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How to Improve Your Language Skills While Studying Abroad

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No one dreams of being mediocre. No one grows up thinking, "One day, I'm going to be the 7th best." No sir, Go Overseas'er! When you set out to learn a language, you want to LEARN it, gosh darnit. And while studying abroad, you want to make the absolute most of that precious precious language immersion.

These tips will really help you make that final feisty forge ahead to fluency and reach the next level of language acquisition!

You don't want to stop at knowing how to order a coffee and saying hello to your neighbor. You want to soar past that language plateau and reach the next level of your language learning abroad. You want to get another ten steps closer to fluent.

Fortunately for you, these tips, compiled by yours truly and some Go Overseas friends, will really help you make that final feisty forge ahead to fluency and reach the next level of language acquisition! So let's dig in, family:

1. Find Yourself a "Spot"

My favorite thing to do while studying abroad in Paris was to make myself a fly on the wall (or as Jenny Marshall puts it in her article about language learning hacks... "eavesdrop" *ahem ahem*).

Now understand, my "wall" was one of two or three cafes spread across the city, where the waiters knew me and my simple order -- a coffee allongé (black coffee), a table facing the boulevard, and an ash tray. There I would sit, and I would sip, and I would smoke, and I would bask in the effervescent glow of life in the city of lights.

By listening to the conversations around me, I observed the proper way to order -- the specific and understood terms, the proper syntax when ordering, and how to wield my grammar to imply the right degree of politesse.

But at first, I had no idea how to ask for what I wanted. The practice textbook dialogues of "Pierre le Petit" and "Jean le Grand" and their sterile, proper français were as useful to me here as my English -- i.e. not useful at all. My first few times ordering, I ended up with: a cappuccino, a glass of hot milk and nothing else, a black tea, and an omelette -- but I had asked for (or at least thought I'd asked for) the same thing each time: a black coffee.

I'm not even sure about the omelette to this day. But, by sitting there, and listening to the conversations around me, I noticed and observed the proper way to order -- the specific and understood terms, the proper syntax when ordering, and how to wield my grammar to imply the right degree of politesse.

Further, by establishing yourself as a regular around the parts of the city you frequent most (mine were outside my school, outside my third-party provider's headquarters -- shout out to API! -- and near my apartment), you begin to build yourself some "loyal local cred” with the wait staff, and that begins to coax conversation out of them. And suddenly, BOOM -- you have yourself some fluent native speakers to practice with, in the stress-free casual environment of a cafe, shop, newspaper stand, or-where-have-you.

So find your cafe. Or find your park bench, your jazz club, your train station -- whatever your spot is where you can immerse yourself in the language of the area, and you'll find yourself soaking it up like a sponge and breaking out of your comfort zone speaking with the server / shop keeper / whomever -- because now you're a regular, baby!

2. Don't Give Up and Don't Translate

girls, greece, flaunt

Cheaters never prosper and quitters never win... God, I sound like my mother. But maybe she was onto something?

When it comes to language acquisition, the real learning is done when your brain has to work and search for a word and create new connections between vocabulary and grammar. It is in creating these new connections -- these "Ah-ha!" moments for your brain -- that the acquisition is made and the storage is permanent.

But, and we get it, these ah-ha moments are taxing. It takes work to work through them. But resist cheating (i.e. translating or looking up a word in a dictionary rather than trying to figure out another way to say what you want) or quitting (i.e. defaulting back to English). Work through these challenging moments!

Because look here: If you constantly give up when these moments happen, if you reach for your dictionary or you give up and say "¿INGLES?", you rob your brain of these chances! You steal from yourself another opportunity to let a new neurological root take hold. And I for one will not tolerate thieves!

If you're trying out something new, it's more likely to stick in your brain for future reference if you had to figure it out yourself. Furthermore, those challenging moments, or embarrassing mistakes are memorable. And you're more likely to remember language learned in a memorable moment. So even if it's scary, don't give up! Be the weird foreigner who says "you go supermarket, no?" and be OK with it!

And trust me, I know this is easier said than done. Along with a lot of other hurdles, I had a problem with pride when I first started studying French. I didn't want to be laughed at for struggling, I wanted to be suave and fluent and fit in. I wanted that, but it did not happen at first.

I struggled, and you know what? Nobody laughed. Nobody made fun. People were helpful (if maybe a little confused sometimes), I was able to work out ways to make myself understood.

