Language Schools

How to Prepare for Learning a Language Abroad

Natalie Southwick

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations.

If you're planning on learning a language abroad, you're probably a little nervous about taking on such a challenge. This is totally understandable -- going to another country is intimidating enough even if you do speak the local language, and even more so if you wouldn't even know enough vocabulary to ask for directions when you'll inevitably get lost.

Having some familiarity with the local language can go a long way toward easing your transition into life in another country and culture, and helping you more easily make the leap to incorporating a new language into your daily routine. While there’s no domestic substitute for learning a language abroad in a true immersion environment, there are plenty of ways for you to get a jump start long before you go through customs.

Prepare Before You Go

Though everyone generally sticks to singing the praises of immersion learning, there are actually a number of benefits from beginning your language learning process at home, rather than in the midst of an international move. As our friends over at FluentU point out, learning at home gives you more control over your learning environment -- you can choose the vocabulary sets and pacing of your lessons, rather than picking up words on the fly as you’re forced to use them.

You also have the opportunity to structure your learning process in a way that fits your learning style, whether you’re a social, visual, aural, or physical learner. Plus, you can plan your language study to fit into your normal schedule and develop good habits for studying which will then carry over to your time abroad. It’s much easier to keep up a study routine if you’ve already been doing it for three months, rather than assuming you’ll start once you get there –- that is, if you don’t get distracted by all the new neighborhoods to explore and snacks to eat!

Structure your learning process to fit your own learning style.

Of course, taking initiative for pre-departure language learning all comes down to your self-motivation, so it’s on you to decide to follow through on any of these. If you need extra incentive, though, just focus on how much less stupid you’ll feel if you can actually ask for directions, order food or chat up a cute stranger in a bar, rather than relying on pointing, charades or a t-shirt that does all the talking for you.

Take Advantage of Free Apps and Language Learning Programs

Access to technology means it’s never been easier to find tools to learn a new language -- and you don't even have to pay for it. Our phones, laptops, tablets, and tools like Skype give us access to a huge range of learning options that learners 20 or even 10 years ago just didn’t have. Programs like Anki, Mango, and Duolingo are available online and as mobile apps, meaning you can practice your language on a coffee break anywhere.

Of course, different people have mixed success with apps and online programs, depending on how often they use them and their individual learning style, but the general consensus among experts and students is that these programs can be an incredibly helpful tool. Don’t assume the cute little Duolingo owl will wave its wings and magically make you bilingual, but don’t be afraid to use these free resources to help you build up confidence and familiarity with another language (or three).

Quick tip: Designate a consistent time slot to practice with one of these apps to make sure you're getting a few minutes in every day.

Surround Yourself with the Language

Even if you’re in the midst of finals, working full-time, or have other restrictions on your schedule that mean you can’t realistically set aside two hours a day to study, you don’t have to give up on boosting your language skills. There's an endless world of music, movies, TV shows, magazines, books, and even radio that you can use to help practice and get used to hearing your language -- no flashcards necessary.

One Colombian friend of mine speaks near-perfect English, though he hasn’t taken a class since high school -- he swears he learned everything from watching movies and listening to music. While entertainment may not lead directly to fluency for most of us, it’s an effective way to practice listening to the language without making it feel like homework, and the best part is you can do it anywhere! Start listening to Arabic pop music during your commute, catch up on Mexican telenovelas at the gym, or watch classic French films while you’re making dinner, and you’ll quickly find yourself understanding so much more than you expected.

Practice listening to the language without making it feel like homework.

No matter your preferred form of media, there are tons of resources to make this easier. YouTube is your best friend here -- you can look up everything from investigative news pieces in German to Korean music videos. Netflix has thousands of foreign-language offerings with the added advantage of being able to change languages or add subtitles to shows, so you can practice both reading and listening. If you’re more of a musical type, check out global music genres or search the most popular songs in other countries on Spotify.

Quick tip: If even watching a 90-minute movie seems like too much, remember that you can change the language settings of your browser, computer, phone or other devices to make sure you’re seeing at least something in your target language every day.

Befriend the Native Speakers in Your Area

If you live in a medium to large city and are learning a fairly common language (Spanish, French, Italian, German, Mandarin, or one of the major dialects of Arabic or Hindi), you can very likely find a population of native speakers just a few miles from your house. While people may not be trained teachers -- or have the spare time to put together free lesson plans for you -- you can likely find someone who would be willing to meet up for coffee a few times and chat with you or set up a language exchange with someone hoping to learn English.

