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5 Easy Foreign Language Learning Hacks While Abroad

Jenny Marshall in Lugano Switzerland

Whether you’re going abroad to learn a language, or going abroad in spite of a language barrier, chances are you’ll want to put in some effort to advance your skills. And why wouldn't you? Language can be one of the most unique vantage points into your new culture -- and often, the more you know your adopted country’s language, the richer your experience will be. However, it doesn’t come for free or by instant osmosis.

With a bit of determination (and a lot of eavesdropping), I ended my year in Spain confidently fluent.

In my case, I majored in Linguistics, studied Spanish for ten years, spent a month living with a family in Nicaragua, and was still utterly lost when I first arrived in Spain to study at the University of Granada. Granada, in the southernmost region of Andalucia, is a city with an infamously hard dialect to master. But with a bit of determination (and a lot of eavesdropping), I ended my year confidently fluent.

I’ve since gone on to live and work in other parts of Spain, and it wouldn’t have been possible without mastering the language. Here are five hacks I used to find my footing when I was thrown into the great Spanish mix, and which you can use to while immersing yourself in and learning a new language abroad.

1. Study Up, at Least a Little

Ross Travelers in Thailand

I’m assuming you’re not a toddler, correct? This means you can’t rely 100% on the immersion method. And here’s another dirty secret: “Immersion” is a lie. Your program may advertise itself as “a langauge immersion program” because you’ll be living with a native host family. But almost anywhere you’ll go to study, you’ll meet other Americans, Brits, Kiwis, Canadians, and Australians. You’ll flock to each other because English is easier than this nonsensical foreign language, and you can make “your mom” and “that’s what she said” jokes and laugh together at the incompetence of your adopted country’s bureaucracy.

Is that to say that immersion is absolutely impossible? No. One can go live in the Colombian jungle knowing no Spanish and come out fluent. It’s been known to happen, but it’s an extreme scenario. And you’re likely not studying abroad in a Colombian rainforest (and if you are, major props!), so having a base in the target language will speed the process along immensely.

That said -- don’t despair if you’re just now reading this three weeks before flying off to teach in Italy, and you know nothing but “ciao.” There are many free language apps for Smartphones these days that are surprisingly effective (my favorite is Duolingo) and several pre-departure tips to help you prepare.

You can also download grammar books or check them out from your local library. That may sound like the last thing you want to do with your remaining weeks at home, but the good news is, grammar books are becoming more and more fun, or at least entertaining. I taught English to a 13-year-old in Spain whose textbook included riveting tales of high school proms and eating disorders, and even wove the word “bitch” into its narratives every once in a while. Racy stuff.

2. Eavesdrop on Local’s Conversations

When I studied abroad in Granada, I must have broken about 100 social conventions, all having to do with eavesdropping. I listened in on everything.

  • I eavesdropped on my roommate’s phone conversations with her mother, and tried to guess the phrases on the other end of the line. (Also to see if my roommate was at any point badmouthing my sub-par mopping skills.)
  • I pretended to read at public plazas, but was really listening to nearby diners sip wine and discuss the quality of appetizers.
  • I relaxed at a park while eavesdropping on one five-year-old explain to another the purpose behind a diary. Simultaneously heart-wrenching and linguistically beneficial.

My desire to learn the language knew no social limits. My proudest moment was when I successfully understood 98% of a couple’s break-up conversation, happening directly behind me on a bus. (He wasn’t giving her enough attention; she talked too much to a guy named Javier.) Not such a great day for them, but a real landmark in my comprehension skills.

Does all this eavesdropping make me a good person? No. Does it make me a good Spanish speaker? Absolutely.

3. Carry a Notebook at All Times

You will be exposed to new words at every juncture of your time abroad, and you need to be prepared with pen and paper.

Your taxi driver will dribble off the crudest profanity that, when uttered by an outsider like yourself, will make people question your foreign passport.

Your roommates will let slip slang that you’ll want to use in tomorrow’s conversation — write it down. Your professor will reference some idiom that you’ve been dying to know how to say, but online dictionaries come up short — write it down. Your taxi driver will dribble off the crudest profanity that, when uttered by an outsider like yourself, will make people question your foreign passport. Write it down!

Something as simple as a Moleskin pocket notebook fits easily almost anywhere, and looks downright important when you pull it out to take notes.

4. Re-read Your Favorite Children’s Books in Your New Language

Volunteer reading kids book in Bali, Indonesia

While TV shows are fantastic for working on your listening skills, reading provides a laundry list of benefits when learning a new language. Why do you think there is so much hype about promoting early childhood literacy, and not early childhood addiction to sitcoms?

When you read in a foreign language, you can see how the word is spelled and correctly reproduce it later. You can try to deduce its meaning from context and spelling clues. And you can go as slowly as you need without missing anything; quite possibly a page per hour when you’re first starting out.

To prepare for my time in Spain, I checked out some of my childhood favorites from the bilingual section of the public library. The Boxcar Children, The Rats of Nimh, and most importantly, Harry Potter. I think most of us will agree that rereading Harry Potter is not a chore or a time-suck, but an absolute joy. It’s also a perfect book to pick up useful vocabulary like “sorcerer’s stone,” “magic wand” and “phoenix tears,” which you’ll use abroad with almost 20% certainty.

Bonus: Harry Potter has been translated in over 60 languages, so you’re all but guaranteed to find it in your target language too!

5. Live with Local Roommates or a Host Family

This is pure common sense that, unfortunately, many study abroad students lack. Do not go to Spain, live with Americans and convince yourself that you will practice your Spanish together every night. How do I break this gently... That is an outrageous proposition that will simply not happen.

You will quickly realize that searching for the required vocabulary, nailing the grammar down, and wrapping your tongue around some clunky pronunciation, is too mentally exhausting at 11 p.m. on the Sunday before finals week. If the option is there to resort back to English, you’ll take advantage of it like it’s a drinking fountain in the desert.

Even if you did manage to keep up this charade, you won’t learn anything from the other’s sub-fluent level. You need a native to teach you new slang, correct your broken speech, and guilt you into practicing more.

The way to avoid this problem may be difficult at first, but has the highest Return On Investment in the end: Live with locals.

Ready to Get Fluent?

Unless you are the linguistic equivalent of Mozart, learning the language won’t come easily. It requires more effort than just living day-to-day in a foreign country.

[Knowing Spanish] is my favorite souvenir from my time abroad, an incredibly useful skill to have, and a vivid reminder of the best year of my life spent in Spain.

But in the end, learning a language was the richest part of my study abroad experience. It was rewarding to see my efforts pay off, crack jokes with new friends in Spanish, and complete coursework (with good grades!) in a foreign language. It’s my favorite souvenir from my time abroad, an incredibly useful skill to have, and a vivid reminder of the best year of my life spent in Spain.

Photo Credits: Jenny Marshall, Victoria Ross, and Amy Cooper.
Photo of Jenny Marshall

Jenny Marshall majored in Linguistics at UCSB, and spent a year studying abroad in Spain. She has since moved back to teach English and nail down that sexy Spanish lisp. She can’t decide which is more fun, travel or grammar, so she frequently jaunts around Europe and picks up cool new words from each country she visits.