Let’s face it. Native English speakers tend to be lazy about learning foreign languages. But just because you can rely on speaking English in some countries doesn’t mean that you should. Speaking the language of your host culture brings opportunities, experiences, relationships, and fun that you would not have access to otherwise.
While studying abroad makes you a more attractive job candidate after graduation, language ability can bump you up another tier. Studying abroad shows that a person can be independent, adaptable, understanding, and adventurous. Add foreign language proficiency to that, and a person also becomes dedicated, intelligent, and skilled.
Living in a foreign country with ease and making friends with locals because you speak the language is fun. Sure, grammar classes may not be amusing, but the end result is worth it. The fact is that until you speak the language, it will be much harder to find opportunities to build relationships with many locals, learn about things to do and see that are far off the beaten tourist path, and gain deeper cultural insights. But once you have the language skills, a whole new world will open at your feet.
While abroad, you couldn’t avoid learning things about your host culture, even if you tried. But you cannot truly understand a culture until you speak the language. Shopping, eating the food, walking the streets and attending classes, will show the culture to you. But real cultural comprehension includes an understanding of the language, a knowledge of the idioms, metaphors, and untranslatable words. Because these expressions are the skeleton key that cracks open the ethos of your host culture.
Culture and language have a symbiotic relationship, interacting and impacting each other in profound ways. Take the expression “No worries”, originating in Australia and New Zealand. The consistent use of this phrase indicates a generally laid-back approach to life. Another example is “Pura Vida” (Pure Life), used as a greeting and farewell in Costa Rica that indicates a cultural focus on enjoying life. While these are only two examples among thousands, perhaps millions, you get the idea. If you didn’t understand that Australians were telling you “no worries” when something went wrong, or that Costa Ricans were greeting you with “Pure Life”, you might miss key insights into the culture and way of life.
|Photo by Toa Heftiba: London|
So what are your next steps? Along with taking language classes while abroad, make sure you:
Don’t fall into the English-speaking trap
I know Americans who have lived abroad for over a decade, and do not speak the language. Because English is such a widely-spoken language, it is easy to fall into the trap of speaking English with the many English-speakers in your host city. I encourage you to get more out of your experience than that. Push yourself to speak the language of your host culture whenever possible.
When choosing housing, if a homestay is an option, this will be the absolute best way to improve your language skills, interacting and speaking with a local family. If a residence hall with local students is an option, this is also a good way to work on your language abilities.
Speak – even if you don’t have anything to say
When you’re a beginner, piecing together a simple sentence can be a challenge. Also, the fear of embarrassment overwhelms some language learners. But the only way to improve your language skills is to forget about any potential mistakes or embarrassment and say whatever you can, whenever you can - even if it’s just a few words. Those around you will not think less of you for making mistakes – they will appreciate that you are making the effort.
|Photo by Titouan: Translation: "Whew"|
Read, read, read
Read whatever you can get your hands on in your target language. When I study a new language, I typically start with children’s and young adult books that I have read before in English. That way, I have some familiarity with the plot and context, but am still working with new vocabulary. The average newspaper and magazine are written at about an 8th grade reading level, so print media in your target language are also good places to start.
Make Disney your new best friend
Watching Disney movies is a great way to practice your listening and vocabulary skills. Because Disney movies are available in a plethora of languages, chances are that there will be a version for the language you are trying to learn. Also, you will most likely be familiar with the plot and context, which will make understanding easier.
While becoming proficient in a foreign language takes time, effort, and practice, every minute you spend studying grammar or reading a book in your target language will be worth it. Once you discover how good it feels to hold a conversation with a local in your host city, to understand the music you hear at a concert, and to feel at home in your host culture, you won’t regret the effort you put into learning the language while studying abroad.
Kristyn O. is CEA's Student Services Coordinator. She studied abroad in Stuttgart, Germany majoring in German and International Studies
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