Tips to studying abroad where you're not fluent in the language

Top Articles on Studying Abroad from Students and Experts

story by Trixie Cordova

Students who major or minor in a foreign language often choose to study abroad in a country where they can practice their language skills. However, it’s not uncommon for students who aren’t focusing on a foreign language to study in a country where they have no prior knowledge of that country’s language or cultural norms.


Personally, I did this twice: First, as a junior in college, when I chose to study abroad in Italy. And second, when I moved to Japan to teach English. I have firsthand experience of how daunting this can seem, especially on top of the already brave decision to go abroad at all. But I think I speak for many who have been in this predicament when I say that there’s really no better way to learn a language than to immerse yourself entirely in that country, surrounded by people who can only communicate through their native tongue.


Depending on the program you ultimately choose, a host language course may be only one of several courses you take alongside other content courses taught in English. (That was the case for me when I studied abroad in Italy.) Just be sure to double check that the program you choose isn’t TAUGHT in the host country language -- though you most likely won’t get far in the application process without making that discovery. Having said that, here are a few tips for how to go abroad and feel both comfortable and safe in a country where you don’t speak the language:


  1. Take the initiative, and learn the basics

It’s easy to learn a few basic phrases in order to prepare yourself for the country you’ll be calling home for the next few weeks or months. Some schools offer programs like Rosetta Stone for free, so check with your institution to determine if that option is available to you. There are also a few applications like Duolingo, that are free and can help you as you prepare to go abroad.


  1. Befriend locals

Befriending locals is a great way to learn how to communicate in the local language! By doing so, you’ll not only make friends with people from other corners of the world, but you’ll have a real sense of where locals eat or shop for groceries, as well as learn their strategies on how to navigate the area.


  1. Ask previous study abroad participants or professors for tutoring recommendations

If you ask around, there are likely many local tutors that can be recommended for you and some of your peers who are also hoping to gain language experience. When I moved to Japan, the program through which I taught English did not require Japanese language knowledge for its applicants. However, they offered plenty of opportunities for me to learn -- from pre-departure spoken language intensive reviews, to orientation sessions. Check with those who have gone before you to get an idea of what your options might be.


  1. Bring dual-language dictionaries or download language apps

Once you’re on the ground, getting around can be difficult. Not only do you not speak the language, but to then try and make sense of a map, traffic signals and schedules can compound culture shock. Thankfully, there are smart phone apps like iTranslate that can help you communicate more effectively, should you choose to rely on technology. Otherwise, just go old school and pack a dictionary that’s small and easy to carry around.


  1. Be open minded and flexible

Choosing to live in a country where you don’t speak the local language is definitely an admirable challenge. Know that your decision to pursue study abroad where you can’t communicate with others fluently may seem daunting, but embrace that decision and the community where you’ll be. If you’re staying with a host family, show them you’re interested in learning and ask to practice. If you’re in student housing, try to coordinate language exchanges with other students.


Regardless of what you ultimately choose to do, know that your efforts will only make you stronger. Not only will you develop language skills you never had before, but you’ll be enhancing your patience, cross-cultural communication, and problem-solving skills that can ultimately benefit you both personally and professionally.


Did we leave any suggestions or tips out? Any apps we need to know about? Tell us in the comments!
Trixie Cordova

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Trixie Cordova is the Student Outreach Coordinator at Diversity Abroad. She travels to campuses across the country to promote global opportunities for diverse and underrepresented students. Catch her at a campus near you during our Go Global Tour!

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