How to learn a language abroad (other than English)?

There are billions of articles out there about the best ways to learn a language, the vast majority of them agreeing that sooner of later you will have to go to a country where the language is spoken in order to really master it. And while that is true, it is far from being enough! Unless you’re still a teenager, your mind is no longer like a ’sponge’ that will just instantaneously soak knowledge in. Just because you are surrounded by a language, doesn’t mean you don’t have to make an effort.

The first and most important commitment you have to make when abroad is refraining from the use of English! It might seem like a given that you would always have to speak the language of the country you are in, but things are not that simple! Unless you go to a rural village in the middle of nowhere, where nobody speaks English, you will often have the option to use English, or perhaps some other language you already speak well. It is very hard to resist the temptation to switch, especially when you have to handle difficult issues, like opening a bank account. Erasmus students are at an especially high risk of going home with the same language competence they started with (perhaps a better English). When I lived in France, I met people who had been there for almost a decade, and yet they knew little more than ’bonjour’ and ’voulez vous coucher avec moi’… And that is fine too, if your goal is just to have a good time with other expats and locals who happen to be fluent in English. But just in case you want to learn the language, here are a few tips from me, from the time I was in France:

1, If you go abroad, yet you find yourself mostly surrounded by English speakers, other foreigners, or your fellow countrymen, talk to just about any local you meet (unless sketchy). At the beginning, when I didn’t know many people yet, I would patiently listen to the missionary who tried to convert me in the street, or have a conversation with the weird old lady at the bus stop.

2, Try to strike up interesting conversations with locals. Talking about your studies or the weather for the umpteenth time is good practice, but it won’t stretch your limits. When it is really important for you to get your message across, be it about philosophy, politics, culture, etc. (and you don’t cheat by reverting to English, of course), that is when you become creative. That is where the magic happens.

3, Make local friends, or even better, get a local girlfriend/boyfriend. Unfortunately, easier said than done, as language barriers (not to mention cultural differences) make it harder for people to connect. But in the beginning, a good way to ’tempt’ locals to hang out sometimes is to offer a language tandem, where part of the time you speak your language, and part his or hers.

4, Get a job, if you don’t already have one. What worked for me, even more so than the few French classes I took during my Erasmus, was working at a fast food restaurant. I had to speak French all the time, but I wasn’t expected to speak perfectly, which was a relief, and within a few months I picked up some excellent colloquial French.

5, Don’t forget that you still have to do the same things you would at home: look up grammar, words, read a lot, watch movies, and just generally, go that extra mile!


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