Traveling abroad as a student is one of the best ways not just to see the world and befriend new and interesting people, but to learn a language as well. That’s because travel forces you to learn a language in real time without leaving room for excuses like wanting to watch TV or work on your suntan. Let’s break down the good, the bad and everything in between.
Learn in context.
Sure, you could sequester yourself in the stacks and memorize roots and grammatical rules for months on end, but you’ll never really learn a language until you put it into context. Your brain becomes more finely attuned to patterns within the language when, for example, you’re standing in the train station, trying to understand whether or not that announcement over the loudspeaker is saying, “The train departs in five minutes” or “All trains have been canceled for the day.” There’s no zoning out when urgency is involved.
The same goes for making friends when you’re abroad. You’ll never get anywhere if you hang back. You’ll have no choice but to dive in, get your hands dirty, and learn as you go. While rapid fire exchanges may be difficult to follow, you’ll have a physical context and universal gestures to help you through. Doing so will help you think creatively and see things from a different angle.
Turn misunderstandings into adventure.
Whenever you’re traveling in a place that speaks a different language, misunderstandings are inevitable. It’s best just to embrace that fact. Get into the habit of laughing at yourself and of embracing whatever adventures these misunderstandings bring. Did you accidentally get yourself signed up for the Running of the Bulls? Did you agree to eat a bowl of snake soup? Well, traveling is about changing your perspective. Just roll with it and see what happens.
Be kind to yourself.
Even if you’re mildly proficient at a language, it’s bound to take awhile before you’ll be able to engage in fast-paced conversations, especially in social settings like a bar where there might be many conversations happening at once. You’ll also struggle to understand slang and to catch sarcasm and wit. That’s normal. You’ll get it if you keep trying. Plus, just think of all the cool phrases you can use to show off when you return home.
Get ready ahead of time.
Yes, you should use a language learning program to establish the basic building blocks of a language before you head to the airport. But also prepare yourself by listening to, watching or reading podcasts, newspapers, books, movies and TV shows from your destination country. This will give you a taste of what it will be like to learn language in context.
It’s also good to have a smartphone on hand for must have translation, but mostly, it’s best to…
Learn by trial.
The best way to overcome language barriers is listen and try, try, try. Let’s say, for instance, a native is telling you all about the best restaurants in the city, and they’re peppering their story with all sorts of flashy phrases you’ve never encountered. You’ll have a more authentic, human interaction if you ask them about specific words rather than reaching for your smart phone. Treat technology as your last resort. With enough interactions under your belt, it will eventually all start to click.
For better or worse, traveling abroad and learning a new language means always keeping your mind on. Your neurons will be firing like crazy as you take in new sensory experiences and parse through every new bit of language. You’ll find new connections that you never knew were there, and have all sorts of life changing realizations. But make no mistake, you’ll never get to zone out in front of a TV. You’ll always be on, so get your rest in now. Before you board that plane for the adventure of a lifetime.