Improving your foreign language skills abroad

By Flavio Spadavecchia, Go Abroad Ambassador spending a semester abroad at the University of Liège

It should come as no surprise that one of the main reasons why students decide to spend time studying in a foreign institution, is to improve their language abilities. Nowadays, having a grasp on a foreign language as a skill on your CV can be advantageous for almost any job and, needless to say, if languages are part of your degree, spending time abroad is fundamental. Within the framework of the University of Aberdeen, students of foreign languages are usually required to spend a year abroad to study in that language. Nonetheless, there’s nothing stopping you from learning the language of the country even if that’s not part of your university degree; in fact, I have mentioned in the past the advantages of doing that, and I might consider writing a whole post about it, in the future.

This one, however, is for those of you who are determined to improve/learn the language of the country where you’re going. Congratulations! You might think, now, that all you need to do is step foot in the country, and after a few months you’ll magically be able to conjugate every single Spanish verb perfectly or have a perfect German pronunciation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to discourage you, because you can achieve all that… it’s just not as simple as just living in any specific country.

Depending on where, what language you’re trying to learn and the degree of proficiency you already have, there will be different challenges that might prevent you from taking advantage of this chance to the fullest. So, let me give you a short guide from someone who’s been there (multiple times).

Overcoming embarrassment

One of the first challenges, especially if you have a low level of proficiency, will be to actually get out there and use the language. If you happen to be in a country where you can get by with English just fine (especially because environments like universities tend to have a higher percentage of people who can speak English), it might be tempting to just give in and (maybe unconsciously) surround yourself with English speakers where you are more comfortable. If learning the language is one of your goals, then you absolutely need to get out of this vicious circle. Going from always speaking English to completely abandoning it is also probably not a good idea, because you might burnout and end up hating the foreign language altogether. Stop for a second, take a break, and think. How much of my daily interactions (conversations, movies, TV, classes, YouTube, etc.) is in English? If the answer is more than 50%, then you might want to apply some changes, to ensure you are not wasting your time abroad. You are surrounded by resources, take advantage of them!

If you’re still not able to hold a conversation, it might be best not to force it. People might get frustrated if they can’t have a normal conversation with you, so in that case it’s better to focus mostly on studying the language itself with books and a teacher. Your host university will most likely offer classes of your target language and you should absolutely take them. You will notice that studying with a native teacher in the country of the language is quite different, since you will feel immediately more motivated to speak it outside of class. Some universities also offer a tandem language programme, where you can help someone else with their English (or whatever your mother tongue is). The main advantage of this system is that they won’t get frustrated even if your level is low and they will correct you – something native speakers won’t usually do when having a normal conversation.

‘But they keep switching to English!’

This phenomenon is something that might be hard to wrap your head around if you have only studied English as a foreign language. But as it turns out, sometimes, native speakers of your target language will switch back to English when talking to you (or more rarely to your native language, if it differs). This can happen for a variety of reasons: They might believe (correctly or incorrectly) that their English is better than your target language; they might think they’re just doing you a favour and that you would never want to willingly speak their language; they might just want to practise their English or a combination of all three. The result is the same: the conversation continues in English because – let’s face it – most of us are not going to say “Hey, I want to speak X language!” The reason we tend not to say this is because we don’t want the other person to think we’re just talking to them to learn the language.

This is not universal, but rather much more common with some languages/countries. It also depends on whether you’re a native English speaker or not. I had people switch to English with me in Akita, even though they perfectly knew I wasn’t a native speaker. In Asia, there seems to be this idea that all Westerners are fluent in English. Scandinavia and Northern Europe, on the other hand – as a fellow student ambassador confirmed – have this conception of “Why would anyone want to learn my language?” and/or they might get frustrated if you’re not fluent, but still trying to speak in their language, since they will be fluent in English, for reasons beyond the scope of this post.

What to do when you really want to speak their language but they keep switching? First of all, it’s important to be honest. How good is your target language? Is it possible some people might get slightly annoyed after you ask them to repeat for the third time? If that’s the case, no panic! It means you just need to focus more on classwork and practice with your teacher. You can still use the language with friends, maybe just let them know that you’re eager to practise and feel free to switch to English if you really can’t remember the word. You might want to allocate just a little of the time you spend with this person to speak the language, rather than the whole time. Remember to read the situation: don’t insist if you realise it might cause inconvenience to others (e.g. you’re holding up the line at the movie theatre because you don’t understand the clerk’s accent).

If, on the other hand, you know for sure you can handle a normal conversation and think they’re just switching for other reasons, just let them know! Tell them you would prefer to speak language X, if possible. You might add that if they want to practise their English you could organize a sort of tandem language group, as I’ve discussed before.

At the end of the day, you’re the one who spent time, energy and money to get there, so it would be a shame if you only surrounded yourself with people who just want to speak English.

‘I feel like I’m not improving’

The reasons why you might feel this way can be numerous, but here I would like to focus on those who have reached a fairly good level of proficiency and would like to improve even further towards the more advanced levels.

The is a sort of learning curve, whereby classes and a teacher are most useful to the beginner and advanced learners, while the intermediate students need a lot of practice and interactions with natives. If you’re looking to improve even further, chatting to your friends about the weather is not going to cut it. You need to expand your vocabulary beyond everyday conversation topics and start using more and more complex and accurate grammar. As I mentioned before, friends won’t usually correct you unless you ask them to (which I encourage you to do, if you’re at this stage), but even then they might not always feel comfortable doing it (they’re not your teacher, after all). That’s when that course and teacher will come useful again. Provided you’re at the right class for your level, teachers will dispense you with materials, help you have interesting and complex discussions and correct your work – both oral and written – so don’t miss out on that! In some cases, 30 minutes with a teacher can be vastly more beneficial than a whole day with native friends.

Let’s wrap it up

Learning a language can be immensely rewarding and an achievement to be proud, but it does not come without sacrifices and effort. They myth that just living in a country is enough to reach fluency is, unfortunately, just a myth. Studying abroad will absolutely help you improve your target language beyond what mere classroom study could do; but – as with everything about studying abroad – it’s up to you how much you get out of it.

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