How to Learn a Language While Studying Abroad

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Whether you’re learning a language for the first time or you’ve had years of classroom instruction, studying abroad invites you to take your language abilities to the next level.

Your professors and IES Abroad Center staff are excited to help you reach your language goals, so bring your willingness to practice, practice, practice! You’ll be surprised how little time if will take you to feel comfortable speaking the language when you’re using it every day.

As recent alumni, IES Abroad Ambassadors shared their advice on maximizing language immersion while studying abroad.

female student sitting at desk writing on a notebook
Set goals

“Set clear goals and follow through; I told myself that I needed to have at least one complete conversation in French every day with someone who was not my host mother, which was a good prompt to try to talk to new people or say something more than just my order or ask how much something cost.”
– Rachel I. (IES Abroad Nice, Fall 2017 | Swarthmore College)

students sitting around a table with a host family in China
Practice with your homestay family

“Talk to your host parents as much as you can. They are willing to help you out, so this is the perfect place to try, fail, and learn! I talked to my host parents every night at dinner. They loved it, and I learned so much (because I sort of knew they couldn't get rid of me!) I asked a lot of questions when I didn't understand, and they were so patient!”
– Jessie D. (IES Abroad Buenos Aires, Fall 2017 | University of Virginia)

“My host family was a resource I used a lot. Having conversations with them about what I did each day, asking questions about objects and food in the room, and just conversing about the news greatly improved my confidence and skills.
– Emma D. (IES Abroad Salamanca, Summer 2017 | Gettysburg College)

“I lived with a homestay mother who didn't speak a lick of English, so I was forced to improve my Spanish conversational skills quickly! I loved living in a homestay for this reason. The first few weeks were challenging – I played a lot of charades and formed extremely broken sentences, but by halfway through it became a lot more natural.”
– Isabella C. (IES Abroad Barcelona, Fall 2017 | University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill)

students sitting in residence hall
Chat with peers in your residence hall

I lived in the colegio mayor, which allowed me to speak in Spanish 24/7, as students who lived in the dorm spoke little to no English. This allowed me to practice and improve upon my Spanish language competency and also help new friends practice their English as an intercambio.”
– Brianna B. (IES Abroad Madrid, Fall 2017 | University of Redlands)

“If you're nervous, ask a friend who speaks the language to help you out. The first time I ever made a dinner reservation in Italian, I asked one of my roommates (who was actually the RA, so her first language was Italian), to help me out. I wrote out what I was going to say on a piece of paper, and then put the phone on speaker when I called the restaurant so she could be my backup if I ran into any roadblocks. It was a bit scary at first, but it gave me a lot of confidence and was a really rewarding experience!”
– Alexis W. (IES Abroad Siena, Summer 2017 | University of Washington)

empanada menu in Buenos Aires
Learn key phrases while traveling

“Since I was studying abroad in three different countries for my program, I was not going to know all three languages…During orientation in each city, we learned phrases and words we would need to know to get around our host city. I was especially focused on learning restaurant French, Italian, and Spanish because what’s more important than food?! The most important thing is to not be afraid to try and speak - it works more often than not!”
– Maya L. (IES Abroad Multi-Location: Paris, Rome & Madrid, Summer 2017 | Franklin & Marshall College)

student with german professor in Vienna
Soak up classroom instruction

For the Galápagos program, take the optional language class that is offered because it is free, low commitment and a good way to practice every week.”
– Naomi T. (IES Abroad Galápagos Islands, Fall 2017 | Colorado College)

“Trust you teachers! I had a wonderful teacher and heard from my friends in the program that their German professors were also super competent, helpful and wonderful in their jobs! It was great to have real-life experiences with the language. We had several wonderful trips with my class [related to vocabulary we were learning]. We had a breakfast at a famous cafe, Cafe Central, and we each had to order. We went to a museum where we had a guide speaking German and talking about Schiele and Klimt's work. We also had an optional movie night where we watched a movie in German and could ask our professor things we didn't understand right at the moment.”
– Yasemin T. (IES Abroad Vienna, Fall 2017 | Davidson College)

student walking on Nanzan University campus in Nagoya, Japan
Take a course at a local university

“Take a class at the University of Granada! It was a great immersion experience. I met so many Spanish and Erasmus students from it, and from there we would meet up to practice Spanish and hang out. It's a lot at first but SO worth it and unique.”
– Jessica P. (IES Abroad Granada, Fall 2017 | Whitman College)

“I improved my more casual, conversational Spanish skills by befriending and spending time with the Ecuadorean students in my classes and the locals on the island. I was able to learn vocabulary and terminology I had never been exposed to in the classroom just by connecting with those around my age.”
– Maddy S. (IES Abroad Galápagos Islands, Fall 2017 | Connecticut College)

student students sitting on rocks near the ocean talking
Meet with a language partner

