If you are lucky enough to go abroad to study a foreign language, here are some suggestions to make your time there more productive and more pleasurable.
First, just by being in the country where the language is spoken, you have a huge advantage over those sitting at their desks in a classroom at home. For you, the entire country is a classroom, and almost every aspect of your daily life is an exercise in the foreign language. It’s like a Disneyworld for language learning! Take advantage of it. Go on all the rides-from the simple to the scary.
You will most likely be around some people who speak your native language. It’s okay to make friends with them-just don’t spend all your time with them. It may be tempting, and it’s certainly a lot easier-but if you only hang out with them, you will deprive yourself of the opportunity to meet people, to practice the foreign language and learn the culture. Remember why you’re there!
On the other hand, sometimes a friend from your country can be helpful in this regard. When I studied Spanish in Guanajuato, Mexico, a few years ago, I met a very extroverted American who explored every corner of the town and wasn’t shy about speaking. He talked to everyone in his broken Spanish, and his boldness inspired me to do the same.
One time we were on a bus at rush hour, and he began talking to the woman next to him. She looked tired from her day at work, and I thought she would be angry at his questions about her job and where she lived. But no, she responded to him! So I turned to the woman next to me and began asking similar questions. I never would have done this alone-but this is how you improve your fluency.
My friend and I had one or two meals every day with our hostess at the place where we were living. We all had fun trying to communicate with each other in Spanish, and at the end of our time there, my friend and I had learned at least as much from our conversations with Carmen as we did from our classes.
Here are some other suggestions, based on my own travels and language-learning adventures:
Start studying before you leave home. Take a class, get CDs to listen to, or at least get a guidebook and learn some of the common, everyday phrases: Hello, goodbye, I’m sorry, how much is this, thank you, I don’t understand. You’ll be a little more comfortable when you arrive.
Keep a diary. You can begin by writing in your first language, then begin to add the odd foreign word or phrase-and gradually find yourself writing whole sentences, even paragraphs in the foreign language.
You might embarrass yourself occasionally-using the wrong word, which sounds very funny to native speakers, or holding up a line at the grocery store or post office because you can’t figure out what the clerk is saying. Don’t take it personally.
Sometimes, when you don’t understand, you can just smile. Lots of people do that. You don’t have to ask the person to keep repeating when they are probably just saying something like “Have a nice day.” Smile, and move on.
Don’t forget to give yourself credit for every small achievement. You asked what time it was and got an appropriate response? Great!
Bring a list of key words and phrases, even a short script, when you go out to do errands. You can pull it out if you need it. After a while, the words will be part of your vocabulary.
Take small steps at first. Read short things-signs, newspaper headlines, comic books. Ask questions you already know the answers to-really. It’s just practice!
When you’re buying apples and oranges, you can hold up fingers to indicate the number, but if you think you know how to say it, try! Take risks! The best way to learn is by making mistakes.
Aim high. But don’t expect perfection of yourself. It takes time to learn a language, even if you’re immersed in it. There will be times you’ll do well, then times you don’t know what to say, can’t understand anything. This is normal; it’s a process.
Above all, don’t give up. Don’t compare yourself to others. And enjoy your stay!