Voices

Seven dos and don'ts for learning a foreign language abroad

By Hannah Pearson

30 October 2014 - 16:22

Is living in a foreign country the best way to learn another language? Hannah Pearson, who’s working as an English language assistant in Mexico, shares her advice on immersing yourself in the language of the locals.

When I was a student of Spanish in the UK, I told myself that if I got the chance to take a year abroad, I would make the most of every second and come back with a native accent, lots of native friends and stroll my way to an easy first. It was a nice theory, except that I spent six months of my year abroad in Malaga, surrounded by sun, sea, sangria and a group of non-Spanish friends. I had a great time, but in terms of improving my Spanish, I did it wrong.

Luckily, I have a chance to try again by spending a year living and working in Mexico. This time around, I’m determined to make it count. Here are some dos and don’ts for making the most of your exposure to a foreign language while living abroad.

1. Do live with native speakers

They don’t have to be your new best friends, so whether you’re looking for a family with a spare room or a student house share, having a native speaker living under the same roof does wonders for your fluency, as you’ll easily spend a minimum of half an hour a day using your language skills. This is especially effective if they don’t speak any English because if you need something, you’ll learn pretty quickly how to ask for it, and it’s a great way to practise speaking a language even when you don’t feel like it. This sounds scary but you’ll soon find that the benefits of living with locals hugely outweigh any doubts you might have had.

Note: before you go, learn the word for ‘flooded’… trust me.

2. Do get into local TV shows

If you spend a year abroad as an English language assistant, there’s a good chance you’ll have lots of spare time and not a lot of money. So while a new Netflix series is a good way to pass the hours, it might be time to opt for something a bit more local (Acapulco Shore and La Voz are my personal favourites in Mexico). Even if you can’t get TV shows with subtitles, listening to as much as you can and making a note of any new vocabulary is a great way to tune into the local dialect.

3. Do say ‘yes’

You’ve been invited to your friend’s niece’s birthday meal? Why not? As long as you feel safe and not under pressure, even the strangest suggestions are great opportunities for language practice. And you never know, you could end up having a great time. Even if you’re being pushed into karaoke (who can sing a Beatles rendition if not a Brit?) just think of the great stories you’ll have to tell when you get back.

4. Don’t cave in to others’ desire to practise their English with you

When you go abroad, you’ll quickly discover what a valuable skill English is, a skill that people are going to try and practise with you. It might be hard to ignore demands of ‘no, no, no I need to practise my English!’, but be consistent and continue to speak the local language, even if your replies keep coming in English. Remember, you’re the one that’s moved to another country, so if you want to speak its language, don’t let anyone deter you.

5. Do keep a vocab book

… and keep it with you at all times. Note down anything you hear and don’t understand, even if it’s a phonetic guess at the right spelling. If you don’t feel comfortable asking then and there, this is a great way to learn new, random vocabulary in a natural setting and pick up colloquialisms. Make a habit of referring to it often to refresh your memory. This is also a great ego boost as you have a physical record of all the new vocab you’ve learned. A really useful online dictionary is www.wordreference.com.

6. Do keep up the hard work

Just because you’re taking a break from formal study (or maybe graduated) doesn’t mean it’s time to put the grammar books away for good. Putting your languages into everyday use is a great way to pick up on the areas that still need practice, and who doesn’t love a good verb drill? For learners of Spanish, good sites include www.studyspanish.com and www.conjuguemos.com.

7. Don’t lose faith

Learning a new language is hard, and it can feel like you go from confidently chatting one day to not being able to string a sentence together the next. If you’re having one of the latter, just think of how far you’ve come, and where you want to be when it’s time to go home. And don’t forget, if you’re not quite there yet, you can always apply to go again next year.

Find out more about becoming an English language assistant. The deadline for applications to teach in China and Spain is 21 February 2016, and for all other countries is 17 January 2016.

Hear what current language assistants around the world think of the experience, by watching this series of short films.

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