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Tips to Picking up a New Language Abroad

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immersion experiences in China while studying abroad
Immerse yourself in a new culture to learn the language

As a former student studying abroad in a country that speaks a different language than my mother tongue, I truly understand how difficult it can be to learn a new language. There are numerous distractions that keep you from learning a new language while traveling - overindulging in the local night life, spending the majority of your time with people who speak your own language, a general lack of caring.

A combination of poor choices (and lazy ones) can easily make your time abroad turn into one big holiday. It's frustrating how many students come back from studying abroad each year without an inkling of the local language (what a waste!).

Learning a country's language is a fool-proof way to get a true taste of that country's culture, as it encourages you to fully integrate with the locals and try new things.

I made a lot of friends during my time in Spain and picked up some valuable information about learning the language from a foreign student's perspective. The lessons I learned can be applied to learning any language. Here are a list of "dos and don'ts" when learning a language while abroad.

Things to Help Learn a Language Abroad
    Homestay in Africa for study abroad
    Live with a local family to learn the language
  • Music: Without even realizing it, people improve their ear for the English language by listening to their favorite artists. Every song helps to improve one's vocabulary and listening qualities. Find music in the local language to listen to via a friend or local radio. Just playing music in the background while you do other things will help you pick up on the local accent and even some vocabulary.
  • The Internet: The Internet is full of resources that can help you improve your English proficiency and vocabulary. Read articles on news websites in the local language. Bookmark a (language in question) dictionary website. Participate in speaking forums. Communicate via social networking sites.
  • Isolation: On weekends and time off of your program, it's a good idea to visit places where nobody speaks your language. This will force you to communicate solely in the native tongue and really experience the culture.
  • Watch TV: It's an excellent way to familiarize yourself with a language while relaxing. Different programs offer different opportunities to improve your level of English:
    • Beginners: Watch subtitled movies, it's a good way to enjoy learning English and get a feel for the language. I would advise you to use subtitles at the beginning and as your level improves pay less attention, and finally remove the subtitles. It's a good gauge to determine your level of that language.
    • Intermediates: Watching sports is a good way to progress while enjoying your favorite game.
    • Advanced: Watch soaps and sitcoms. This is a great opportunity to improve your understanding of different accents, slang words, and pick up sayings.
  • Be Proactive: Speaking regularly is the only way to improve your English. Being proactive and conscious of your language ensures improvement. It's also a great way to make new friends! Making friends with native speakers will make the difference between someone who gets by speaking and excels at the language:
    • Join sports teams, a conversation club, or other groups that will get you to interact with locals.
    • Chat with your house mates or host family regularly.
    • Go to the pub, markets, and shopping centers regularly to interact with the locals.
Things to AVOID when Learning a Language Abroad
    Thailand road signs
    Spend time outside instead of studying
  • Over studying: One of the biggest mistakes is people stress too much on the minor things such as punctuation, grammar and spelling. Yes it's important to learn the basics but some people get over reliant on "perfect".
  • Don't limit learning to the classroom: You will learn far quicker by getting out and about instead of keeping your head in the books. Spend time in local markets and the downtown area to listen to and read the language all around you. Take advantage of the chance for total immersion!
  • Don't focus on quantity, focus on quality: The resources out there for learning languages are endless. Before a trip, you are sure to be bombarded with information and tips about good resources to use. Make sure you invest in quality resources you are actually going to use. It helps to be selective of who and what you listen to. Knowing what works for you and sticking with those quality resources will be the difference from learning a language in 6 months instead of 2 years.
  • Don't let your smart phone make you lazy: One of the worst inventions when it comes to learning any language is the smart phone:
    • The language settings are prefixed so you are constantly using your native tongue when texting and contacting others via whatsapp or viber.
    • Calling your family and friends is obviously not a bad thing but the power of the smart phone has made it far too easy to do so. People tend to do it more and more, this only hinders people as they are constantly switching languages constantly.
    • However, there are some benefits to having a smart phone while traveling - just make sure you use it in the most effective way for language learning!

There is no guarantee for learning a language abroad. The best advice you can get is to practice and immerse yourself. Do you have any tips to add? Share them in the comments below.

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