If you’re working on mastering a foreign language, chances are you’ve either had a study abroad experience or are considering one. Since international travel is so now so easily accessible (and for some, routine), study abroad opportunities are easier to find than ever before. Most universities offer study abroad programs, and now even high schools are sending their linguistically-inclined students to foreign countries.
Automatic fluency? Think again
The danger is that some students often believe that study abroad experiences guarantee language fluency. Professor of Applied Linguistics Celeste Kinginger points out that in the United States in particular, study abroad is sometimes pitched as a “magical formula for the development of language ability,” or even a type of “easy learning,” whereby students will master a foreign language just by virtue of participating.
In some cases, the study abroad option has even been presented as an excuse not to teach languages at all. After all, why “waste” so much money on language education when we can just send students to Mexico for a summer?
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The reality, however, is much more complex. Researchers have shown that study abroad is not always the golden ticket to language fluency that it is thought to be.
In fact, study abroad is not necessarily more effective than intensive language education at home. One study looked at a group of American college students learning French in France compared to students learning French in intensive domestic language programs. The study concluded that the students who went to France returned with a lower level of fluency than students who studied French in an intensive environment back at their home institutions.
The general consensus among language acquisition researchers is that studying abroad does not automatically make you better at a foreign language. Results can vary greatly from student to student, confirming once again that there is not a successful one-size-fits-all approach to language learning, even in an immersive environment.
If this is true, how can you make the most of your study abroad experience? Study abroad is a huge time commitment and financial investment for most students after all.
Study abroad independently
If your goal is to see real progress in your language abilities, the most important thing is to choose a program that puts you directly into a foreign institution (i.e. where you are just one of a few foreign students in a class at most), rather than going with a cadre of dozens of American students who will be living and dining together the whole time.
This may take a bit more legwork for you to arrange, and might even require enrolling directly in a foreign institution rather than paying an American program to coordinate everything for you. But it will actually be cheaper and will ensure that you are getting a much more authentic experience where you'll be surrounded by native speakers rather than your own compatriots.
If this route is not practical for you, or for the country you'd like to visit, then at the very least, try to choose an option where you can live with a host family or in a regular student dorm (full of native speakers), rather than living with students from your own country's program.
Aside from this huge tip, here are some additional pointers to help you learn a language better while studying abroad.
5 Tips to actually learn a language abroad
1. Think quality over quantity
Research shows that quantitative views of language learning are not enough to explain when study abroad is or is not successful at improving language acquisition. In other words, it’s not just about how much time students spend studying abroad; it’s also about the quality of interactions in the target language. Language acquisition is two-sided. Quality interactions require engagement and effort both from the international students and host country language partners.
Research also shows that the most successful type of study abroad student is someone who is “mindful of his or her role,” “actively seeks access to learning opportunities,” and “is welcomed as a person of consequence, worthy of the hosts’ time and nurture.” What does this mean for students studying abroad? Study abroad students should seek out positive and supportive relationships wherever possible.
Surround yourself with people who want to help you learn their language, and take any opportunity to converse in the target language.
2. Get involved
This point may seem obvious. After all, if you stay at home all the time, you will not be practicing your language skills. Unfortunately, many study abroad students have trouble integrating into target language communities. This is not always the students’ faults. It can be extremely difficult to find a welcoming community when you’re a student just passing through for a few months or a year.
There are many ways, however, to become a part of a supportive target-language community. It’s all about finding an activity that you love. Join a gym, or sign up for an art class. Get involved in an association or a student group at your school. Look for a part-time job or internship, or volunteer for a cause that matters to you. By being involved in a vibrant local community where you are doing something that you all love, you will regularly run into the same group of people, which is a great way of engaging with native speakers of your target language. It might take some time, but don’t be discouraged. You’ll find a place you fit in!
3. Just say NO to English
If you’re a native English speaker, chances are you are going to meet a lot of people abroad who will want to practice their English with you. In these situations, learn to deflect. You’re the study abroad student. You’ve come a long way to practice your target language. It’s okay to politely decline speaking English with your new friends and acquaintances. Most of the time, they will understand!
If you do end up practicing English with your new acquaintances, make sure to trade off time in both languages. They often will be more motivated to correct your mistakes and help you learn where your weaknesses are if you make it clear that the interaction is about learning for both of you.
Similarly, be aware that many study abroad students fall into the trap of spending all their time with other students in their programs. They end up speaking English with other native English speakers on a daily basis. Some of this is inevitable, but try to limit these English-based interactions as much as possible. Put some effort into making friends with locals. This will enrich your experience and give you much more opportunity to practice the language.
4. Be an active language learner
Be intentional about your study abroad experience. Force yourself to get in the habit of doing small things to purposefully engage in the target language. This can mean a lot of different things. Some research suggests that you should keep a study abroad diary in the target language to log your daily experiences without worrying about grammar or spelling. Reflecting on your daily life in the language can really make a huge difference in your learning experience.
When I was studying abroad for the first time, I kept a mini spiral-bound notebook in my purse to write down new words that I wanted to remember. The act of writing them down helped me learn the words and phrases much faster than I would have by just hearing them in passing. I would make sure to actively use my new vocabulary as much as possible until it was integrated into my regular vocabulary in the target language. My vocabulary increased exponentially by practicing this type of active learning.
Technology has changed a lot, however, since I was a high school study abroad student. Now there are online tools to help you learn vocabulary even more effectively. There are many databases full of vocabulary that you can practice through online apps.
Brainscape even has huge collections of premade foreign language flashcards that you can use in much the same way that I used my notebook in a study abroad context. Instead of writing down new vocabulary in a notebook, you could simply add words to these existing flashcard decks using the Brainscape app on your phone until you have the words down pat.
5. Learn to embrace differences
The study abroad experience is ultimately a very varied; experiences between students will be very different. Research shows a lack of consistency in success rates. Some students thrive while studying abroad, while others sometimes actually regress.
This wide range of experiences is normal, though, given that a study abroad is an interactive human experience. Such is the beauty and also the challenge of learning a language in a specific cultural context. The experience is about learning how to negotiate social situations in a culture that differs fundamentally from your own.
To do this, you have to be aware of the culture at all times. Culture can’t be summed up by simply learning about food, local celebrities, and fashion styles. It’s a specific way of life and a way of seeing the world. The culture where you study may thrill and fascinate you, or it may disturb and bother you. Usually, you will experience some combination of both emotions.
Don’t be alarmed or stressed if your experience is not what you expected. There’s no way you can know what to expect beforehand. Successful students in a study abroad setting learn to adapt to the differences in their new environment rather than running away from them.
Get ready to learn a language abroad
If you follow these five tips, a study abroad can be an incredibly powerful tool for language learning and a rich intercultural experience. Study abroad has the potential not only to teach you a new language, but also to introduce you to a whole new way of seeing the world.
Being prepared for the experience and intentional about your target language use and development is the best way to approach this unique language-learning opportunity. Oh, and one last tip—make sure to supplement you immersion learning with language learning tools like Brainscape!
Freed, B. F., Segalowitz, N., & Dewey, D. P. (2004). Context of learning and second language fluency in French: Comparing regular classroom, study abroad, and intensive domestic immersion programs. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 26(2), 275-301. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44486772
Kinginger C. (2015). Second language learning in a study abroad context. In: N. Van Deusen-Scholl & S. May (eds.) Second and Foreign Language Education. Encyclopedia of Language and Education (3rd ed.). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02323-6_11-1
Kinginger, C. (2011). Enhancing language learning in study abroad. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 31, 58-73. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0267190511000031