Closeup B&W portraits of Kuta beach people

Great Expectations: 5 Tips for Mastering a Language Whilst Living Abroad

Since a young age I’ve always wanted to learn a foreign language. Actually I have always wanted to speak a foreign language. The learning process, I was never so keen on. Having been quite terrible at French at school (I found it boring, unrewarding and badly taught), I yearned to speak another language fluently. Preferably instantly and without having to memorize vocabulary, verb tables and conjugations.

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Armed with a distinct lack of linguistic abilities but a profound love of traveling, I decided that moving abroad to a Spanish-speaking country was the only way I was ever going to achieve this magical fluency. ‘Six months living in Buenos Aires should make me fluent, right?’ I said to myself as I booked my tickets.

I have lived in Argentina for just over seven months now, had private lessons, group lessons and intercambios. The experience has been wonderful, rewarding, challenging and downright frustrating.

As someone who has experienced learning the language first hand, and via hundreds of other Spanish students who I meet everyday in my work at Expanish Spanish School in Buenos Aires, here are my five tips to help travelers find their path to fluency whilst traveling abroad.

#1: Be Realistic

Despite what many people think, you won’t be fluent in six months. Learning a language is a complex process. Although you will certainly be able to get by and hold a conversation after six months, you need to be realistic about the challenges of learning a language. Manage your own expectations and you won’t feel disappointed. There are tons of interesting articles on fluency and setting goals ahead of time can help you know what to expect.

Library Stacks at Cornell University, New York
Studying © eflon

#2: Be Prepared for an (Enjoyable) Roller Coaster

Learning Spanish whilst living in Buenos Aires is the most enjoyable thing I have ever done, but be prepared for an intense roller coaster of a ride whilst studying a language abroad. One week you will be flying – speaking will come naturally, you’ll be understanding like a near native and you’ll feel immensely pleased with yourself. But the next week it may feel like you are back to square one, unable to form simple sentences and confounded by the new verb tense you have just learnt. This is normal. All the Spanish learners I have met go through the same thing, so don’t be too hard on yourself.

#3: Be Prepared That You May Never Be Satisfied!

One friend who has been in Buenos Aires for a number of years and is fluent described learning a language as climbing a mountain with many ledges. Just as you are about to reach what you think is the summit, another summit presents itself. Learning a language is the same.

For example, in the case of learning Spanish, as soon as you have mastered one tense, your profesora presents yet another brand new tense you didn’t know existed. Similarly, the better you get at speaking, the more you realize there is so much more to learn. Again this is natural, and although you may feel each time like you are reverting back to square one, in reality you have just reached the next ledge on ”˜Mount Language Learning’.

#4: Choose Your Teacher or School Carefully

This may sound like an obvious one, but it’s important to be thorough when choosing your learning approach. The language won’t sink in by osmosis simply by living in the country. Take lessons that suit your learning style. Choosing a reputable language school will usually ensure structured teaching and good facilities for language learning.

The school I work in for example, provides a weekly Spanish language cinema club, a Spanish language library and great immersion activities as well as the option of one-to-one Spanish classes. However, some people prefer the flexibility that comes with individual teachers. If you go down this route, don’t be afraid to test drive your teacher first to see if their teaching methods suit your needs.

Closeup B&W portraits of Kuta beach people
Understanding the Kuta Beach People © Riza Nugraha

#5: Give It Your All

Your time whilst living abroad and learning a language is precious. Make the most of it by doing as much as possible to immerse yourself. If this means finding an intercambio to exchange languages and find out more about their culture in a social context, do it. Listen to the radio, read the local paper and watch TV. See every conversation you have during the day as a free language lesson!

Many language schools and institutions offer home-stays. This is a great way of pushing yourself into a situation where you have to speak the language. In the same respect, don’t feel guilty about having the evening off and spending time with your native language speakers.

In Short …

Finally, I would say to anyone about to embark on learning a language abroad: relax and enjoy it. There is no question that learning a language is a life changing experience that will not only arm you with a whole new way of communicating, but much more. You will no doubt gain a deeper understanding of your own language and grammar and of yourself (in particular, your self motivation and ability to laugh at yourself).

Furthermore you will gain great insight into others you meet along the way, their patience (with you), and their ability to laugh (more often than not at some faux par or pronunciation error you’ve made). Last but not least, speaking a foreign language helps you understand different cultures at a far deeper level than you would ever be able to in your native tongue. You just need to relax and enjoy it!

  1. It’s great you mentioned watching television. It’s an oft-overlooked resource. When I was studying French in Montpellier, I learned a ton by watching the news every evening.

  2. Thanks for the insight! My wife and I are moving to Morocco in a month and will be there for at least the next two years. Learning French is the most daunting part of our preparation. It’s good for us to have some realistic expectations.

  3. Thank you fro the helpful tips along with a much needed reality check. It’s easy to let my imagination run wild with how much progress I could make on my Spanish during 3 months in South America. In truth, I hope that purely the ability to make any conversation with people will be treasured. I’m currently in South East Asia and frustrated by the difficulty in interacting with local people due to a far tougher language barrier.

    Good luck with your Spanish!

  4. This was a very helpful article. My husband and I are giving Rosetta Stone a try before our RTW trip in January (our first stop is Santiago, Chile). One thing to add to the list is that mastering charades is a must in the beginning!

  5. Another great opportunity for adults, age 18 – 35, is the SYLE program. Servas Youth Language Experience is a program designed for young Servas members to learn a language through a Servas cultural exchange during one month in a foreign country.
    This experience includes language classes (formal or informal) and other activities – cultural, recreational, sportive, touristic, etc.- in an environment of fraternal daily life that ensures a rich experience of language learning and cultural exchange between the young traveller and the Servas Hosts.
    Based on this intent, the host country will plan an Agenda, indicating dates and locations of: the Servas Host Families, the activities and their points of contact, as well as allocated spare time for the traveller.

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