Language Study Abroad - How to Make the Most of It
Take it from me, a language study junky, that stopping off in the midst of traveling to study a foreign language can be the best decision you make. It will be cost-effective, culturally insightful, and a much quicker way to learn a new language, but only if you attack it wisely. I've partaken in more than my fair share of language study abroad, which is why I've decided to divulge a little of what I've learned to help you make the most of your own experience.
Don't expect it to just happen
Just because you are living in a foreign country does not mean you will magically pick up a new language overnight. You will only experience disappointment when your time has ended and no real progress has been made. You must be pro-active and seek out opportunities to practice the local language whenever possible. This means talking to taxi drivers, food vendors, neighbors, whoever. As long as you're talking, you're learning.
What was my problem?
I have been guilty of not following tip #1. When I was in university I studied a semester in Italy only to return with minor gains in language use. I thought it would just happen by being there, but the truth is that I cared more about getting the right credits to finish school on time, than I did about my language acquisition. This led to me choose a program where the majority of my time was spent with other Americans speaking English, which did absolutely nothing for my Italian
With focus and determination, I was later able to learn more Spanish in my one month of study in Guatemala, than my entire semester attempting to learn Italian.
The mindset and the method. I realized as with all things in life, I had to put in effort to see improvement. Soon I became a language learning master!
Tip #1: Go off the tourist path
Language Learning Tips
I've noticed that most travelers interested in language study abroad are only interested in popular location. It might not sound like a bad idea to be in a beautiful place while studying, but it can pose obstacles. For example, locals are more likely to know English and use it when conversing with you, which takes away from the immersion factor.
I suggest finding a language school off the tourist path. When I moved from the infamous San Pedro, Guatemala to the harder-to-reach Quetzaltenango, I could see that I was forced to use Spanish while out and about. That, combined with fewer backpackers to distract me with their English-speaking ways, helped me to get more out of my time.
Tip #2: Stay with a host family
It can be awkward, stressful, and invasive, but living with a host family while studying a language abroad is priceless. Being able to take what you learned home to a real-life situation really enforces the language in your mind, helping it become a natural response instead of something you have to think about.
I spent time with host families in both Guatemala and Kyrgyzstan, and it definitely added another element to my travels. Not only did I get extra language practice, I also gained extra responsibilities that kept me from wasting away into the traveler abyss. Instead of spending all evening at the pub, for example, I now had an obligation to make it back early to family dinners. It simply helped me nail down a schedule more conducive to learning and studying.
Tip #3: Avoid English speakers
Like the plague. It may sound pretentious and anti-social, but reverting directly back to your native tongue after lessons can basically undo the hard work of the day. Of course, to what level you take this depends on your personal goals and ability to cope alone in difficult situations. I found it useful to befriend other students so that we could spend time together studying and watching language movies.
Tip #4: Talk, talk, and talk some more
How many lange students go through school and university feeling like they have a grasp on the language only to get wide-eyed and stutter when finally put in a real-life speaking situation? I'll raise my hand with you.
Reaching conversational level is very difficult, and rightfully so. You must remember to use proper grammar and vocabulary, translate thoughts into correct structures, and finally pronounce everything correctly. The solution is to talk, and to talk a lot. Being in a country that speaks the language gives you the perfect opportunity to practice your speaking, accent, and pronunciation. Everyday you should try to strike up at least two conversations outside of class. Yes, people, and pronunciation are very important; in some countries, pronunciation can mean the difference between a simple question and a derogatory remark!
Is this starting to sound like more work than you had in mind? For travelers that just want a basic knowledge to help them buy tickets and order food while traveling, then maybe these tips don't apply to you. But for those of you who are looking to truly make the most of living abroad and acquiring new language skills, then I definitely suggest taking this entire article to heart. You won't regret it!