of tutors who speak tons of different languages who you can connect with in an instant. On your commute to work or school, do you listen to something in your target language? Have you tried watching a movie or TV show in your target language?

The big secret here, of course, is that I'm not suggesting anything terribly radical. By making a few small tweaks to your routine here and there, you could make a lot more progress than you think. This isn't something that applies exclusively to language learning -- indeed, it applies to everything in our lives. I call this the "workout conundrum." When I started my first job, I joined the gym at work, but more often than not, I found myself having conversations with myself, like the following, as I left each day:

"Well, it's six forty-five now, and I have to meet up with so-and-so at eight, and it takes a half hour to get home, so by the time I got ready, I would only have time for a fifteen minute workout because I have to take a shower...tomorrow. I'll just go tomorrow."

The flaw in my logic should be obvious: a fifteen-minute workout is always better than a zero-minute workout. You can apply the same principal to language learning. Five minutes of studing vocabularly is always better than zero minutes of studying vocabulary. If this guy could read 366 books in 366 days while balancing a full work and family life, please do not tell me you simply "don't have time" to study a few flashcards or listen to a song.

This post first appeared on The Linguisticlast, a blog dedicated to language learning and all things language. You can follow The Linguisticlast on Twitter at @linguisticlast.