I learned, through trial and error, what strings of words -- and combined in what order -- rang up a linguistic "Jackpot" in the listeners' mind and opened the door to understanding.

So please, when you see that look in the listener's eye that tells you you're losing them, don't give up! Try it another way! Heck, trying saying it backwards, maybe that's the problem! But do not give up. Do not default to English (or whatever your native language may be). You're working out your language brain, and it's these reps that count.

3. Use New Vocabulary Whenever Possible

Friend of the site Marc Richardson, who studied Arabic in Amman, Jordan with CIEE, says his best tip to take your language learning to the next level is to try to use the vocabulary you learn as soon as you can.

"If I learned five new words in class, I tried to find occasion to use them as soon as I could, even if it meant wording things strangely sometimes." Marc says. He also advises that you should always keep checking in on your old tried-and-true vocabulary, but "the sooner you can file it away in your permanent memory, the sooner you can 'set it and forget it' and recall it on demand."

By employingnew vocabulary immediately, and learning when it was to be used and when it was not, I found my language acquisition ramping up a notch.

My experience was the same. In addition to storing it in your memory sooner, having a healthy arsenal of synonyms is what separates a comfortable speaker from an uncomfortable one. So if you learn a new word, don't dismiss it as "just another way to say a word I already know." One day you're going to forget that one word you know, or you're going to want to make a double-entendre pun, and you'll be all out of luck.

Especially in languages vastly unlike your own, this can be very helpful. I struggled with Mandarin because to my Western ear, a lot of the vocabulary sounded similar. By employing it immediately, and learning when it was to be used and when it was not, I found my language acquisition ramping up a notch.

4. Learn "Language Chunks"

And speaking of vocabulary, don't focus solely on learning one word at a time. Instead, learn language in "chunks" -- a process that's known as "chunking". For example, instead of learning "ça" (it) and "roule" (rolls) separately in French, focus on memorizing "ça roule" (how's it going) as an entire phrase. (For the francophiles out there, we have a few more useful French phrases to know right here on Go Overseas).

If it's still unclear why you should learn in chunks versus word by word, think of how weird it would be to translate each word in "how's it going" then try to piece it together as a full phrase. Confusing, right? Also, trust on this one -- learning language in chunks speeds up the language learning process, and it can help you build a better understanding of these new words.

By learning language in chunks you:

  • You'll know the context of when to use it.
  • You'll begin to recognize patterns through it (especially helpful with grammar).
  • You'll avoid direct translations, which sometimes sound awkward and unnatural.
  • You'll finally get that coffee... not an omelet.

5. Make Language Learning Entertaining!

Football game in Costa Rica

We all get bored, but we don't have to get bored while learning a language. After all, you're immersed in the language, not just sitting in a classroom all day. More importantly, you're constantly exposed to your new language through entertainment and by consuming entertainment in your host language, you maintain that important immersion that we're always harping about here.

Taking the Metro to class in the morning? Why not fill your iPod with local music! I found myself rapping French hip-hop to myself on my way to the Sorbonne, and by the time I got off the train, my brain was already in le mode du français.

On the weekends, gather some of your new study abroad friends and go check out a movie. Many Hollywood films abroad will either be dubbed in the local language or subtitled in it, so you will have a valuable chance to match up dialogue and vocabulary you already know in your native language to your second language. How else would you learn how to say "Get to the chopper!" in Thai? (Also, you're totally going to need to use that all. the. time.)

Live events help, too. Go to a soccer game (okay, okay, "futbol") and learn some Spanish chants. Go to a concert and hear how crowds around the world scream for more. Local theatre can also be an out-of-this-world, but in-this-culture way to immerse yourself in the local language and watch your own understanding grow.

So there you have it. If you're serious about taking your language acquisition skills to the next level, and crossing that final bridge from proficiency to fluency, these tips can help you maintain immersion, help your brain make new connections, and help your talented tongue dance its way into a new world of language. So from all of us at Go Overseas, BONNE CHANCE!

Photo Credits: Kelly Wiggins and Caleb Stewart.
Jason Rodgers

Jason is a hockey player from Virginia, and his passport is a quilt of stamps and visas. He studied French at the Sorbonne in Paris, worked in International Ed in China, celebrated Thanksgiving in Amsterdam and cheered July 4th in Brazil. Jason can recite Sartre in 3 languages just as fast as he can put a puck past your ear. Follow Jason on Twitter @HeyJayJRogers and on Google+.