I studied in Lima and Madrid, two Spanish speaking destinations. However, I quickly learned how different two regional dialects of Spanish could be.
-Vamos a tomar algunas chelas por el partido! Venga, pues! -De repente, pero creo que voy al cine. -Ay, que chevere pues! Chau!
-Vamos para cañas por el partido, tio! Vienes? -Algo mejor, pero creo que voy al cine. -Genial! La proxima, entonces. Hasta luego!
Even though I had spent time in Spanish speaking countries prior to visiting Peru and Spain, I had to adapt to new vocabulary, new slang, and even new verb conjugations in each place. Language immersion and how much you choose to learn can either make or break your study abroad experience, so it's important to not passively move through study abroad without actively thinking about your language learning.
Think about goals before you leave and early in your experience
I've lost track of the number of times that someone has told me their goal of "becoming fluent" in Spanish during a semester or year abroad. However, it's necessary to remember that language acquisition does not happen through osmosis, by simply living in a place that speaks a different language. Do you want to improve your writing? Would you like your vocabulary to expand and encompass local slang as well? Are you most focused on getting rid of your American accent? Anything is possible, but only with concentrated effort.
Concentrate on strengths
Do you love speaking up in your political science class but hate reading El Pais? Do you love to salsa dance but are shy about speaking in class? Do you love cooking, but don't know the name of any food in Spanish? Every person has strengths that can make learning a language easier, and concentrating on what you are good at can make the process more fun. If you know that you are a visual learner but have trouble listening, find transcripts of radio programs or watch movies with subtitles. If you love a sport, join a team! Love to cook? Swap recipes with your host mother! You do not have to be perfect at speaking the local language to immerse yourself and have fun.
Remember your homework
School and homework can play a huge part in language practice, even though it can be easy to begrudge them both. Instead of panicking about how much more time readings or papers take in the local language, turn it into practice. Make lists of words you don't know and see how often you'll run into them again on the streets. Find a study partner in your class - even local students have to study, and they can often explain nuanced concepts better than the professor. I joined an international relations student group, which gave me a chance to work on more political science related speaking and writing, but also gave me a fantastic group of friends.
Find allies in international students
I know that an enormous difference in who spoke a lot of Spanish and who only spoke a little depended on their friend group. I had some friends that I could count on letting me always speak Spanish with them, or challenging me if I ever lapsed back into English. Even if it seems exhausting to completely turn off English all the time, setting certain times (such as meals or a party) to only speak in the local language will make speaking seem so much more natural. If joining a club or trying something new seems daunting, do it with friends!
Speak the language as often as you can!
Reading the newspaper or making lists of new vocabulary can only go so far in language acquisition, and there is truly nothing better than practicing the language with a native speaker. Set aside time each day to chat with your housemates, commit to speaking to strangers on the street or in stores when you need help, find a language partner at your university, join a club, make friends in class... the options are endless when you are surrounded by native speakers every day!