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How Do You Intern Abroad When There's a Language Barrier?

Teaching in Taiwan

If you’re working hard to become fluent in a foreign language, interning abroad in a country that speaks that language is an excellent step in the right direction. It’s no secret that full immersion is the best way to learn a language, and interning abroad tends to be even more immersive than just traveling or study abroad -- not to mention you’ll likely learn an entire new vocabulary of words that you probably wouldn’t have cause to learn otherwise!

That being said, the language barrier also tends to be a little higher in an internship situation than most other scenarios when you’re abroad. No matter how good your language skills are, there are going to be a whole lot of words -- technical or slang -- that you don’t know going into the situation. (Though, again, that’s good! That means you'll have more to learn!) You will likely be interacting a LOT more with the locals, and at a much higher level, and some of your colleagues may not be used to having to communicate with a non-native speaker. All that can present challenges, but with a little effort you can surmount any such problems and come out a stronger, more confident speaker!

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Your Colleagues to Slow Down or Repeat

In fact, make sure you have those phrases (“Can you please slow down?” “Could you repeat that?”) down pat in your host language! As long as you don’t ask them to repeat every single thing five times, they surely won’t mind.

Don't scare yourself out of taking risks or going for an international internship, but know your limits, know where you're lacking, and work on those areas!

Eventually, they’ll likely slow down their speech with you naturally until you get the hang of things. And they’ll probably notice how much your language comprehension improves more than you do, as the amount of your "Can you repeat"s decrease!

2. Be Open and Honest about Your Abilities

That goes for with your colleagues and with yourself. Don’t scare yourself out of taking risks or going for an international internship, but know your limits, know where you’re lacking, and work on those areas! If you begin your internship and feel like you’re in way over your head, speak with your supervisor. Tell them that you’re struggling, but that you’re determined to work extra hard to improve and get where you need to be (and mean it!).

Work with your supervisor to figure out what tasks you can manage at this early point in your internship, and check in with them as you improve and feel able to take on more responsibility and bigger tasks. They will appreciate your honesty and your desire to work hard and improve. Just make sure that when you have this conversation you handle it in a mature, respectful, and culturally appropriate way.

3. Make a Cheat Sheet and Study Up

Cambodia girl selling pineapple

This trick is especially important when it comes to technical terms you might need to use in your internship that you otherwise probably don’t know. Before you start, think about the industry and position you’ll be interning in, make a list of every term you can think of that you might need to know, and get translating

Then go one step further, search the internet for “Marketing Vocabulary in Spain” (or what have you) and see what new terminology that turns up! Don’t forget there might be entirely different concepts in your field that you might not even know about. As you, you savvy language learner already know, not everything is easily translatable, or even translatable at all.

And if you really want to be prepared, do some research into different job titles and important local organizations (big name companies, government organizations, etc.) and, if applicable, their acronyms or nicknames, that might pop up and be referenced in your internship. It can be confusing to hear these things referenced in conversation and have no idea if it’s a name of something or just a word you don’t know, so getting a head start on this could be immensely helpful!

4. Consider Taking Language Classes in Your Free Time

While it may feel a bit overwhelming, it may also prove the opposite. Taking language classes, at least leading up to and at the beginning of your internship, can prove incredibly helpful and make a huge difference. It’s always good to have a refresher, and even if you’re fresh out of a semester of French classes, a local language class in your host destination can help you adjust to any local accents or terminology that you might not be as familiar with.

And it can be a savior at times: If perhaps you’re too nervous to ask what a certain word or phrase means at your internship, you can always ask your professor at class afterward! Plus, did we mention it's a good way to make friends in a new city outside of your internship?

5. Find a Tandem Partner

Whether or not you decide to take classes, a tandem language partner can also be a huge help! In most cases, this entails you conversing with a local, where you speak in the local language and they speak to you in English. You both get to practice, and at the same time you get to experience a bit of that joyful feeling of hearing your own language spoken to you! (Which should be a rare occurrence if you’re following the next tip!)

6. Force Yourself to Keep Practicing Even When You Don’t Have To

Volunteer in Haiti

If you’re living with other English speakers or have a lot of international friends, it might be tempting to take a break and speak English with them.

Every now and then this is fine, and your brain probably will need a break at times, but try to speak in your foreign language as much as you can in these situations. You may be surprised by how much you can learn from them by speaking the host language.

However, if you're feeling really dedicated, you may want to consider living with a local roommate or signing yourself up for a regular meetup, sport, or other fun activity that gets you out of the house and chatting (as opposed to letting your brain melt in front of a Game of Thrones marathon...) You -- and your co-workers -- will notice it makes a huge difference!

7. Take Every Opportunity to Interact with the Locals

Chat up everyone! Don’t be shy in the cab, or checking out at the supermarket. Make conversation, no matter how hard it might be at first. Think of every moment of the day as an opportunity to improve your language skills, learn new things about the culture, and make new friends! You are living in a new country where you have more chances to practice your language skills than you will perhaps ever have again. Take advantage of it! That being said…

8. Make Lots of Local Friends

And hang out with your coworkers! They will most likely be the absolutely best source and biggest help and support you will have. You have to see them everyday, so enjoy that time! If they invite you to their home for dinner or for a weekend getaway to their cabin in the mountains, say yes! Even if you're a natural introvert and that's a scary prospect, push yourself and do it.

Embrace the language barrier on your internship, because it means you have more to learn, and it will teach you the very stuff of which you are made.

After all, the more they like you (and you like them!) the easier your work days will be, and the more naturally understanding them will come. Once you know someone well, you tend to just understand them better, even if you don’t catch every word they say. You will understand the way they speak, think, communicate, and it will make that language barrier at your internship fade away bit by bit.

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Follow these eight tips and you will be well on your way to getting the most out of this awesome and unique professional experience! By the end of your internship, you will be amazed at how far you have come and how much you’ve accomplished, and not just in the linguistic sense.

So, no matter how well you follow our advice, don't forget to take this final piece: at the end of your internship talk to your colleagues and supervisor to find out how they felt you’ve improved -- it will feel good and it will probably make you see even more change and improvement than you realized yourself. Laugh at the mistakes you made and challenges you felt you faced at the start, and how they helped you grow, and probably seem so insignificant now!

Embrace the language barrier on your internship, because it means you have more to learn, and it will teach you the very stuff of which you are made.

Photo Credits: Audra Edmondson, David Greenky, and Joe Paté.
Rachael Taft

Growing up in the Midwest, Rachael couldn't wait to get out and see the world. She's studied abroad in Italy and Thailand, interned abroad in Sydney, worked abroad in Australia and Fiji, and traveled to 30+ countries, including backpacking solo across South America. In addition to working in international exchange, Rachael obsesses over all things her blog Girl, Unmapped.