I know a lot of people are nervous about their first international or study abroad experience. If you are looking for ideas on what to do and how to maximize the experience, this is the post for you.
(Note that although I focus on college study abroad here, I actually base all of my advice of my personal immersion language learning trips that I did on my own, so if you are studying through a language school you can still adapt and apply all of this info to your experiences. Read on!)
So here we go!
College was a great time. I went to a decent public school, did well in my classes, but best of all made a lot of great friends. One thing that I wished I did do during college is study abroad for a semester or a year. I never really pictured myself doing it, even when one of my close friends went abroad.
Visit Your Study Abroad Office
If you are a freshmen, sophomore, or junior in college I really recommend that you go to your school’s study abroad office and meet the people there. They will probably get you excited about travel with their stories.
What to Do When Studying Abroad
There are a few things that you should absolutely definitely do during your semester or year abroad
- Actively Seek to Meet Native Speakers
- Hang Out With Your New Friends in Groups
- Ask Questions All the Time
- Always, Always Advance Your Language Skills
See below for a detailed timeline for suggestions on how to go about these things while abroad. There are some nice specific ideas from my personal experience studying abroad on my own. Email this page to yourself, print it out, scratch it out and rewrite it, but make some goals for yourself. Even if you aren’t a planner just use it as a rough guide for ideas
Find small group of English speakers and start exploring
How to Do It
- After doing whatever scheduled activities you have, meet some of your new tourist buddies or classmates. Convince one person to go do something local, and then in a group of two go convince a few others by telling them you are “both” going. People like to join in groups. It is really best if you find people who are not from the same country as you. It’s good that they speak English so that you can talk to each other (you’ll need the relief after thinking so hard in the native language all the time). But if they are from different countries it will broaden your experience with diversity and you’ll probably find yourself meeting a lot more new people that way as well…diversity lends to more diversity.
- When your new group asks where to go, if it’s a weekend or still light outside, recommend a local fruit or vegetable market, which is common in most places and fun for people from the States because a lot of times our markets here are fewer and far between or just of poorer quality. I remember when I lived in Ecuador and the fruit and vegetable market was just a half a block outside the door. Sweet! Or try a local café, preferably one with outside seating where lots of people are walking by or another similar venue.
In your group, go to a public place and meet a group of 2-3 native speakers and attempt with your pitiful language skills and lots of nonverbal gestures to have some semblance of a conversation. Point to things and learn new words. Laugh a lot. Get some digits (in the nonromantic sort of way).
How to Do It
- Get 3 or 4 people together and find wherever people are hanging around outside in big groups on campus. Or go to a public plaza at a time when people are gathering around and going out. Or a local restaurant strip or even a mall. Basically any place where people your age tend to gather and it’s easy to meet people. If you have too large of a group of English speakers you won’t be able to meet people as easily. Of course bars and clubs are options, if of course you are of “legal” age.
- Sit in a visible social place with your friends and make eye contact with the people who walk by and smile. Make sure you shout hola or whatever hello is in your target language to at least 5 people that night (Yes, that is your homework assignment!).
- Someone will probably eventually come up to you and start to make conversation. The goal here is to meet at least one native speaker that night and get him or her to sit down with you. It’s really best if you can get a group of 2 or 3 native friends to sit down with you because you’ll hear a lot more of their language, and at this point you can’t say much so they can talk to their friends and you can talk to yours intermittently as you try to figure out how to talk to each other.
- Most likely the people who will come speak to you will speak a little English and want a chance to speak mostly in English. At this point that is perfectly fine, but the goal is to make friends with a local group who can start to introduce you and your group to more people, invite you to parties, take you around town, and/or help get you immersed in the culture. Making friends in another language is surprisingly easy, and it might even be easier than in your native language in a certain way because there is that exotic factor of knowing the unknown…people will be drawn to you and you to them.
- If everyone is open to it, exchange phone numbers, emails, whatever so that you can stay in contact with your new friends. Besides, you probably learned how to count to 10 that week in class, so now is a good time to practice!
Hang out with your new friends, or keep searching for them!
