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Getting the Most out of Study Abroad

Study abroad is an incredible growth opportunity. Living in a different part of the world allows you not only to discover a new place but also to build cultural understanding, establish new connections, advance profoundly in language and communication ability (especially if that part of the world speaks a language other than English), and acquire important skills for future career success. Therefore, if you are planning to study abroad—for an entire year or just for a summer—it is important that you understand how to optimize the experience to get the most out of your time abroad.

Benefits of Studying Abroad

A study by the Institute of International Education (IIE) found that “study abroad has an overall positive impact on the development of a wide range of 21st century job skills,” including intercultural and interpersonal skills, leadership, confidence, teamwork, and tolerance for ambiguity. In addition, the IIE reports that studying abroad widens a student’s career possibilities and that “the skills gained through study abroad have a long-term impact on career progression and promotion.” Spending a semester or year abroad has value beyond personal exploration: it can also give you a compelling advantage on the job market.

Establishing a temporary life for yourself in a different country also allows you to form bonds with a variety of people—from host families to professors to new friends—outside your usual social circle. Aside from the inherent value of long-lasting friendships, these connections could also potentially lead to broadened opportunities in your life. As a Northeastern University blog post put it, “The wider your network, the greater the likelihood you’ll be connected to exciting career and social opportunities.”

Studying abroad is an important way to deepen the process of language learning and to rapidly improve language proficiency. Immersion in a target language, as The New York Times documents, helps learners process the language as native speakers would. While many college-level language classes use classroom immersion as a valuable teaching tool, you will advance much more quickly by immersing yourself in the language you are learning in a study abroad context than by attending a few hours of class each week in that language.

Maximizing Language Learning during Study Abroad

With all the benefits in mind, it’s important to remember that learning a language requires extensive effort, and that just being in a different country will not guarantee that you will make significant gains. So how can you improve your odds of mastering a language?

For one, it’s important to intentionally immerse yourself in the target language as much as possible. In selecting the study abroad site, think about which places have a lot of foreign tourism and which will allow you to interact mainly with locals. The more you surround yourself with native speakers, the more you will understand the language and culture. Consider choosing a less-touristy place as your study abroad site and traveling to bigger, touristy cities during your free time. The IIE’s study found that “choosing a less familiar destination was positively associated with skill development and sense of career impact.” If your school only offers study abroad locations that attract many foreign tourists, you can always try to avoid the most touristy areas where you will hear English and spend more time in residential neighborhoods where you will interact more with native speakers.

Housing can also make a difference in terms of linguistic development. A homestay option, as opposed to living in a dorm with other English-speaking students, can help you understand how people in that region live and can help you improve your language skills by forcing you to communicate with non-English speakers on a daily basis. Furthermore, it can broaden your worldview by giving you a rare glimpse into the lifestyle of people in your study abroad site and by helping you and appreciate cultural differences between your original home and your study abroad home. Plus, keeping in touch with your host family following your study abroad experience can help you maintain a valuable connection to the region for years to come!

If you are on a program with other English-speaking students, it can be easy to speak English with them. Since it is preferable to gain experience communicating in the target language, try to branch out and make new connections with people who are native speakers of that language. If you end up spending a lot of time with other English-speaking students in the program, you could make an agreement with them to practice the target language at least some of the time: for example, during a conversation hour each day.

English is used as a lingua franca across the world and is therefore quite common as a second language. Because of the prevalence of English, many people abroad may want to practice their English with you if you are a native speaker. While this gesture can be a friendly sign that they are trying to be more welcoming by speaking your native language, it is not productive for your own language learning. To truly immerse yourself, you could insist on speaking the target language by explaining (kindly) that you appreciate the gesture but are studying abroad to learn a new language. You could, alternatively, offer to exchange language skills—you practice their native language half of the time and they practice yours the other half.

Lastly, try to register for classes that are not available at your home institution, especially if they are taught in the host language, in order to gain new perspectives on subjects that might not be covered in the United States. Such subjects might include the history or culture of the region you are studying abroad in. The more you immerse yourself in a culture and language, the more you will learn and grow from the unique experience of studying abroad.


Image by Jan Vašek via Pixabay

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