How to make the most of your year abroad

A recent Guardian article warns hopeful language students that, contrary to popular belief, they’re probably not going to become fluent during their year abroad.

There are many reasons why this is the case, from English-based work placements, to ‘helpful’ locals speaking to you in English, to only socialising with other international students. And, based on experience, I can certainly identify with all of these, and the disappointing realisation when you come back not really that much better at the language than when you left.

So, future Year Abroad-ers, learn from my mistakes (and some of the things I did right too!) and follow my guide to how to max out your language learning on your YA.

Share a flat with locals

When I did my placement in Zaragoza, Spain, I shared a flat with two Spanish girls and one French. All of whom spoke very poor English. So at least I had a couple of people right there to speak Spanish with day to day. Unfortunately I really didn’t get on with one of the girls and ended up mostly avoiding them, but the idea is still a good one in theory! Flat-sharing with locals is a good way to meet people, speak the language at least a little bit every day and hopefully make some friends who can help you out and show you around. If you’re in Germany, try a WG (Wohngemeinschaft or flat-share) website such as to find other sharers. In Spain it was quite easy to find a temporary room to rent just by searching online, or you can ask around when you get there. Don’t fall into the trap of renting with mates from your university or other placement students from your country – it might be fun but you won’t learn a thing and you’ll be stuck right in your comfort zone. Staying in a host family is another option.

Make sure your placement involves the language

If at all possible, look for a placement where you’ll actually be using the language. It sounds obvious, but I think a lot of students end up in an international organisation where the lingua franca is English, or teaching English and not really using the target language at all. If you have any choice about it, then studying is a good option as you’ll have classes in the language, or find a placement in a real French/German/Spanish company where people communicate in the language all day.

Sign up for classes

It sounds like a total waste of time to do more language classes while you’re there. After all, French will just flow in somehow, right? Wrong. Even if you are communicating in French all the time, you’ll still need to make a concerted effort to keep studying the grammar and so on. And if, as in many cases, you’re not getting as much immersion as you expected, then keeping up classes can cover the shortfall.

Make friends with some locals and avoid the ERASMUS crowd

Way easier said than done, of course, but please do at least try. Go to clubs or bars where locals hang out instead of to the mainstream ERASMUS nights. Ask your housemates or class-mates to introduce you to their friends. Join something where you can meet people. Get a tandem partner or find another local student who can act as a mentor while you’re in your first weeks.

Cultural immersion

Even if you’re not meeting so many people right away, then you can take advantage of all the media around you being in the language. I envisioned myself sipping a cafe con leche whilst reading the local Spanish paper each morning, whilst in reality I picked up the paper about twice. Watch the TV, listen to the radio, read the newspaper and go out to see films or shows in the language. You can do all this back home too, but it’s easier when you have 24/7 access to telenovelas and Spanish game shows. Try to be an active learner by looking up words you don’t know or asking a flatmate to explain things you don’t understand.

Be proactive about using the language

If people keep switching into English, try to explain that you’re actually there to learn their language and please could they help you with that instead. Or just keep replying to them in German until they finally accept it. If you’re friends with a mixed, international group, suggest evenings where you chat in various different languages. My group in Spain was a mix of mainly French and English girls, so we organised things on a ‘half hour in French, half hour in Spanish and half hour in English’ basis. Don’t let people who speak fantastic English intimidate you into not using the target language. If it’s too hard to speak your dodgy French with someone who speaks perfect English, try to find someone whose English isn’t really any good. It’s not too hard to do in Spain, although it may be much harder in Germany!

Minimise contact with ‘home’

I know you want to Skype your parents and Facebook your friends back home, of course. But try not to let calling your English boyfriend for 2 hours a day interfere with your year abroad experience. And especially avoid streaming English TV and Netflix all the time instead of watching the local TV. If you have to catch up with House of Cards, then try to find it dubbed instead. Try to stay ‘immersed’ rather than bringing stacks of English books with you, watching your favourite UK channels online and staying in texting home rather than getting out and using the language.

Join some activities

If relying on ‘organically’ meeting loads of natives at bars and so on isn’t actually as easy as you’d hoped (it wasn’t for me), then try joining various things where you can meet people and get exposure to the language. Take a class of any kind, join a club or group, or find a community who are into something you love. Try meeting people online via Facebook groups for people in your city, or even internet dating – it can’t hurt, right? Keep up the activities you normally do at home – joining a climbing centre, a running group or a football team, for example. Something that gets you out and about doing something generally makes it easier to connect and talk to people.

Do any other language grads have other advice from their Year Abroad experience? Share it in the comments below!

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