Learning a language abroad is the best way to acquire one. Immersion is everywhere, and you're there to act as one big language sponge! But this awesome arrangement can be made even better if you know some helpful tips to improve your language learning.
Take a look at these simple, surefire tips for language learning abroad, and become a real language-learning rock star.
1. Live With a Host Family or Locals
If you can only do one thing to boost your language retention, make it living with a host family or local roommates.
By guaranteeing your home life takes place in your foreign language, that all-important level of immersion is maintained, and your brain KEEPS making the important new linguistic connections you need it to to learn. It's easy to "revert" back to English when you want to relax -- but that doesn't help you learn, and a host family or roommate environment helps keep that from happening.
Science suggests that when we learn new languages, we aren't just assembling and ordering one-word building blocks into strings; sometimes, we hear and store whole chunks of language as individual linguistic units.
In addition, host families at least are often experienced hosts, meaning they've hosted language learners before. As a result, they are often very good teachers and helpers. They're often better at explaining difficult vocabulary or grammar in a way that sticks, and they're often more eager to help you practice and learn for your foreign language than any old stranger on the street!
Similarly, local roommates are both great resources for learning your new language and getting to know your new host city. It's also a good alternative if you don't want the reduced independence that comes with living with a host family. Either way, it's just great to be able to come home and say "hey... I heard this new word today, what does it mean?"
2. Put New Vocabulary To Use Immediately
When learning a language abroad, we all learn hear so much new vocabulary so fast it can feel like we'll never need this many words. Even so, use it right away.
By forcing yourself to use the new stuff right away, it will stick in your brain -- and more easily become "old stuff" you can recall later. Your brain now has new associations with it -- the situation you used it, the time of day, who was around -- and all these context clues help your brain locate it faster, and better, the next time you need it. By using it before you forget it, you make sure this valuable process takes place.
So go ahead, walk around with those flashcards! Use your fancy new synonyms! They aren't just additional ways to say "spicy" or "beautiful" or "funny" -- they're additional ways to say, "I'm fluent!"
3. Listen For Chunks, Not Words
That's right -- chunking isn't just for peanut butter any more! Science suggests that when we learn new languages, we aren't just assembling and ordering one-word building blocks into strings; sometimes, we hear and store whole chunks of language as individual linguistic units.
For example, think of how you might explain the chunk "by the way" to someone. Translating the chunk word for word is confusing and doesn't get the meaning or usage of the phrase across properly. However, if you treat this chunk or group of words as a vocabulary word in and of itself, it's much more digestible and easier to learn.
This "chunk" is easily heard and identified; remembered and used. You don't need to know a word for word translation to get it since you're learning when to learn this particular string of words.
Use is more important than literal meaning when learning a second language, and if you can master using these linguistic chunks, you can save yourself the time and trouble of deciphering exactly what they mean -- at least at first.
4. Create Language Learning Opportunities by Becoming a Regular
Find a comfortable spot in your host city and make yourself a regular. Choose somewhere that puts you right in the middle of a whirlwind of ambient language -- usually a cafe, bar, or a bookstore or the like -- where you can be constantly surrounded by the sounds and structures of the language.
Enjoying dubbed episodes of your favorite television shows or subtitled versions of your favorite movies also help to create meaning associations.
Not only does this ambient language help keep your brain in "Spanish Mode" or "French Mode" or whatever the case may be, but by becoming a regular, you give yourself lots of opportunities to practice your language with native speakers -- and equally important, the opportunity for them to learn to understand your imperfect version of their language.
Whether it's the waiter or restaurateur who recognizes you and chats you up, or the ever-changing cast of strangers around you who make inquiries ("What time is it? What should I order here? How do you get to the bus stop?" etc), staking out your spot is the best way to create as many opportunities for yourself to use your language as possible.
5. Chat With Some Parents
Yes, parents of young children are some of your best language-learning friends! Not only are these native speakers likely to be more patient than others, but they have lots of experience interpreting and making sense of the garbled linguistic gibberish they hear from their kids.
I'm not saying your language is gibberish, but parents are far more able to quickly make sense of grammatical mistakes, improperly used vocabulary, and just generally parsing out meaning from what was actually said. Not only that, but they are often better able to explain your mistakes to you, because they know how to communicate these sorts of things to those (little ones) with limited language skills.
6. Keep Enjoying All Your Favorite Media
Just do it in your host language! That's right -- watching television, going to movies, and listening to the radio are excellent ways to hear professional speakers of the language speaking it.
Watching the evening news, for example, is a great way to hear and see someone with perfect grammar and pronunciation clearly speaking the language.
Further, by enjoying these "down time" activities in your new language, you teach your brain not to associate the end of class with "Back to English" time! Your brain gets more used to maintaining operation in the foreign language, and future searches for vocab and grammar occur more readily and quickly.
Enjoying dubbed episodes of your favorite television shows or subtitled versions of your favorite movies also help to create meaning associations -- if you already understand the intended meaning of the content because you know the show/movie, you are able to see what language is used to convey that specific meaning, and replicate it yourself, later!
7. Write Down New Words and Look Them Up Later
I know, I know: we all want to look like locals, cool as cucumbers and never needing to hear anything repeated or see it written down. But that's not real life, and even the smartest people in the world use the tools they have available!
For you, as a language learner abroad, these tools are your dictionaries and your notebooks. The best advice I received at the Sorbonne in Paris was to write down every single new word I encountered during the day -- whether it was written on a subway ad or said to me by a waiter -- and look up the definitions in my dictionary.
It's tedious as all get out -- and doesn't make you look very cool -- but early on, you need to be actively engaged in your learning, and darnit, this just works.
Things to AVOID when Learning a Language Abroad
Just as a small bonus, below are a few things to avoid doing while you're learning a new language abroad:
- Over studying: One of the biggest mistakes is people stress too much on the minor things such as punctuation, grammar and spelling. Yes it’s important to learn the basics but some people get over-reliant on “perfect”.
- Don't limit learning to the classroom: You will learn far quicker by getting out and about instead of keeping your head in the books. Spend time in local markets and the downtown area to listen to and read the language all around you.
- Don't focus on quantity of resources, focus on quality: Before a trip, you are sure to be bombarded with information and tips about good resources to use. Make sure you invest in quality resources you are actually going to use. It helps to be selective of who and what you listen to. Read more pre-departure tips.
"Fake it til you make it" works for some things in life, but when it comes to language, the better mantra is really "Force it til the course sticks!" Or, something like that.Photo Credits: Danielle Slowik and Richelle Gamlam.