10 tips for improving your language skills while studying abroad
Having already been in Beijing for over a month, I can confidently say I’ve experienced almost every up and down that’s associated with studying a new language. That being said, the personal victories I’ve achieved (e.g. having a full conversation with a native Beijinger) far outweigh any of the difficulties I’ve encountered. While difficulties will always arise when you’re learning a foreign language in a new country, I’ve come up with a list of 10 reasons why your progress is slower than you had assumed it would be, but also how you can improve upon it.
1. You constantly forget everyday words.
This is an extremely common problem, and also the one that most hinders basic communication. You know the situation – you’re trying to have a conversation with some and although you know what you want to say and how to say it correctly (grammatically speaking) you just don’t know one or two words that are key to the whole sentence. I have two solutions to this problem:
A) Keep a list of words you consistently forget taped on a wall somewhere in your room that you can constantly add to.
B) Keep a small notebook and pen with you at all times. This is especially convenient for when you’re talking with someone and they use a phrase or word you don’t recognize or know and need to remember to look up later.
2. You still listen to U.S. or Western music 24/7.
I’ll admit listening to music from back home is one of the best ways to combat homesickness, but it’s also one of the worst ways to improve your language skills. The obvious solution is to listen to music that is sung in the language you’re learning. Every country has different genres of music, just like in the U.S., so you should be able to find one you like. If you just can’t handle the constant musical barrage of foreign words being blasted into your ears, the second solution is to listen to instrumental music, e.g. classical music, instrumental versions of your favorite Western songs, or even some Gregorian chant.
3. The only book you read is your textbook.
Don’t get me wrong, your textbook is probably one of the most valuable tools when it comes to learning a new language, but it’s not the only book you should/could be reading. If you’re uncomfortable picking a book you’ve never read before off the shelf, find a book you’ve read before that has been translated into your new language. You’ll be able to compare the vocab and grammar structures to that of English, not to mention you’ll already know the plot so there will be fewer speed bumps along the way.
4. If you’re not in class, you’re still speaking English
I can attest to the fact that while sticking to a language pledge (a mandatory pledge in my CET program) is extremely difficult. It is the single best thing you can do to raise your language proficiency level.
Struggling to find the right word, form a sentence, or express a coherent thought will not only help your proficiency, but will also raise your self confidence when you realize no matter how complicated it is, you can find a way to communicate in another language. Even if it’s not mandatory for your program, try your best to stick to a personal language pledge.
5. You have yet to find a great online dictionary/translating site or buy an electronic translator.
This relates back to not being able to remember a lot of vocab, especially words and phrases used in everyday speech. Of course writing those words and phrases down is only helpful if you can find out what they mean. As far as websites go, I use two for translating my Chinese – one that’s better for phrases and sentences, and one that allows me to draw the physical Chinese character on the site and then get the definition.
If your language isn’t character based, you may only need one site. As far as an electronic translator, it could be anything from your iPad, to your iPod touch, or any of the other electronic language translators you can find in online stores.
6. You neglected to review before you went abroad.
This one’s tough. I’d be a hypocrite if I said I reviewed before I came to China. We’re all busy trying to get our Visas, pack, and say goodbye to friends and family and understandably reviewing gets pushed down to the bottom of the list. The problem with not reviewing before you leave is twofold. If you have to take a language placement exam when you get to your abroad university, you may score at a lower level than what your true proficiency is simply because you forgot a few basic words and structures. The other aspect is that if you have to continuously review while you’re abroad, it will make learning new material even more difficult.
7. Your cell phone is still set to English.
This is probably one of the more neglected ways of improving your language skills. Think about how much time you spend on your phone texting (or whatever else) even while you’re abroad. Now think about if you spent all that time texting in your new language. Look over the settings in your phone in English first so you can make sure the important features are all set and there’s no danger of you changing what you wouldn’t otherwise want to by accident, then switch the language form English to whichever you’re studying.
8. You scan your textbook but don’t read aloud.
Reading aloud is one of the most important ways to improve your reading ability, which is a really big aspect of learning a new language. Reading out loud not only helps you to realize when you make a mistake or don’t actually know a word or phrase, but actually hearing your own voice will help you comprehend and/or memorize what you’re reading. Another great idea is to listen to your textbook on CD’s or iTunes if available. Then you know exactly what the text says and exactly what you should sound like when you read out loud.
9. You are always comparing yourself to the others around you.
This one’s dangerous and I’ll admit it’s something I’m guilty of as well. The group of friends I hang out with in Beijing, one of the best I could ask for by the way, have all been in China for over a year and their Chinese fluency is obviously much higher than mine. While they’re so willing to not only help me with my Chinese, but also stick to my language pledge, I obviously feel a little inferior and overwhelmed when they are having a conversation amongst themselves and I haven’t a clue what they’re talking about.
Don’t think this way. In doing so, you’re not only lowering your self-confidence, you’re also neglecting all of the progress you’ve already made, which if you’re studying in a foreign country, is usually a lot more than you realize.
10. You’re dating another American while you’re abroad.
I have to credit this one to Sarah over at Abroad101.com. I’m not the love doctor and have absolutely zero advice when it comes to that department. I’m also not saying you can’t date another American either, especially because I believe you should be with whoever you want as long as you’re happy. But there are some obvious benefits to dating someone who lives in the country you’re in and fluently speaks the language you’re studying.
First, what better way to experience the local culture than with a foreign significant other? And second, you will probably end up spending the majority of your free time with this person. Sarah says (and truthfully so) that this is important because it means that you will not be hanging out with Americans and therefore not speaking English.
If you have any other questions or comments please feel free to leave them below and I’ll get back to you!