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How to Effectively Learn a Language While Living Abroad

There is no better way to learn a language than immersion. It’s nearly impossible to live somewhere without picking up at least some of the local language. This is an extension of the idea that language learning requires habit; by its very nature, immersion forces learners into a habit of seeing, hearing, and sometimes producing another language. With concerted effort, living abroad can be an effective, immersive way to pick up a new language.

People live abroad for different reasons: a job transfer, study abroad, an extended vacation, a soul-searching journey, or even specifically to learn a language. These tips cover a broad range of possibilities that may or may not be applicable to your particular situation. I’ve divided them into four categories to reflect the different spheres in which you might encounter language abroad.

People live abroad for different reasons.

Educational

Language learning often starts in the classroom. While fluency in oral communication cannot be attained simply by reading a textbook, understanding the underlying grammatical structure behind a language can certainly speed up the learning process. Think of classroom instruction as a skeleton for the meatier words and phrases you’ll learn through immersion, or a catalyst whose remaining linguistic elements can only come from practice and habit. Here are a few ways to find educational avenues to learn a language abroad.


Take classes.

Find a local university or language academy that is willing to take sign-ups. If money is an issue, see if it would be possible to audit.

You might also try the independent instructor route. As a foreigner, no matter how isolated, you’re bound to meet another foreigner somehow; that foreigner might know others, and one of those foreigners probably takes classes. Follow the trail and ask around for local language instructors. (Along the way, figure out what makes a fair price, and what’s highway robbery.)

Figure out your learning style. You might require one-on-one sessions to maximize concentration. Maybe you’d like to take lessons with classmates, who would offer the potential to become study partners or friends. If your schedule is variable, you might want to find an instructor who offers flexible times. You might also feel uncomfortable inviting a tutor or teacher into your home, or, conversely, uncomfortable stepping into theirs. In times of social distancing, virtual courses like those offered by ReDefiners might be your best option. Each of these considerations should be taken into account when searching for a suitable instruction method.

Figure out your learning style.

Get a language partner.

This could be achieved through an institution like a language academy or university, or through your own informal contacts. Before starting a language exchange, ensure that you and your potential partner have established the guidelines of your relationship:

  • how you’ll communicate--call, text, email

  • how often you’ll communicate

  • How often you’ll meet

  • what language you’ll speak; is this language exchange two-sided, or are you the main beneficiary?

  • payment logistics

It may be that your partner is volunteering their time in the hopes of engaging in cultural exchange. It may be that they also want to practice their English with you. It may be that they expect you to pay when you meet up for coffee; it may be that the language academy through which you’re taking lessons will also cover costs like these.

Make the most of sessions with your language partner. Before each meeting, think of topics to talk about and activities to do together. You can go to the movies, the market, the pharmacy--and remember to talk, since the point is to engage in active and reactive conversation in the language you’re learning.

Residential

Immersion is based on the idea of place--a language tied to a place. By living in a foreign country, you’ve already upped your language learning game. You can take it one step further by incorporating the place you live, thus making the space around you a conduit for your language learning endeavors.


Live with a host family.

Again, there are language exchange institutions that might be able to help set you up with a host family. The benefits of living with a host family are numerous. Both parties engage in cultural exchange, and you’re exposed to casual vocabulary and domestic interactions that textbooks don’t cover. If there are children in the family, they can be good conversation partners and even teachers. Your host parents and siblings can act as your guides in an unfamiliar place. Life in a host family is as immersive as it gets.

One good way to go abroad for the sake of linguistic and cultural exchange--not applicable if you’re already abroad for another reason--is to be an au pair. An au pair lives with a family and usually assists with housework and childcare for room and board and a small stipend. Since the purpose of becoming an au pair is usually to improve language skills, au pair families will sometimes even pay for language classes. This depends on the country and the family; research thoroughly beforehand.

Life in a host family is as immersive as it gets.

Befriend your neighbors.

Whether you’re living in an apartment complex or a house, you’ll have neighbors. Depending on the local culture, getting to know them might be as simple as bringing over a basket of fruit. There may be a community garden or residential board that you can get involved with. Be cognizant of social hierarchies you do not understand, unspoken barriers between persons of opposite genders, or other social dynamics you might not expect. If you look as foreign as you are, you might be given the benefit of the doubt, but all the same, do your research and take care not to cross any lines.

