How proficient can you become without living abroad?
Thread poster: hfp

United States
Local time: 09:33
Spanish to English
+ ...
May 24, 2009

Hey, everyone. This is something that has been on my mind for a while. It seems like most interpreters that I read about have usually spent a significant amount of time in a country in which their foreign language is the official language. For example, an American who grows up in the US speaking English, but then goes to Mexico for 15 years and returns to the US speaking Spanish well enough to interpret professionally between English and Spanish. I understand that there are probably some people like this, but what about the people who don't go abroad?

For instance, I have a friend who has always spoken Cantonese with his family, but he has lived most of his life in the United States, and never attended Chinese classes or anything like that. He says he can speak Cantonese fluently, but he cannot read and write in Chinese. I know everyone is different and we all have different goals, but what do you all think about the possibility of someone becoming proficient enough in 2 languages (the official or dominant language of their country) and a foreign one (Chinese, or any language) to interpret and translate professionally in them, without ever going to China, Taiwan, or any country in which the foreign language is commonly spoken?

I started to think about this after I spoke to one person here in Chile who talked to me in very clear English, and he said he had never left Chile. He did have an accent, but it didn't present any problem whatsoever.

So what do you say? Have you met any Arabic-English interpreters and translators who have never been to an Arabic-speaking country?icon_smile.gif This is just one example.

I know these people must exist and I admire them. Not everyone can get up and move to Riyadh when they feel like it.

Thanks for your time.

[Edited at 2009-05-24 21:45 GMT]


Javier Wasserzug  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 04:33
English to Spanish
+ ...
INTERESTING May 25, 2009

A very interesting topic, indeed.

Kudoz is full of questions from translators who live in non-English speaking countries. The questions are tagged as “medical” o any other category but is an everyday expression or idiom. They ask, “because it doesn’t make sense” when, for anyone who speaks English everyday, it does perfectly well.
Since these translators ask about such simple expression in English, it makes me think, how much English do they understand? How much of the whole message they really get?

I have met a number of medical interpreters whose Spanish is not their first language. Some of them speak very well. However, they grew up in the US, went to school in English and only did occasional trips to Mexico now and then. In conversations, I can tell they translate all the time from the English form and it is a very natural thing to do. Sometimes, the way they construct a sentence does not quite make sense. Other Spanish interpreters (native Spanish speakers) know exactly where that awkward sentence is coming from in English. But I wonder, do the clients also understand what they mean? I once heard a medical interpreter in a waiting room asking questions from a health intake form, “¿tiene murmuración?” (From “do you have a murmur?”)

[Edited at 2009-05-25 22:51 GMT]


FarkasAndras  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:33
English to Hungarian
+ ...
very May 26, 2009

You can get very good at a language without ever setting foot in the country. Modern media, including the Internet, makes a wonderful language learning tool.

This way, you will probably end up knowing little about everyday life and the related colloquial expressions, but that's usually not what you need for work, unless you are accompanying your client in the target country as an interpreter who also has to serve as a guide of sorts.

Like the age-old native vs non-native argument, this is also simple at its core. You learn what you are exposed to... I know little about what brand of bathroom cleaner most Brits use or what the phone number of the tax authority is, or what soap opera people watched over there in the 80s because I only ever spent a total of one month in the UK.
OTOH I probably know more about the English terminology of literature, linguistics, business, law, the EU or sport than the average native speaker, or the average person who lived there for three years, because these are my areas of work and interest.


conejo  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 06:33
Member (2003)
Japanese to English
+ ...
Most of the time you need to live overseas Jun 4, 2009

I think most of the time, to master a language, you have to spend a significant amount of time in the country. There may be some exceptions, but in those 'exception' cases, the person needs to have had a large amount of conversation time and exposure to the second language in his/her own country.

It also depends on how closely related the person's native language and second language are. For example, with my language pair, Japanese to English, I absolutely believe that unless someone who studies Japanese goes over there for at least 6 months, he/she will never truly master the language. This is because there are so many things in Japanese that don't exist in English. Words, concepts, you name it. You can study them in a book, but you will never understand how to properly use them, or why they are used, unless you go there and spend time there, immersed in the language.

[Edited at 2009-06-04 02:14 GMT]


To report site rules violations or get help, contact a site moderator:

You can also contact site staff by submitting a support request »

How proficient can you become without living abroad?

Advanced search

WordFinder Unlimited
For clarity and excellence

WordFinder is the leading dictionary service that gives you the words you want anywhere, anytime. Access 260+ dictionaries from the world's leading dictionary publishers in virtually any device. Find the right word anywhere, anytime - online or offline.

More info »
PerfectIt consistency checker
Faster Checking, Greater Accuracy

PerfectIt helps deliver error-free documents. It improves consistency, ensures quality and helps to enforce style guides. It’s a powerful tool for pro users, and comes with the assurance of a 30-day money back guarantee.

More info »

  • All of
  • Term search
  • Jobs
  • Forums
  • Multiple search