Despite learning a language for years through school, when the opportunity arises for us to use our skills we often chicken out. This is quite understandable as using language in a native speaking country to native speakers is quite different to using them in a classroom.
However, it is important that nerves do not completely stop you from using your language skills (however strong or weak they may be), as a year abroad is the perfect opportunity to use and learn in a safe environment.
Plus it’ll hugely enrich your experience as it’ll enable you to personally involve yourself with day-to-day life in and outside the university, not to mention earning you a new/improved skill to take home with you!
This is the key. It doesn’t matter how good or how bad you are – there is always room for improvement. You may count yourself as fluent in Spanish, but there is almost certainly some conversational slang you have yet to learn, and immersing yourself in the day-to-day language of your host country will teach you this.
Studying the language at home will give you the grounding knowledge of grammar, tenses and basic language that you need, but that’s basically it. Only by being confident enough to converse with locals (even just to buy something from a greengrocer or ask a policeman for directions) and brave enough to learn from your mistakes, can you be sure to learn something more.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how confident you are speaking to your international friends in your new language – without the loss of your language safety net you will not learn as fast and you will not learn as much.
If you decide to stay with a Host Family this problem is practically solved for you. Despite the fact that they might know your native language, they will of course naturally converse in their own so you will be forced to learn and converse along.
If you are living in halls or with other international students privately, you will have to make a little more effort. Try and make friends with the native speakers – don’t just use them as a means to an end! You will find friendships spark up just as easily abroad as they would at home.
4 top tips to use and improve your language skills
Read magazines. This is a great way to get started, as they are written in easy, conversational style and are often about international crazes you are already familiar with, such as celebrities, books and films.
Research the country. If you arrive with just a basic knowledge of the current economic climate, political situation and a little of the country’s history, you will be able to make sense of conversation just by understanding the odd word.
Go out alone. You and your international friends need each other, so of course don’t be a stranger to them. But if you are feeling less confident about your language skills and your friend isn’t, you will probably let him/her do all the talking and therefore your skills won’t improve. No matter how apprehensive you are, wander out into the town alone occasionally. By throwing yourself in at the deep-end you will be forced into using the language and will discover it’s not as scary as you thought.
Go to a class. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a language class (though taking a Direct Immersion Class will probably prove extremely helpful) – continue your interests from home abroad and learn about them in a new light. Join a reading group and read a foreign novel. Watch and discuss foreign films. Play sport, paint or play games – combine the familiar with the unfamiliar whenever you can to give yourself that little push.