Local cultural centers, communities like Internations, the Polyglot Club or even Meetup or Couchsurfing groups can be a great way to make contact with local native speakers or other people interested in learning the same language, to set up language exchange, study groups or just meet up to chat in an informal setting like a bar or coffee shop. Practicing like this won’t give you perfect mastery of grammar, but it will help you get more comfortable with interacting with native speakers face to face, as well as pick up some colloquialisms and get a sense for how people actually talk.

Set up a language exchange to practice in real conversations.

If you’re absolutely positive there isn’t anyone nearby who speaks your chosen language, especially if it’s an obscure one, you can still talk to native speakers! Programs like italki, My Language Exchange, or InterPals allow you to connect with native speakers of languages all around the world, and you can set up affordable, one-on-one Skype lessons to help you practice whenever it fits your schedule.

Quick tip: Meeting and practicing with native speakers will help you get a more accurate idea of how you apply your language skills to real-world situations and identify areas or subjects that you find confusing or need more reinforcement.

Focus on Common Words and Phrases

If you’ve ever taken a language class or used a conversation or memorization-based program, you’ve probably wondered why the creators of these courses think you have so many questions about people's relatives or home decor. Mock conversations can be great for practicing question-and-answer exchanges and understanding how words or grammar structures may be used in context, but they often center on topics or vocabulary that you're probably never going to use. Don't knock yourself out trying to learn five synonyms for "to buy" -- instead, just learn the one that everyone uses most often and use it until it becomes second nature. Then you can start cracking open the thesaurus.

Filler words -- those words you use when you’re thinking of the next thing to say -- are also your friends here. Every language has its own set of placeholders like “um,” “well,” “like," and so on, and everyone uses them. While you don’t want to lean on these in the middle of every sentence (unless your goal is to sound like the local version of a Valley girl), mastering filler words can help buy you time and make it look like you’re just thinking of the appropriate word, rather than lost in the middle of your sentence.

Quick tip: Most languages use just a few hundred words for the majority of spoken communication, so focus on making sure you have a solid grasp on the most common words, phrases and structures, rather than trying to develop a massive vocabulary right away.

Create and Set Realistic Goals

Similar to the last point, you don’t need to try to learn All The Words before arriving in your new country (or ever, honestly -- there are thousands of words in English you’ve probably never used!). Instead, think about what you need to know: if you're going to be interning at a clinic, you probably want to brush up on medical words, and leave the sports vocab sets for later. On the other hand, if you think you're going to be traveling a lot, your practice can emphasize transit vocabulary, rather than an endless list of school supplies.

Try to stick to what polyglot and language learning star Benny Lewis calls S.M.A.R.T. goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound. Thinking about what you want to be able to do with the language and how much time you actually have to learn will help you set achievable and helpful learning goals and prevent you from feeling overwhelmed or pessimistic about the whole idea of learning an entirely new language.

Set helpful learning goals that you can actually achieve.

Even people who are bilingual can’t necessarily write a novel in their second language, so don’t stress yourself out trying to be perfect at everything you say. Instead, work on improving your ability to communicate your thoughts effectively and finding alternate ways to express or describe something if you forget the precise word. Remember, the whole point of language is to make yourself understood, not to win awards for perfect phrasing.

Quick tip: Once you've figured out your short-term learning goals, write them down somewhere. This way you can reference them as you go to make sure you're staying focused on them.

Talk or Sing to Yourself

Yes, it might make you feel crazy, but there’s no way you’ll get better at speaking a language if you’re afraid to start talking! When I was first learning Spanish, I used to constantly try to translate things I heard or saw in English -- signs on the subway, announcements at airports, song lyrics, whatever -- into Spanish. I’d go over conversations I had during the day, especially simple interactions like buying groceries, and practice how I’d have the same conversation in Spanish.

This sounds obvious, but just practicing saying words out loud will go a long way toward making you more comfortable with a language, especially if you focus on words, phrases and contexts that are already part of your daily routine -- hence the subway signs and grocery shopping. Besides, once you’re already used to talking to yourself all the time, making mistakes seems way less embarrassing!

Practice using the language in your daily life.

One of the most challenging parts of transitioning from learning a language in a classroom to using it in your daily life is the four-step translation process: hear something in a foreign language, translate it to English in your head, think of a response, then translate that response back to your target language. Once you become fluent, this will become second nature, but that’s a long process. Beginning to practice this routine while you’re still at home will help make it less awkward and slow when you suddenly need to do it for every conversation, every day.

Quick tip: Start asking yourself "How would I say that in [language]?" as often as you can without losing your train of thought. The more your brain gets used to thinking in two languages, the easier it'll be to start speaking.

Learning a new language is often an intimidating process, but it doesn't have to be overwhelming. Knowing that you'll soon be using your new language abroad is a great motivational tool to keep you practicing before you leave, and now you have all the information you need to start impressing locals with your fluency on Day One.