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10 Ways to Learn a Language Abroad

There's more than one way to learn a language!

Learning a foreign language is one of those things that people hope to accomplish one day, whether they’re an avid traveler or not. It opens up conversation with millions more people in the world, is a fantastic addition to any job resume and quite the personal success.

No one method of learning a language is the best, but one thing is certain, studying a language abroad is more ideal and often easier than learning at home. There are several ways to learn a language abroad and the best part about it is that you are forced to practice what you've learned in daily life. Whether you adore the romance of French, enjoy the challenge of Mandarin (new language and alphabet) or you just want to get in touch with your Persian roots, here are ten ways to learn a language abroad.

University Programs

While there are thousands of audio or online language courses available these days, they'll never completely replace the traditional method of learning in a classroom. If you excel in a classroom setting, look into applying for language courses abroad either offered through your university at home or even with a foreign university. If you are enrolled in college, visit the international center to see if they have any summer language courses abroad. You can also look online for foreign universities that offer language courses and apply directly through them.

If you excel in a classroom setting, look into applying for language courses abroad either offered through your university at home or even with a foreign university.

PROS: Most will be accustomed to this form of learning and find it easy to get used to, which is one less thing to worry about considering you'll be learning in a foreign land and won't be speaking your own language as often. You'll have peers who do speak your native tongue so you won't feel so lonely and you'll be able to practice with them. Also, this is a safe and well-organized way of traveling abroad as most universities include room and board in their tuition.

CONS: University programs mean university-sized classes, which means you might not receive as much one-on-one time with your instructor. While having peers around that do speak the same language as you makes it easier to get to know people and not feel isolated, there is less pressure on you to speak the language you are trying to learn, which might stop you from fully committing. Finally, not everyone finds it easy to learn in a classroom setting. There are so many alternative ways to learn a language, so if this is you - read on.

Private Schools

Private schools have small class sizes

Similar to university programs you'll find the traditional method of teacher/students at private language schools as well with a few differences. For one, instead of a lecture hall or room with desks, "classroom" may mean learning language on a balcony overlooking the beach, in a common area and/or while walking through a market. Private schools have a bit more freedom to teach as they want, but the basics are still there.

PROS: Private schools usually only accept a small number of students making for a more comfortable learning setting and of course, more one-on-one time with the instructor. Depending on the school, you might find food and accommodation a bit nicer than that of a university. As mentioned above, private schools have a bit more freedom with how they choose to teach. Like with university programs, room and board is often included in tuition at private language schools.

CONS: All those added extras that come with learning a language at a private school come at a price. Furthermore, universities usually have more money, so they might have newer edition textbooks and/or audio facilities, but this is not always the case. Of course at private schools there is the same worry that you might end up speaking your native tongue more often than you should as fellow students might speak the same language as you.

Study Abroad

Shifting away from language-specific schooling abroad, you could focus on learning a new language while studying abroad, even if you are not solely taking language courses. First, you'll have to apply to programs in countries that speak a different language to your own. Once you're there, make every effort to interact with full-time students rather than just those studying abroad like you. Make an effort to learn on your own or even enroll in one or more language classes as part of your studies. Practice what you learn in your day-to-day life. Try to exchange language lessons (a buddy program) with someone you meet from the country.

Once you're there, make every effort to interact with full-time students rather than just those studying abroad like you.

PROS: Study abroad programs are fairly easy to enroll in these days and include housing, making the move abroad easy. They usually cost the same as a semester at your university at home and the credits count to your degree, so you won't have to take off extra time or splash out even more money to learn this way. Also, as much as you want to learn a language, so do students from the country you are visiting. It will be easy to find someone on campus to exchange language lessons with.

CONS: Since this method is not solely for the purpose of learning a language, you might find it takes a lot of motivation on your part. You might feel a bit isolated from people who are studying abroad like you, while you are making an effort to befriend and socialize with the local students instead.

Buddy Programs

Learning a language? Get a buddy!

