Learning a new language while studying abroad

The thought of moving to a new country for a year abroad can be an exciting, but equally terrifying, experience, even more so when you’re moving somewhere where English isn’t the first language.

When I first set foot on German soil last September and became acquainted with my fellow year-abroad peers, I was both surprised and relieved that the majority of them were not fluent in our host country’s language. I undertook the experience expecting to be inundated with strange phrases and peculiar dialects, but it did not feel as intimidating knowing that my friends had also gotten lost in this frenzy of fresh vocabulary. I found that many of us were also taking English-taught subjects, and many of them were sat next to me in my classes. After lectures, we would carry on our discussions about the work in our mother-tongue, and guiltily slip into what language-learners call the ‘English trap’. As the weeks passed, I found myself speaking less and less German with my peers, simply because speaking English provided a kind of safety blanket for us in those first few weeks. However, as the first month drew to a close, a few friends and I decided that we were ready to join our efforts and push each other to use as much of the new language as we could with each other. This meant greeting each other in German and practicing the language to the best of our ability. We sent each other text messages in our host language (often involving the use of Google translate), and even held a few movie nights where we watched the dubbed version of the Harry Potter films. I also put away an hour alone whenever I had some free time to revise key phrases and topics. I also happily discovered that if you undertake a year abroad, your host university will also more than likely hold a language class out of university hours to help you on your way – the help I’ve received from teachers here has been exceptional!

Improving in a new language was, and always is, a gradual thing. It doesn’t happen all at once as we’d like it to. But when I successfully order a certain dish in a restaurant or ask for directions and actually find myself there, I know I’m going in the right direction. And when I make a mistake and a native speaker corrects me with a smile I know that hey… at least I’m trying. It is immeasurably fulfilling to be able to connect with others through a new language, because it not only gives you a broader understanding of a different culture, but you also experience a whole new way of life. It’s also important to consider that learning a new language will offer you a lot of job opportunities in the future; it could end up being the deciding factor that differentiates you from the other candidates.
Several studies have concluded that speaking another language every day has significant cognitive benefits, such as improvements in observancy, an increase in concentration, and a reduced risk of developing diseases (for example, Alzheimer’s) later in life. Language learners have even been shown to score higher on standardized tests involving vocabulary and mathematics, so learning a second language can actually make you smarter in some very unconventional ways.

Even if you hold only a GCSE in another language, don’t let your fears hold you back. Take up the chance to do a year abroad. You’ll probably find what I discovered; the best way to learn a new language is to immerse yourself in it completely, and you’ll love almost every second of it.

by Lauren Lewis


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