How to Do It
- Email, text, or IM is probably going to be easiest at this point, unless your new friend speaks a lot of English. In any case, set a time with your new friends to hang out in a group with your friends and his or her friends. You really want to make local friends. If it doesn’t happen so fast that is fine, but keep going to local places and talking to people until it does. No one is going to make it happen for you. Don’t be shy, even if you are shy (does that make sense? haha). If you are timid, go with someone who isn’t so shy to help you break the ice. This helped me in the beginning a lot. I wouldn’t call myself shy per se, but it can be intimidating to put yourself out there.
- As far as I’m concerned, this is your main goal for the first month: to meet local people relatively close to your age. If you can meet two small groups of people who you can hang out with on the weekends, that would be a great success.
- If you’re having trouble, go to coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, bookstores, plazas, etc. I’ve found that when sitting on a bench in a plaza most people end up talking to each other anyway. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, or maybe I’m just overtalkative! In either case it often leads to interesting conversation and friends, as long as you are respectful of and interested in people of course!
Ask three local people for help or information (directions don’t count because you’ll have to do that all the time anyway).
How to Do It
- Go to a bookstore and try to ask them for an author you like. I remember trying to ask bookstore owners in a small Ecuadoran city for The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (wonderfully written book). Anyway I had zero luck (and to this day I still have trouble remembering how to spell her name). But I ended up learning some new phrases to try to describe what I wanted and what section it might be in etc. etc.
- After the bookstore try going to a cafe and asking the waiter what they suggest. What dish are they most excited about? Try their specialty. It will take some new vocab and they will be really happy that you tried so hard (and that you tried their food). You’ll probably have a new local acquaintance who will say hi to you every time you pass by. Make sure you introduce yourself by name and remember their names as much as you can too! It feels good when people know you. Remember, this is your home for at least the next few months. Forget that you are studying abroad and treat it like any other new place.
- Go to an aquarium or museum and make small talk with a local and ask about something. Ask questions, questions, and more questions, and then just do your very best to try to follow along. The person will realize your language level is low, so you’ll start to combine hand gestures, funny and confused facial expressions, etc. Laughing in general is helpful, and if you can start to laugh at yourself a little bit when you say something funny, it will take the edge off “being wrong” and help you move forward.
- If you can pick up a few words a night that’s great. Don’t worry, you will forget them all. But once you hear and use words several times you’ll start to lock them in.
After 1 Month
Add to Your Vocabulary
How to Do It
- You will probably find yourself saying the same things over and over in the first few weeks when you meet people, telling them where you are from, how old you are, when your birthday is, what you are studying at school at home, etc. But hey, we make the same small talk in English when we meet new people socially. Just try to find some new and interesting things to say about yourself and ask other people and the conversations will start to build.
- I remember when I was in Mexico my first month. I was still new to language learning (I had done 5 weeks in Guatemala but then went back to the States for 3 months before Mexico). But by the end of that month I could really talk to people, even if it was just the same old conversation at first. And as I could talk and understand a bit more, I got to notice that I liked some people and I didn’t like other people. At first it is easy to romanticize the idea of always liking the other culture. But there are good and bad and fun and annoying people all over the world. After a couple months you’ll get more of a sense of people’s personalities, and your conversations will slowly but surely start to get more interesting.
- To build your vocab, you really have to start going to new places and doing new activities. If you are just going to bars, clubs, or restaurants you won’t be forcing yourself to learn. You should be able to take busses and other local transportation by this point and have a general sense of the city or town you are in.
After 2 Months
Start going regularly to local places with no tourists. Get off the beaten path. You should be speaking in the target language almost all the time when you are out.
How to Do It
- By the second month hopefully you are going out almost every weekend to at least try to meet people or hanging out with locals you have already met. You should aim to speak the native language for about 75% or more when you are hanging out. Everyone in your group should be trying to speak Spanish or whatever language it is. If you’re speaking only 30% of the target language you’re not really putting yourself in the best learning situations, so change it up, go to new places, and meet some new people (keep your friends of course, but add to them).
- If the English speakers in your group aren’t really keen on speaking a lot of the target language, you don’t have to ditch them, but add a new person or two to your group who isn’t so afraid to speak and it will start to change the dynamic.