Social

Here is where you need to look outward to the world beyond the classroom and home. This is challenging for those of us with difficulty in social situations, but it’s a necessary step in learning a language to fluency. You can imbibe more of a language and culture from the give-and-take of a dinner conversation than from a semester of studying. Language is, after all, a tool for communication, and that necessitates interaction with others.


Go places.

Go to movies, concerts, conventions, and holiday extravaganzas. Go to a pottery session or cooking class. Go out to a bar if you’re of age and like to drink, or find something else that your local peers like to do, whether that’s karaoke, escape rooms, or whatever else. Really, the possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

The point of going places is not just to have fun, but also to expose yourself to different vocabularies. By going out to a club with friends, you might be giving yourself the opportunity to learn slang, play drinking games, understand current music and dance trends, and practice listening to an unfamiliar language muffled by the static of loud music. By joining a book club, you’ll be putting yourself in a position to learn the vocabulary of literature and theory.


Interact with others.

As noted above, you can look to your classmates or neighbors for meaningful interactions. If you’re a teacher, talk with the parents of your students. If you’re working in an office, talk with local coworkers.

Don’t hang out only with other foreigners--although by all means, don’t isolate yourself from them either. Simply find ways to make local friends, even if that means stepping out of your comfort zone. Technology is your friend; make sure you have an account with whatever social media app is most popular in the area, and, if it floats your boat, maybe even try a dating app or two. Leverage your existing contacts to find more social spaces to be in.

Find social spaces to be in.


Be smart.

Most study abroad programs will warn their students to stay away from political gatherings and topics that might cause division or discomfort in conversations. Politics can be tricky even in your own country; in another place, your foreignness and lack of linguistic ability may add stumbling blocks to already difficult topics of communication.

How you comport yourself in a foreign country should depend on your level of commitment to the language and place. If you’re a passing visitor, it’s generally best practice to keep controversial thoughts in your head. If your intention is to make a life there, certain political matters may affect you deeply, and you may feel you should have a say. Just remember that as long as you hold another country’s citizenship, you can never be sure of your status.

Habitual

Whereas the social sphere is outward-facing, the habitual one looks inward. These are methods that build on the others--educational, residential, and social--to solidify your language learning progress. They are not, in fact, specific to living abroad, but are more of a reiteration of the importance of habit in learning another language.


Make a study habit.

While living abroad, don’t forget to make language learning a habit. You can do this just as you would have at home without immersion, but a better option would be to incorporate everything discussed prior.

  • review your textbooks and notes

  • meet with your language partner periodically

  • talk with your host family and neighbors every day

  • choose social activities that incorporate your hobbies and language-learning goals

The nice thing about immersion is that you hardly need to try. When you’re in a foreign country, everything is a foreign language habit. Just talk to your host family or your coworkers, listen to the grocery store announcements while shopping for dinner, or go out to a restaurant with friends, and there’s your daily practice right there.


Become a regular.

This is a favorite among language learners I know who’ve studied abroad, probably because it combines our human needs for routine and social interaction. Work out at the same gym every day, or pick up the same lunch from the same place every afternoon. Study for class in the same coffeeshop or bookstore every evening. Buy your fruits from the same fruit stand every week. At some point, the owner or employee will recognize you as a regular, and if you make your foreign status clear, they may take an interest in helping you out. Even if they don’t, you’ve carved out a time and place for language, so that even if you don’t live with a host family or don’t take classes, you’ll always have that five-minute interaction with the cashier to fall back on.

Becoming a regular combines our human needs for routine and social interaction.

The best abroad experience will leverage tips in each of these spheres to some extent. I’ve spoken a great deal about how to use your immersion to the best of your ability, but my intention is not to paint every friend and every opportunity as a tool to be taken advantage of. First and foremost, living abroad should be fun. You’re in a place that takes your preconceived notion of what life should be like and dumps it on its head; every day is filled with new sights, smells, and sounds. Learning a language while living abroad is not about utilizing others--it’s about learning to see the interesting aspects of even the most ordinary things. When you’re in an unknown land, even garbage collection tells a fascinating story. Done right, learning a language abroad comes as naturally as drinking water. All it takes is a little concerted effort and dedication on your part.

Before you go abroad, you’ll need to learn the basics of your foreign language. You can start learning Chinese, Spanish, or Arabic with ReDefiners World Languages today. ReDefiners offers virtual and in-person courses for all ages. Sign up at www.redefinerswl.org or visit our website to find more information.


ReDefiners is a non-profit organization that prides itself in being a pioneer in the early language education programming in Hillsborough County

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