Each year, nearly 300,000 college students travel abroad in search of a rich learning expedition that includes exciting adventures, original experiences and for many, the promise of building their foreign language skills. Unfortunately, most students who choose to study internationally return with only a relatively minor improvement of their foreign language skills.
At first glance, one would think that being immersed into a foreign speaking culture for four months would force these new student transplants to adapt to their environment by engaging with residents through the native tongue, however, this typically isn’t the case for several primary reasons. First, most programs usually provide everything a student needs within reach on campus. Thus, there’s not really a compelling force requiring them to interact with the local citizenry. Second, study abroad students typically surround themselves with other students who are from their native countries; therefore, they continue speaking in their native tongue during their stay. Third, research has shown those who study abroad spend multiple hours each night conversing with friends and family back home through voice, text, and video chat.
So if you are bound for a study abroad program and desire to return flush with a solid grasp of another language, then please take note of the tips below.
Choose a Homestay. Homestays have proven to be much more beneficial for language development versus student roommates. For the most part, the host family won’t be able to speak your language fluently, requiring you to adapt to your new environment. Further, with a family, typically there is always someone around to practice the native language with. With a student roommate, you will be deprived of these fruitful opportunities.
Opt-Out of the Tourist Trips. Throughout your semester abroad, you will have the multiple opportunities to join a group trip organized by the university. Unfortunately, these trips are simply sight-seeing trips with zero to minimal interaction with the locals. Of course, they can be fun; however, you might want to consider recruiting a few of your fellow classmates and do a similar trip by yourselves. By necessity, this type of unguided trip will result in authentic engagement with the locals, requiring you to use the native language to navigate, communicate and socialize.
Volunteer for a Local Organization. Whether devoting your time to a non-profit organization or using your knowledge to help a company in an internship setting, your language skills can be significantly bolstered when you must speak the language in order to occupy the position. Although this may be intimidating, typically the people you will work with will have the ability to communicate in your native tongue. On the other side, the people you are serving will likely only speak in the foreign language you aspire to learn, creating another great opportunity to approach personal fluency.
Practice Before, During and After Your Trip. Like most high-level skills acquired in life, consistent practice is essential. If you’re pondering studying abroad, I would recommend you take at least one college-level language course before you depart. During your trip use every opportunity to develop your language skills. After your trip, if you want to retain your hard-earned language skills it is in your best interest to continue to use the language. This can take place via video or phone conversations with friends you have made in your host country, on campus international student groups, or even through providing tutoring services to high school students if you are proficient.
Justin Stephenson is a contributor for Collegeboxes, the largest college storage and shipping company in the United States.