Developing Language Skills While Abroad

One sunny May day while studying abroad in Austria, I found that German finally “clicked” with me. I was having a picnic with Austrian friends, when I suddenly realized that I understood almost everything they said from the history of St. Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna to non-eco-friendly plastic packaging. Moreover, I could laugh along with them and express myself fully in return. Moments like these fill me with more satisfaction than practically anything else in life.

Studying abroad often includes learning a new language or reaching a higher level in your current language, like I did with German. People often think that simply living in a foreign country will automatically make us fluent in the language, but I found a different reality when abroad. The language learning process requires significant effort, especially if your study abroad program does not focus as heavily on language immersion. You will find yourself equally excited and tired along the way, but the effort is completely worth it! Here’s a few tips for improving your skills while abroad:

1. Keep a vocabulary notebook.

Buy a small notebook and pen which you can carry anywhere and write down new words that you repeatedly hear or see (it’s impossible to write down all new words). You can then review the words while on the train or subway. I wish I started doing this sooner, because I forgot words less easily that I wrote down. I also found it easy to associate words with experiences or locations where I learned them, making them significantly more memorable than learning from a vocab list in a textbook.

2. Take as many courses as possible in the target language, rather than English.

Many study abroad programs offer English-taught courses, but taking courses in the target language will vastly expand your vocabulary, improve your academic language skills, and help you speak with proper grammar. Many subject-specific words exist in business, psychology, medicine, etc that you cannot easily learn through everyday conversation.

3. Live with native speakers, join a student group, and/or find a conversation partner.

I arranged a housing situation with Austrian students while abroad and found my German skills improved significantly through my relationships with them. For example, cooking or eating with them improved my severely lacking kitchen and food vocabulary. (It’s a problem when you can discuss German poetry intelligently, but don’t know how to make a meal with someone in German!)

Outside of your classroom and living situation, find an interest group where you can practice and connect with others. Personally, I became involved in a church and religious student group. I ate and hung out with people from these groups and was invited into Austrian homes, where I learned to understand the culture better. These relationships help you express your emotions in the language and introduce you to new situations. Opportunities for interest groups abound, such as public sports groups or exercise classes at your university. It will be fun to learn how to express yourself while running, playing volleyball, or dancing!

You can grow your language skills in a similar way by finding a language partner. Many study abroad programs or universities arrange a conversation partner program, so participate if it exists!

4. When traveling, read museum signs and take tours in your target language.

You can find English translations and tours in many tourist locations abroad, but I would encourage you to avoid those if possible. Read the museum signs and take audio and guided tours in your target language. Even if you’re offered the English version, go with the target language when appropriate (ex: if your study program has English tours on a group trip, it may be impolite to arrange another option).

5. Expect to be tired, confused, and embarrassed at times.

Speaking or studying another language can drain you physically, like when I developed headaches after speaking German for several hours. Stretching and adapting your skills to new situations may confuse you as you adjust to the local dialect and apply your academically learned language skills to real life. You may feel that your skills are better or worse on certain days in the process – don’t worry, that’s completely normal!

6. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

I sometimes felt embarrassed about asking the meaning of words in my host country, especially everyday words which I forgot or had not learned. Look past these feelings of embarrassment and keep asking native speakers about meanings and grammar – that’s the only way to keep learning!

7. Develop relationships in your target language as much as possible.

Talk with native speakers in the target language as much as possible, instead of switching to English. At the same time, be gracious with people (like conversation partners) who express their interest in learning English from you and give them a chance to practice too.

I hope these thoughts on developing your language skills while abroad helped you in your current experiences. The process will amaze you as you discover the beauty of learning a foreign language more deeply and building relationships within its context. Above all else, remember keep going and don’t stop learning because of the challenges. You may never again have the chance to develop your language skills in the same way as now, so take every opportunity!