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Live the Language You Learn

How to Make the Most of Studying a Language Abroad

Here are a few tips to help get you on track with studying a language abroad and retaining what you’ve learned when you return. I’ve included my own experiences from a year of study at a German university as well as ways I continue to reinforce my language skills.

1. Live and learn. If you have a choice, live with a host family. If the family doesn’t speak any English, you’ll need to learn their language for daily communication. Be careful if your host family wants to learn English as well. Make sure you get to speak your target language at least half the time. Student dorms are also a good choice, but it’s best to find one that has a high percentage of native-language speakers.

How it worked for me: I didn’t have the option of staying with a host family, but I did end up in a dorm that housed students from all over the world. Since many didn’t speak any English, speaking German was the only way we could communicate.

2. Ditch your friends. Studying abroad is a great way to meet people from around the world, but it’s easy to gravitate toward those who speak the same language you do, especially when you’re just starting out. But spending most of your time with them can keep you speaking English. Try to make friends with locals who have similar interests.

How it worked for me: I made a number of English-speaking friends right away because they were easy to talk to. But spending too much time with them was stunting my language learning, so I made an effort to communicate with the people in my classes whose first language wasn’t English. The result: I made some more great friends, and even though I wasn’t as fluent as they were we still were able to communicate well and have a great time hanging out.

How it works for me now: I still keep in touch with many friends from my year abroad. I often write letters, send emails, and even make phone calls in the various languages I’ve picked up.

3. Swap language lessons. Many universities have a formal or informal arrangement for students who want to learn English. These students will gladly swap language lessons with you. You can usually find requests for this on university bulletin boards and in newspapers. Or be proactive and post a sign or place an ad yourself.

How it worked for me: My German university offered the opportunity to be teamed up with a “tandempartner.” My partner was a shy native speaker who wanted to improve her English. We met several times a week, alternating days between speaking German and English. We agreed that if one of us made a mistake, the other would correct it right away. Not only was it a great way to get my own informal German tutor, but it also put me at ease to meet someone as shy about her language skills as I was.

How it works for me now: Near my home there’s a school that teaches English to international students. I posted a sign asking to swap German lessons for English. Two days later, I got a call from an attractive Austrian who helped me practice my German in exchange for helping her with her English.

4. Listen and learn, even when alone. Even when you’re not interacting with people, you can still work on your listening skills. A cassette player, VCR, or DVD player is no substitute for human interaction, but listening can get you accustomed to the cadence as well as the colloquial aspect of a language. You can always rewind the parts you have trouble understanding at first.

How it worked for me: Since understanding the spoken word was always a challenge for me, I bought a television for my dorm room and I watched everything from local programming to dubbed American shows. In the end, my ability to understand spoken German improved faster than my reading skills.

How it works for me now: Whenever I can, I rent movies and watch DVDs in whatever language I’m studying at the time. There are a lot of DVDs available with audio tracks and subtitles in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Korean…even Thai.

5. Get a job. A great way to pick up a language quickly is by finding work. While not always an option (some universities forbid their students from getting a job while enrolled in a study abroad program), finding work usually puts you in direct contact with native speakers regularly and gives you a reason to learn the language quickly.

How it worked for me: Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to work legally, and I didn’t want to risk getting caught. However, many of my friends were able to find jobs—some legal, others not—and had to learn the language or face embarrassment. (I suggest you only get a job that’s legal and approved by your university. Don’t risk getting sent home.)

How it works for me now: I’m lucky to have a job at a university with a large international student population. Being able to speak to students who possess a limited knowledge of English often makes my job easier (and more appealing).

6. Expose yourself. The best way to learn a foreign language is to be in the country where that language is spoken.

Take advantage of the opportunity. Overwhelm your senses with movie theaters, newspapers, street vendors, pool halls, restaurants, festivals, train stations, bars, cafes, beaches, concerts, parks, churches. … Learning a language can be daunting. Making mistakes can be embarrassing. But if you’re brave enough to uproot yourself and live in a different country, then you’re certainly brave enough to risk making a few mistakes.

How it worked for me: When I first started out, I clung to Americans and spoke German only when absolutely necessary. But as time passed, I met some great people who I could only get to know by speaking German. I made mistakes but learned from them, and by the end of the school year I was not only speaking German, I was thinking in it.

How it works for me now: Having become a language addict, I try to take advantage of every opportunity I can to reinforce my language skills. I start conversations with international students. I scour the local library for resources. I dine at Japanese, French, and Thai restaurants when I know I can order my food in the native tongue. Sometimes I get funny looks. But believe me, it’s worth it. In order to learn—and maintain—a language, you’ve got to put in the effort. But in the end it will pay off and soon you’ll be speaking like a native.

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