So you speak a foreign language - awesome! But what - or where - next? When choosing a long-term travel destination, immersing yourself in a new culture and language is one of the best ways to make your experience more meaningful. Improving your language skills can be a lot of work but is enjoyable and worthwhile too!
If the images from your foreign language text books stop satiating your thirst for adventure and you're ready to take your foreign language skills to the next level by studying abroad, there are a few things you should consider before you make your decision:
1. Where is the language spoken?
Okay, so this might seem like a no-brainer, but don't skip ahead just yet! We all know France is a great place to study French, but have you also considered the 28 other countries in the world that count French as (one of) their official languages? If you speak Swahili, you might automatically think of Kenya, but don't rule out Tanzania or Uganda. Likewise, while Portugal and Brazil are the most popular study abroad destinations for Portuguese students, you can also have an off-the-beaten track experience in one of six African nations that also claim Portuguese as their official language. Think outside of the box and find the best fit for you, whether it's Madrid or Guatemala City.
2. How different is the dialect where you want to study?
Some dialectal differences amount to little more than the difference between British English and American English, while other, more pronounced differences could pose a greater challenge. If you've been studying Spanish under a Latin American teacher, but are studying abroad in Spain, be sure to brush up on your "vosotros" forms and practice your lisp. And if you've been studying Egyptian Arabic, you might find the learning curve a little steeper in Morocco. Do your research and make sure you know how to prepare for dialectal differences.
3. Is English widely spoken where you want to study?
If you're choosing a study abroad destination with the aim of practicing a foreign language, don't forget to consider the prevalence of your mothertongue - the more widely spoken it is, the more temptations there will be to revert back to it in a pinch. If you want the security blanket, consider a more international city, but if your goal is language immersion, a city like Kanazawa, Japan might be a better bet than international Tokyo.
4. How many languages do you want to speak?
If you speak two or more foreign languages (or you speak one and want to learn another while abroad), look for a study abroad opportunity in a country where both are spoken - like French and German in Geneva - or where foreign languages are spoken in neighboring countries - it's only four hours from super-collegiate Salamanca, Spain, to Porto, Portugal.
5. Don't be afraid to go off the beaten path
Once you've narrowed your destination list down to a few countries, consider searching for programs in smaller cities or towns. Studying in rural Kunming, China, instead of pulsing Beijing will likely give you a way more immersive experience. English is more likely to be spoken in more urban, touristy areas, so the farther you go off the beaten path, the more likely you are to get some serious practice in the local language. Be sure to consider whether an urban or rural location will better meet your study abroad goals.
6. Pick your Program Wisely
Research the language of instruction for different programs, and consider who your classmates will be - local students, or students you already know from home. Many university-led study groups are conducted entirely in English, and when you already know 20 other people from back home, you're less likely to branch out, make local friends, and become truly immersed in the local language. Enrolling directly with a foreign university is an obvious choice for total immersion, but if you want the support of an international program, look for one that provides language immersion - you'll be more likely to find like-minded linguaphiles there than with your home university's Greek History department.
7. Where - and with whom - will you live?
Now that you've considered the language of instruction, be sure to weigh different housing options. Living in a dorm with other students from your university or country can start to feel like you're living in a bubble, even if your classes are in the local language. Step out of your comfort zone and consider a homestay - you'll learn more of the local language, especially words and phrases that might not come up in class or with your local friends. If a homestay sounds too daunting or isn't supported by your program, see if you can at least room in a dorm with local students.
8. Be Strategic with your Coursework
Unless you choose a university-led program with a set curriculum, be ready to choose your coursework abroad. You're obviously a rock star for wanting to study abroad in a foreign language, but don't be a hero - writing your philosophy thesis or taking a neuroscience lab in a foreign language might be a little too much of a challenge. Plan ahead and try to check off as many of your university's requirements before your semester abroad, so that you have the flexibility to take some electives, like a course in local history, culture, or literature.
9. Don't be Afraid to Think Outside the Box
"Study Abroad" doesn't have to involve sitting at a desk inside a centuries-old building. Many universities grant credit for intensive volunteer or intern experiences abroad, so stop by your study abroad office and consider your options. Volunteer abroad experiences are typically more immersive than the traditional university-based experience; volunteering will likely bring you into contact with more local people who speak the local language, and interning provides you with practical language application. What's more, these experiential or service-learning programs can help you find a purpose for your language skills outside of the world of academia.
10. Go With Your Gut
Studying abroad is a huge decision that merits serious thought and research, but at the end of the day, only you will know which program is the best fit for you. Think about your comfort zone and the degree of challenge you're looking for, and don't settle for the easy route just because your friends are. Likewise, though, know your limits - if the thought of homestays brings you to the verge of a panic attack, there's no shame staying in a dorm, because you can always join a local meet-up group or club sport to get a greater dose of language immersion. And remember, the hard part - learning a foreign language - is already over, so make an appointment with you study abroad office, dig out your passport, and go study abroad!
Whether you're about to study abroad for a semester or take a gap year, use these tips to make the most of your experience with a foreign language.