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Why You Should Learn a Language on Your Gap Year

Homestay Japan

You’ve selected the destination, started your research, and daydream constantly about the adventures you'll have on your gap year abroad. Except, you don't want to waste your time. You want to learn something new -- why not start by learning a new language on your gap year?

The benefits from taking a language course abroad will help you during your travels and long after.

From hiring a private tutor in Japan to taking a classroom course in Ecuador, the options are as unlimited as the world and the languages in it. Not only that, but the benefits from taking a language course abroad will help you during your travels and long after.

Still on the fence? Well then, read on for our favorite reasons why we at Go Overseas think adding a language course to your gap year is an absolute must:

1. You're in the Best Language Learning Conditions

Vendor in Mexico

Unless you are a registered genius, learning a foreign language usually isn’t easy. But learning Spanish while in South America puts the experience in an entirely different context: complete language immersion.

Unlike courses at home, teachers are usually native speakers with a lifetime of knowledge behind them, and the language learning doesn't stop when you leave the classroom. Every interaction outside of the classroom is a chance to improve your fluency.

Perhaps more importantly though, memorizing the present and past tense of verbs is bolstered by stories of a country’s history, the people you meet, and from interacting with the culture intertwined with that language. And the rewards are immediate.

2. You Get to Put Your Language to Use Immediately

Rather than just filling out worksheets emailed between you and a faceless online instructor, you actually get to put your new language skills to use the minute you leave the classroom.

Not only will this help you retain the language better, but it's a fantastic motivator -- no matter how lazy you normally are with studying. Your classes will allow you to order a coffee the correct way after class, or finally ask your neighbor how their day was.

And hey, I don't know about you, but I personally think a delicious cup of coffee or a new friend is a way better reward for all of this hard language learning work than an A+ on an assignment!

3. It'll Help You Explore Your Gap Year Destinations

We said it just now, but we can't say it enough. When you're living in a foreign country, language learning doesn’t stop in the classroom or with your tutor. Opportunities to use your new language are a part of every day life.

The streets are filled with stores, restaurants, and advertisements all written in the very language you are trying so diligently to learn. People walking past are talking about their crazy boss or their home decorating debacle. There is nothing quite like the moment when you understand a blurb from a stranger’s conversation in a foreign language (psst, did we mention eavesdropping is one of our favorite language learning hacks?)

Can you read the sign explaining which bus to take? Do you understand your waiter? Showing a willingness to learn and try to speak someone’s language can mean a lot to him or her -- and, likewise, can make all the difference between you being perceived as a "meaningful traveler" or an ugly tourist.

A deeper understanding can only enhance the entire experience.

For example, while I was walking along a deserted road on Kefalonia Island, Greece, a girl on her moped stopped and asked in Greek where I was going. I told her the town I was staying in and she indicated for me to hop on her bike.

For the next fifteen minutes we flew through the countryside exchanging small niceties in Greek until she left me at my apartment. I offered several heartfelt Efharisto’s (Thank you’s), she smiled widely and complimented my Greek, and I was on my way, aglow from the exploration.

To better discover your new home for the year, you owe it to yourself to learn the language. A deeper understanding can only enhance the entire experience.

4. It's a Safety Strategy

Knowing at least some of the local language means you'll be able to ask for help when you need it, better understand what people around you are saying, and be less of a target.

If you can bargain in the local language, you're more likely to get a local price (or at least, closer to the local price...) and prevent people from trying to scam you.

5. It'll Help You Make Friends

Girls in Hong Kong

Making connections with people around the world is a core component of traveling. But, naturally, it becomes much more difficult to make friends while your an au pair in France or volunteering in Cambodia if you can't actually speak with anyone.

Sure a smile and a laugh can go a long way, but building meaningful friendships on your gap year comes from communicating. Befriending someone you would never meet if you weren’t living in a foreign country is a euphoria only known to the traveler willing to leave behind all they know.

In my own personal experience, one of my favorite moments while traveling was when I spent an entire evening at a discoteca in Ecuador with new friends from my university. They attempted to teach me the Salsa, but all we really did was laugh at my left-right-stumble-left-right-stumble.

That night Spanish rolled out of my brain and off my tongue with an ease I had never known. I wasn’t even thinking in English! Not only was this great language practice, but a memory I never would have made without having studied any Spanish!

6. It’ll Help You Work Abroad

For some of you, you'll find that getting a gap year job is necessary. Although it's possible to get a job only knowing your primary language (especially if said primary language is English...), there's no denying that knowing the local language will give you a boost.

It's definitely important to have a basic knowledge of the country’s language to be a more desirable hire.

For example, English teachers are often hired without even knowing a phrase in their new country’s language, but imagine the benefit of being able to communicate with your fellow teachers in Thailand after spending several weeks diligently studying Thai?

However, keep in mind that you may not have any say in the matter. Some countries require foreigners to enroll in a language course in order to obtain a visa such as Swedish Au Pair visa holders. For travelers looking to apply to internships abroad or more professional business positions, it is definitely important to have a basic knowledge of the country’s language to be a more desirable hire.

7. And Look Good on Your Resume After

When you come home from your gap year, you may have to market or explain your gap year abroad. You'll have to prove it wasn't a waste of time, and you weren't simply sipping cocktails on the beach for a year straight.

Getting a new language under your belt, or improving your fluency in one you already know some of, not only helps prove this, but it could make you more qualified for certain positions.

8. Your Brain Will Thank You

Researchers have long heralded the benefits of adding multiple languages to your repertoire -- and for good reason. Learning a new language improves you at the most fundamental level, your brain!

Memorizing new vocabulary and verb conjugations is like flexing a muscle, your brain muscle. You boost memory and can even delay the onset of Alzheimer’s in those predisposed to the disease. Bilingual individuals are found to have superior multitasking skills and adapt better to abrupt changes (and um, all this awesome brain flexing and language learning is pretty sexy too).

Studying a second language also improves the understanding of your first language. By learning the rules and structures of a foreign language, it causes you to look closer at the layout of your primary language. As Geoffrey Willans so brilliantly put it, “You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.”

Which Language Will You Learn?

So go into the world, learn a new language, and do something good for yourself. Maybe learning Italian will get you that cruise ship job in the Mediterranean you have always dreamed of. Perhaps speaking Spanish allows you to make a new friend who shows you the authentic, unknown side of Bogota.

Traveling abroad is the ideal environment for studying the resident language. Your surroundings of street signs, television, radio, and chatty locals will all push you toward the one thing you are trying to learn, that beautiful new language. So get out there, and add a language course to your gap year itinerary!

Photo Credits: Elizabeth Caletka and Lydia Voss.
Photo of Alecia Weaver

Alecia Weaver became addicted to travel at the age of 14 and has since lived and traveled abroad extensively. Now residing in Los Angeles, she works on the “Breaking Bad” spinoff series titled “Better Call Saul.” Whenever she is not working on a television series, Alecia is traipsing around the globe and contorting herself into funky yoga poses. Her most recent adventure took her throughout Bali, Thailand and Cambodia.