Studying abroad is one of the most exciting opportunities available to college students, and each year over 250,000 students make a leap of faith when they step into that airplane and head off for the adventure of a lifetime. There are many reasons to study abroad, but one of the most popular is to learn a new language. In fact, many university language programs require a semester abroad, and foreign language educators all tout the importance of immersion into a language to become fluent.
It’s not enough just to hang out in Paris or Rome for a few months with your English-speaking friends from campus and expect fluency to happen, though. If you want to sound like a native and even begin to think in your second language, you need to work at it. Try these tips to get the very best language immersion experiences out of your study abroad trip.
Live With a Host Family
Though you may cringe at the idea of sharing a bathroom with strangers for several months, living with a host family offers nearly limitless cultural experiences. You’ll be able to brush up on all your elementary vocabulary, like rooms of the house, daily activities and basic conversation as you get to know each other and the neighborhood. A host family that doesn’t speak English forces you to step up your game in your second language. You simply don’t have a choice but to figure out how to get your ideas across without resorting to English.
A friendly host family can answer all your questions about the ins and outs of the new culture you find yourself in. You can ask about ingredients in local dishes, directions to the nearest pharmacy and advice on popular activities in the area. Your hosts can also help explain inscrutable local customs and help you with your endless barrage of “How do you say ___?” questions. Living with a host family is like having a cultural interpreter by your side at all times, and you might just make a lifelong friend.
Study in a Smaller City
Capital cities like Tokyo and Paris are great, but living in a big city while studying abroad has its drawbacks. You are more likely to be exposed to English, as many world-class cities readily offer translation on everything from street signs to museum maps. You may even find yourself sticking to touristy places and eating at American fast-food restaurants just because they’re in your comfort zone. Universities in large cities also host many English-speaking students, and slipping into your native language while hanging out will limit your exposure to the language you’re trying to learn.
Smaller colleges and mid-sized cities that are off the tourism radar can offer you a much more immersive cultural experience. The fewer Americans around, the more you’ll have to use your foreign language skills to do everything from buying your books and asking questions in classes to getting groceries and booking a spring-break trip. A smaller town can also feel more manageable as you begin to recognize shopkeepers and find your way around without getting lost. This can be very comforting during the first weeks of immersion in a new culture.
If you’re already heading to a large metropolis for your semester abroad, you can still live a small-town lifestyle by joining a local club or volunteer organization. You can also spend weekends exploring the countryside to get a taste of rural life in an area where English is less likely to be spoken.
Tips to Immersing Yourself
A semester abroad is an unbelievable experience, but it isn’t always an easy one. Jumping into an unfamiliar culture can be isolating and confusing at times, and it’s okay to feel overwhelmed. Here are some tips to make the transition a little easier:
- Pack a few comfort items to combat homesickness. Pictures of family, a treasured book (in English!) and an iPod filled with your favorite songs can go a long way when you’re feeling lonely.
- Give yourself peace of mind by purchasing travel insurance long before you leave home. Dealing with an unforeseen emergency like a canceled flight or stolen luggage is even more stressful in a foreign language, so look into student packages from Allianz Travel insurance, and know that you’re prepared for anything.
- Remind yourself that you don’t need to be perfect. You’re going to make plenty of mistakes as you try to speak your new language, and that’s okay. Don’t let fear of making a mistake keep you from trying to get your point across.
- Make local friends. Having a friendly person your own age to hang out with will go a long way to combat any feelings of loneliness, and you’ll learn about what’s cool in your country from someone your own age.
- Take a risk. Whether it’s tasting a new food, going on a date with someone who doesn’t speak English or making a cross-country high-speed rail trip on your own, make sure you get out there and do it. A semester abroad is often a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so don’t let a moment of it go by without getting all you can out of it.