Studying abroad is a hugely enriching experience, which deepens your understanding of your host country and yourself. Before you leave home you’ll picture yourself on your new campus: Making new friends, settling into new accommodations, trying new foods, and gaining fluency in a language previously foreign to you.
All of these things will happen. You’ll make more friends than you can count, the food and housing will initially frustrate and then enchant you, and little by little that language that was always confined to the pages of your textbooks will come alive. It’s a crazy, humbling experience and you’ll never, ever regret it.
However, there will be aspects to your overseas program that you might not be able to anticipate so accurately. For example, most of your friends will probably be other exchange students. Odds are you will be housed with other international learners, you’ll all be in the same language classes, and during the evenings and weekends you’ll form an amazing group of adventurers. They will be some of the best friends you ever make, but they will also be in the same boat as you. They will also be “other” in this adopted country and therefore not much closer to linguistic fluency OR local savvy than you. This can be frustrating if your ultimate goal is to acclimate to your surroundings. So what should you do?
It’s always a good idea to become involved with your local community, whether through volunteering or some sort of sports or activities group. This can be an intimidating prospect though, for someone who is still learning the language. So what to do? Study! (But probably not the way you’re thinking)
Most universities that enroll foreign students have a pre-set language-learning program for internationals, but your class options don’t have to stop there. Often there are low level, or extracurricular classes that are also open enrollment. These are your key to making local friends, getting a chance to try out your new language skills, and learn a completely different subject all at the same time. Read on for our top suggestions.
During my time in Japan I enrolled in a semester-long class in calligraphy. This was extremely challenging (given my lack of artistic skills), but it was one of my favorite classes to go to every week. Under the guidance of my rather brusque Sensei I carefully painted and repainted and repainted the ancient characters until they were something approaching his standards. Not only did it improve my handwriting, but it also forced me to look at Japanese differently.
Luckily numbers are universal. I’m not the most eager of mathematicians, but I rather liked algebra in middle school. To gain a bit more variety in my weekly schedule, I arranged to sit in on a low-level algebra class with younger students once every week. Not only was it fascinating to relearn algebra from a different education system, but I also picked up a completely different set of words that would never have been added to my vocabulary otherwise.
Learning how to correctly pronounce a foreign language can be really difficult. No matter how well you think you’re mimicking the sounds, there is always something slightly off to a native-listener. Music helped me iron out some of my trickier pronunciation challenges. Through joining a choir group and learning to sing the words first, I was made more aware of the different emphasis and mouth movements that were required to say the words. Plus it really upped my karaoke game!
When words fail, there are always actions. I made some of my best Japanese friends by joining a co-ed indoor soccer team. No, I was not a very good player to begin with, but by showing up for practices and games, I gradually began to improve. Thanks to my determination, I gradually won the trust and then the friendship of my teammates. Plus I never had to worry about working out!
This may seem counter intuitive, but hear me out. Studying a third language in your second language can actually make understanding both easier. Many of my American friends chose to take Spanish as an extra-curricular class in Japan and as a result were able to understand the structure and sentence composition of both with a greater degree of clarity. Yes, it might take your brain a bit of extra strain to keep all the grammar and vocab separated, but it will also give you a better grasp of the bones of language.
Keep in mind that everyone has a different communication style and thus, your learning process may be very different. The only wrong way to study abroad is to not go at all. So grab your backpack, your translation dictionary, and get out there!