- By now you should be totally comfortable with the local publish transportation and ready to start venturing outside of the city to nearby towns. I remember when I volunteered to help with house construction in Ecuador (I have no idea about anything even in English). I learned how to say shovel, that shoveling was hard work, and hey let’s take a break! Haha. J Or when I volunteered to help kids in an after-school program in Guatemala, and I learned that when little kids were yelling agachate! they wanted me to stoop down and climb on top of me for a piggyback ride. That experience was just two weeks after going abroad and was outside of my comfort zone in Antigua. I was very nervous taking the bus out to a totally local place (except for my language-school buddies of course), but it was an important step and you have to do little trips like this to advance.
- You can arrange volunteer trips or activities with your school. Tours are okay but usually end up being all in English so you should probably limit those unless your focus isn’t so much on learning the language. But even if you are a tour junky, which means you must be at least somewhat interested in the native culture, the best way to learn the native culture is to start meeting people!
After 3 Months
Start to explore more by yourself in native settings.
How to Do It
- At this point you should feel comfortable going out in smaller groups, maybe just with one other English speaker. If you’ve been doing that already, that’s awesome. You might not be going out every weekend to meet new people, but you should still be exploring the local areas, restaurants, etc.
- You don’t have to spend a lot of money. Actually, you will spend a lot less if you go where the native speakers shop and eat and play. Go find a park and join in a soccer game or learn some other local game. When I was in Bogota there was this weird bar game of throwing rings into fake frogs’ mouths and throwing exploding pucks out on a field in the outskirts of the city while socializing (didn’t get to try that one unfortunately, but maybe next time!). If there are cultural events, even if it’s not that exciting to you, still go just to see what’s going on. Those are great times to meet people because the locals are usually really proud and excited to explain all the traditions to you. This forces you to try to understand a lot of new words. Just when you thought you were getting good, you get overwhelmed with all this new stuff! That’s a good thing.
- Start going out more by yourself. When you go shopping, you don’t always need a friend with you. You will quickly find that when you are not with other English speakers you are forced to do a lot more speaking in the native language. And if someone approaches you for conversation while you are by yourself you really get some practice that way.
- Really you can start exploring much earlier than the third month, but I know not everyone goes at the same pace. Just remember that it will not be totally or even partially comfortable at first to venture out by yourself, even if you are an adventurous person by nature. It’s difficult and you won’t understand a lot and you’ll make a lot of mistakes. But that is the only way to learn. I’m not saying you have to go around hitchhiking by yourself (although I have) or in groups (although I have) or talking to all sorts of random people on the street (did that quite frequently), but you’ve got to be willing to put yourself out there a bit. It’s funny but you’ll probably go from someone who is really intimidated by this to a rockstar once you tell your friends what you did. When you start to venture out on your own people start to look up to you for advice on doing things and exploring. That confidence can help keep you motivated when you hit learning plateaus.
Use every possible second to speak the native language. And figure out a way to extend your experience or go abroad again over summer vacation or later.
How to Do It
- If you are doing just one semester abroad, you are coming to the end of your experience. Now is a good time to call your school and see if you can extend it to a year.
- Okay, well if you’re not going to do that, study in another country over the summer. It doesn’t have to be through your school’s study abroad program. There are tons of ways to study abroad on your own, and feel free to e-mail me with your questions!
- If you were out there really meeting people and living the language during your semester abroad, you are going to be itching to go somewhere again after a few weeks back in the US. Some people warn about culture shock re-entering the US. To be honest I have always been able to adjust really quickly, both going abrod and coming back. You will quickly fall back into old routines, but you will have this lingering desire and spirit within you to go abroad again. Do it as fast as possible. Life gets more complicated as you get older. You and your friends will get caught up with work all week and be too far away or tired to hang out most of the time. People start to get married and have kids. Your apartment lease is for a year or your mortgage will be high. You will be forced into the typical American trap of working too much and not enjoying life and people enough. Some people manage this balance extraordinarily well, and you might love your job (I have loved or at least liked most of the jobs I worked). But still, there is so much more out there. Any time is a good time to go abroad, but if you can do it during summer breaks or right after college or grad school, it is usually a lot easier.
- When you get back, you’ll be telling everyone what a great experience you had, and although everyone will be excited to hear at first, after a while most people won’t be able to connect if they haven’t done something like that themselves. The solution: pack up and go again! The first step? Come back to my web site and share your experiences here. If you want to tell your story I’ll post it for the community. If you want advice let me know. And most likely, I’ll be asking you advice too because you’ll have experiences I’ve never had, and I’m interested!
Good luck and happy travels during your study abroad experience!