“We had a language buddy program that German speakers could sign up to be a part of. We were partnered with mostly university kids who go to UniWien and are coming from all around Austria, and we spoke German with them and their friends. I definitely advise everyone at IES Abroad Vienna to sign up for the language buddy program.”
– Yasemin T. (IES Abroad Vienna, Fall 2017 | Davidson College)

“Nanzan University has a Japan Plaza where students are only allowed to speak in Japanese. This was not an opportunity that I took advantage of, and I regret this. Going to the Japan Plaza is a great way to practice speaking Japanese with native speakers, and even ask questions about homework.”
– Maya B. (IES Abroad Nagoya, Summer 2017 | University of Pittsburgh)

student sitting at green table with older man in Milan service learning placement
Get involved in the community

“Stretch yourself and put yourself into situations where you can't use English. I joined cross-fit in Chile and I was the only one there that spoke English. I was forced to use my Spanish in a familiar environment (I run track in college), and it helped my language ability and confidence so much! They even bought me a flag towards the end of my time there.”
– Collin T. (IES Abroad Santiago, Spring 2017 | Hope College)

“One key component is meeting local people in the host city you are living with. Whether that is joining a community group (going to a youth group, joining a club sports team, going to the gym to talk to people), it is very advantageous to meet local individuals that you can practice your Spanish with and improve your language skills with people who know it best.”
– Brianna B. (IES Abroad Madrid, Fall 2017 | University of Redlands)

student reading a newspaper in China
Immerse yourself in media

“Most importantly, be active - don't just hope to soak up the knowledge. Read signs, newspapers, or menus, speak to vendors, listen to the radio, but also make sure you're actively practicing.”
– Gregory B. (IES Abroad Rabat, Summer 2017 | University of South Carolina)

student standing in front of a body of water making a cringing face
Be willing to make mistakes

“Don't be afraid; it can be scary to talk to a native speaker but don't worry too much about making mistakes just try your best because the only way to get better is to practice, a lot, and just talking is the best kind of practice.”
– Rachel I. (IES Abroad Nice, Fall 2017 | Swarthmore College)

Remember that it's okay to mess up! Whenever I messed up, I would always ask the person I was speaking with to correct me so that I knew what to fix for next time.”
– Carly A. (IES Abroad Madrid, Summer 2017 | University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill)

Moroccan local helping a student put on a traditional headwrap
Speak with locals

 “Don’t be afraid to speak the language with people there! Order food, talk to people in stores, make friends with native speakers! For the most part, people are willing to help you practice, especially if your greetings and “stock phrases” sound good. In Austria, having a really enthusiastic “Grüß Gott!” goes miles!”
– Rebekah S. (IES Abroad Vienna, Summer 2017 | University of North Texas)

“Speak the language as much as possible wherever you might be. If you are out at night with friends or ordering food at a restaurant, do your best to speak in Spanish. Starting conversations with locals or even talking to your American classmates in Spanish will help!”
– Emily M. (IES Abroad Barcelona, Fall 2017 | Connecticut College)

students with arms around each other standing overlooking mountain landscape
Make a pact with your peers

“My biggest piece of advice for improving your language skills in a foreign country is to actually practice! I know that sounds obvious, but it's really easy to get used to using English often with your friends and family back home, in your classes, and with your peers in the program. If you're serious about improving your skills I would seek out other people in your program who are willing to practice and try to speak exclusively in the host language when you're speaking to one another.”
– Kameelah S. (IES Abroad Shanghai, Fall 2017 | Spelman College)

I highly encourage you to speak with your fellow IES Abroad students in the native language. This will help everyone in the program adjust to the new language.”
– Kaitlyn G. (IES Abroad Buenos Aires, Summer 2017 | Harvard University)

student sitting with local resident on steps of Chinese ruins

“Try not to fall back on English; people will hear your accent or your struggle and respond in English, I made it a point to always respond in French even if they used English.”
– Rachel I. (IES Abroad Nice, Fall 2017 | Swarthmore College)

“I noticed that a lot of German people, (which I think was about 90% of the people we interacted with) who also spoke English would want to speak to us in English. If language acquisition is a specific goal of yours, you have to make a conscious effort to start conversations in German or tell people that you prefer to communicate in German.”
– Julia M. (IES Abroad European Union, Summer 2017 | University of Puget Sound)

“Don't be intimidated if native speakers start speaking to you in English--assert yourself and keep speaking in German if you're able to. By the end of my semester abroad, I was able to get around the city using very little English!”
– Sabrina B. (IES Abroad Vienna, Fall 2017 | University of the Pacific)

Looking to jump start your language learning before studying abroad? Check out 20 Ways to Develop Language Skills Outside of the Classroom.

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