Travel Abroad Is One of the Best Ways to Practice Your Second Language—Here’s How to Take Advantage of It!
It’s often said that immersion abroad is the “only” way to fully learn a second language. This isn’t strictly true—but it is a hugely valuable tool if you’ve got it at your disposal.
However, simply spending some time in another country isn’t going to magically teach you to speak a language as if by osmosis. Rather, like I mentioned above, travel abroad is a language learning tool. For it to be effective, you need to know how to handle it and use it to your advantage.
And so, with this in mind, I’m going to share with you a bit of what I’ve learned studying languages abroad on a number of different occasions over the past several years. The shortest experience was just three weeks, while the longest (still going strong, in fact!) is now closing in on nine months. But these tips apply to any language learning trip no matter how long, and though every language learner is an individual, I believe they’ll most likely apply to you.
So without further ado, here we go…
1. Get to Studying ASAP
The more of the language you know before you get out there and start practicing it with native speakers, the better. Maybe this is obvious—in fact, I hope it is—but unless you’ve got some basic language skills under your belt, you really won’t have anything to practice at all! And unless you’ve got two years or so to immerse yourself and learn a language from scratch—you know, like a newborn baby—traveling abroad with no base knowledge of the language will get you precisely nowhere.
2. Technology Has Changed the Game
Long gone are the days when you could travel and truly get lost in a new culture and language. For better or for worse, no matter where you go in this day and age, you’re still connected with your boyfriend, your mom, or your little brother back home, and there’s no doubt that they’ll still want to Skype with you in the evening even after having Facebook chatted with you all day. While this is nice to keep you from getting homesick, the brutal truth is that it’s no good at all for your foreign language skills.
Take it from me—I’ve seen it happen before. If you travel abroad only to hole yourself up in your room binge watching English-language TV shows and keeping in touch with friends back home, you’re going to arrive back in a month or two and realize that you’ve squandered an incredible opportunity—and one that you’ll most likely have only a few times in your life, if you’re lucky.
3. And Now, a Warning…
I hope it’s clear by now that technology use that keeps you tied to your day-to-day English-language life should be kept to a minimum during your trip. And that’s all well and good, but of course it has to have a downside as well.
Basically, true immersion in a foreign language will leave you feeling confused, lost, and even lonely, at least at times. And there are very few feelings more unpleasant than missing an “obvious” social cue or uttering something entirely inappropriate for the situation, occurrences bound to take place at least once or twice—or let’s face it, seven or eight times—during your trip.
If you’re truly going to throw yourself into a language learning experience abroad, you have to be ready and willing to accept the challenges inherent in such an undertaking. But if it’s any solace at all, try to remember that many of these negative feelings—embarrassment, the sense that you’re bringing the group dynamic “down,” etc.—are generated inside of you.
Try to see yourself from an outsider’s perspective—if you and your friends/family welcomed an English language student back home, would you judge them when they asked you to repeat a sentence or cruelly mock them for an inadvertent mistake? Of course not. You should never do the same to yourself, either.
4. Find Friends You Can Bond With
One of the most common questions asked by language learners traveling abroad is, “how can I make friends if I can’t even communicate effectively?” It’s a valid concern, and something that I myself struggled with for a long time. The best advice I have is to try and get involved in an activity you enjoy that doesn’t require your verbal communication skills to be at 100%.
Like basketball? Join a pickup game. Play the guitar? Find a jam session. At a loss for ideas? Consider tutoring an English language learner—you can easily bond over that experience! Simply partaking in an activity with someone will create an immediate bond between you, and nine times out of ten they’ll be more than happy to help you with your language skills after practice—at the local watering hole, if you’re anything like me.
5. Don’t Be Afraid if a Person Isn’t Your “Type”
I know I just told you to search out people with similar interests, which is still a good idea. However, you also have to consider that your time abroad is a great opportunity to meet and to get to know people you probably wouldn’t speak to even for a moment back at home.
If you’re a straight-laced guy with a three-week homestay in Costa Rica and your new “brother” is a metal head, who cares? You’re here to expand your horizons, right? The best case scenario is that you find new interests of your own, and the absolute worst possibility is that you learn a little bit about something that was foreign to you before—all the while, of course, increasing your language skills.
6. Don’t Forget to Keep in Touch
This, my friends, might be the most important advice of all. During your trip, you’re likely to meet at least one person with whom you really hit it off. They’ll be your buddy during your time abroad, and you should work to keep them that way even after you’re long gone.
Remember when I mentioned how technology now allows us to stay in touch with people anywhere in the world? This works in the other direction too, and when you get home, make sure not to forget about the connections you made while studying a second language abroad.
Take it from me—I’ve fallen out of touch with too many good friends simply because I couldn’t find a few minutes a week to respond to a friendly message. If you manage to keep nurturing your relationships, you’ll have a friend for life and a connection for the next time you visit the country—not to mention a native-speaking language partner, an invaluable asset if you’re truly in this “learning” thing for the long haul.
By Jim Dobrowolski
Jim Dobrowolski is an American freelance writer and translator currently based out of Aguascalientes, Mexico. In his free time he enjoys hiking, playing basketball, and sampling the many beers this world has to offer. He is the founder of the travel site crosscontinentcruising.com and his personal website can be found at jimdobrowolski.com.