Mentioned in the study abroad section, one way to learn a language or a great addition to any language program is to exchange lessons with a foreign buddy. You can usually find notices on hostel or community bulletin boards for people that want to do this. Also try looking on websites like Craigslist or the foreign equivalent while traveling. You can meet your buddy over coffee or dinner a few times a week or more and exchange lessons as well as practice conversation.

PROS: Well for starters, it's free, which is not a word used often when it comes to learning a language. It's a more personal and casual approach to learning a language. You'll really learn accents and slang interacting with someone who just speaks the language as their mother-tongue rather than reading from a text book or listening to an instructor who teaches the proper often out-dated language. But most importantly, you might make a friend.

CONS: It might not costs money, but it does costs time. You won't just be learning a language with this method, you'll also have to teach your own to someone who doesn't speak a word of it. This can be frustrating and will require a lot of effort and work on your part, but it's just as much for them. Also, you might find it harder to learn when there is no structure like in a classroom. You'll have to figure out your own housing, which may or may not be a con if you are just traveling anyway. Finally, and this is more advice than a con, always be sure to meet your buddy in a public place the first few times. Never visit their apartment or home until you feel like you know them well enough.

One-on-One Tutoring

If buddy programs aren't nearly as structured as you'd like, but you want that individual attention, then you might want to invest in one-on-one tutoring. You can find language tutors as you would buddies, on bulletin boards at hostels and universities or online, as well as through international language companies and programs. University and private schools are a good place to start to find instructors willing to give you one-on-one lessons.

You can find language tutors as you would buddies, on bulletin boards at hostels and universities or online.

PROS: You'll receive the most attention with this method and it will be from someone who is experienced in teaching a language. They'll really be able to cater to your strength and weaknesses, focus on accents and teach things that will be of use in your personal life. The tutor will have complete freedom to work with your schedule and will be able to create a classroom whenever and wherever works for both or you.

CONS: It can be very expensive. Depending on how good your tutor is, this could be the most expensive way to learn, but the focus you receive may help you learn quicker, so it could be cheaper in the long run actually. Also, you may or may not have to find your own housing. You also won't have a classroom of peers to practice with for free in your downtime.

Language Internships

Consider a language internship

Internships are often required at universities these days and give students real-world experience in their desired field of work whether it be economics, politics, fashion, etc. Language internships allow you to get that experience while picking up a language and spending some time abroad. On top of an internship these programs include a few hours of language training, which you'll practice during the internship most likely.

PROS: No matter what job you're in, talking to your co-workers is the most important thing about working together and getting things done, so if you're colleagues don't speak the same language as you - you can bet that will motivate you to learn as fast as possible. The mixture of class and real-world experience make for a very efficient language learning process. These programs are well-organized and often include housing. It also looks pretty good on a resume to say you have experience working abroad in a certain field.

CONS: It's a lot of work learning a language while working and it might be very frustrating at first to feel like you could be doing your job better if only you knew the language.

Foreign Exchange (Pre-College)

When it comes to learning a language, the younger, the better. Not only is it easier to pick up a new language at a younger age, but there is also more of a chance it will stay with you. Spending a year abroad as a foreign exchange student in high school is a great opportunity to learn a language and one that will almost force you to do so. Unlike study abroad in college, foreign exchange students in high school often go on their own and are put into a new school system with less catering to them personally. That means you're going to have to pick up a new language just to pass your science course if you are studying in a country that speaks a language different than your own.

Studying abroad can be scary at a young age and the addition of not understanding the language can make this method a bit lonely at first and intimidating.

PROS: Outside of it being easier to learn at a younger age and that there is more pressure to learn, foreign exchange students also often live with a host family, giving them even more opportunity to learn. These programs are often last a full school year and high school is the perfect time to form lasting friendships meaning you'll always have someone to talk to in your new language.

CONS: Studying abroad can be scary at a young age and the addition of not understanding the language can make this method a bit lonely at first and intimidating altogether. Plus, there is the matter of convincing your parents to let you go.

Host Families

Practice a new language with your host family!

A wonderful addition to taking a language program abroad or being a foreign exchange student, living with a host family forces you to learn a language and is often a more comfortable setting to do so. In this method, a family in a foreign country basically takes you in to live with them. You become a part of their family - doing chores, going on vacations and eating meals with them.

PROS: This is a very hands-on, no-escape way to learning a language. People enrolled in a university language program get to go home after school and speak their own language. Not so when living with a host family, which forces you to practice. You'll learn more day-to-day talk with this method rather than the sort in text books and you will form relationships that often continue throughout life. When learning a language abroad, your host family is your family.

CONS: Like any submersion method mentioned in this list, it can be frustrating at first to live with people you do not understand and vice versa. Cultural differences become even more apparent when living with someone and this can create tension. It's very important to remember that things are not better or worse, but different and to be understanding of those differences. Finally, usually host families are kind and as excited about having you as you are about staying with them. They usually have to go through a long process before being approved, but that doesn't mean they are always right for the job. If you are having an absolutely horrible experience and/or being treated poorly, take actions to be removed or switched to a different family. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen.

Self-Taught

Any trip abroad is an opportunity to learn a new language if you want it to be. You may not have enough money for private tutoring or time to commit to a buddy program, but when a new language is all around you, it can be learned. This method requires a lot of motivation, studying, listening and confidence. If you are traveling a few months in say Poland, promise to yourself to listen to audio programs or read language books and practice what you learn with the locals.

Any trip abroad is an opportunity to learn a new language if you want it to be.

PROS: This method is often free, allows you to constantly meet new people and to go at your own pace. You won't be stuck in a classroom and you'll get to see more than just one area of a country.

CONS: You're really going to have to work hard to make this method work. You have to have the gumption to practice what you read and hear before having someone who knows you are learning approve it first. You might be laughed at a few times, but people always appreciate visitors to their country attempting to speak the local tongue.

Work/Volunteer

Working abroad is a great way to learn language

Like language internships, working or volunteering abroad will require you have some knowledge of the local tongue forcing you to learn and learn fast.

PROS: This method sort of tricks people into learning. You pick up words and phrases as you go rather than having to learn the traditional way therefore it might be ideal for those who don't like a classroom setting. This is a free way to learn a language or practice it and you might actually earn money as well.

CONS: Unless you go through a work/study or volunteer/study program, it's up to you to teach yourself. Plus, receiving a visa to work in certain countries is often a long process and if the country you are applying to work in has a different mother tongue than your own, they might require you speak their language to receive a work permit.

Why Learn a Language Abroad?

"Posso usar o seu banheiro por favor?" says a man walking into the Philadelphia deli where you work.

"I'm sorry," says Lise, your co-worker. "I don't understand."

Her eyes widen, forehead crinkle and shoulders shrug as she turns to you, lost.

Just before the customer leaves your store, you make it to the counter and say, "Sim. Lá atrás."

"Obrigado," he says and smiles at you.

After coming out of the bathroom he thanks you again and starts a conversation with you in Portuguese. You learn that he's from Brazil and visiting Philadelphia for his daughter's wedding. You share your experience learning Portuguese in Sao Paulo last summer and even pick up a few new words during this five-minute conversation with Myke, once a stranger, now an acquaintance.

As you wave Myke goodbye, you smile to yourself about the interaction that never would have happened if it weren't for your having learned a language abroad. Of course, if you really want to learn, try more than one method. In fact, try them all. The more you speak a foreign language the more likely you'll become fluid in it, so practice, practice, practice, and before you know it, you'll be the rockstar polyglot you'd always aspired to be.

Look for language courses abroad.

Photo credits: The Leaf Project, Regent Language Training, Barcode Wales Passes, and Jessie Beck.
Photo of Bobbi Lee Hitchon

Bobbi started traveling abroad at the age of 16. Since then she's visited almost 40 countries and lived in three of them with study abroad programs and working holiday visas. Follow her adventures at Heels and Wheels, on Twitter, Instagram and Google+.

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