Studying abroad can be life-changing. You can get a short window into not only another language, but a totally different culture and lifestyle!
A "study abroad" is a period of time during your studies at university where you live in another country. Study abroads can be one week, two weeks, a one month...or even a whole semester or entire school year! Usually, you only study abroad once while you're in school, making it a valuable, if short, time to see a new place and improve your English skills.
Study abroad programs are usually organized through your university in partnership with a different university. You often take classes there, but these programs can have many different focuses: research, language acquisition, you name it. They are often related to specific programs--for example, mine was a Rome study program related to my Italian minor.
You might attend classes or focus more on research and volunteering. You could live with a host family (a family that will host you in their home) or in a dormitory.
No matter what the details are, the basics are the same: You'll meet people from all over the world, make incredible memories, and learn new skills you didn't realize you had.
Wow. That all sounds a little amazing, doesn't it?
And if it sounds a little overwhelming, you're not alone. If you're considering a study abroad or you've already signed yourself up for one--fear not. Here are 5 ways to make the most of your once-in-a-life-time study abroad.
Choose the Right Location for You
It might sound obvious, but studying abroad is all about location, location, location!
If you are looking to improve your English, then an anglophone (English-speaking) country is, of course, going to be the right idea.
But which country? As we know, English and how it sounds is very different depending on where it's spoken.
Here's the breakdown of what to consider when you pick the country.
- What programs does your university offer? What are study abroad locations you could reasonably pick?
- What English dialect are you most familiar with? (For example, if you grew up watching American movies, maybe you are most familiar with American English).
- What English dialect are you hoping to learn? If your country or profession prefers British English, maybe it makes more sense to study in the UK.
- Most importantly--what places are you interested in?
Talk to the study abroad coordinators at your university! There's likely an office where you can look into different programs and ask questions.
Once you've decided on a place or program, it's time to do your research. Watch movies or TV shows set in that country, read books from native authors, and join language apps to start chatting with native speakers.
Wherever you go, your English is surely to improve. After all, there are many, many countries where people commonly speak English!!
Get Out of Your Bubble
One of the mistakes that people make when they move abroad is that it can be easy to get stuck in a "foreigner bubble." That is, only spending your time with a small circle of friends who are from your country and speak your language.
After all, if you've just moved abroad, you might prefer the comfort and familiarity of people who are from the same place you are. Everyone gets the same references and there's no language barrier. It's definitely easier!
But if you want to seriously improve your English as a language learner, then the first big advice we have? Get out of that bubble.
Whether you're sipping a pint at a local pub in Scotland, or taking surfing lessons in California, try to talk to locals or other travelers (who will likely speak English too!). Take up yoga, go to a pottery class, or join a local running group.
It's not just about language (although it is about that, of course). Getting to see a new culture from locals' eyes will expand your perspective. It will make you consider things you never have before.
Here are some more ways to get out of that bubble:
Hang Out With Your Host Family
A host family is what it sounds like--a family that will host you in their home. Typically, they'll provide room and board (which is both a room and food, at least dinners).
The arrangement depends on the family and program, of course, but you can expect to learn a lot quickly from your host family! Before you know it, they will become your own family away from home.
If improving English is your goal, seriously consider living in a host family situation. It could be a better chance than living in a dorm with students from back home. You'll be hearing everyday English--not something from a textbook!
Language exchanges are meet-ups in a bar or cafe where people will practice languages together. Often, you'll spend half an hour speaking one language, and then switch to the other.
The languages you speak at the exchange depend on where you are. For example, in Madrid, you would go to an exchange where one half is English and the other is in Spanish.
Language exchanges happen in most big cities. If you live in a part of the world where meeting native English speakers isn't common, going to a language exchange while abroad is a great opportunity. It will help you internalize every word you learn or piece of slang you pick up, so you can begin using them. That's when you know you're making serious progress.
Studying English in a classroom is great for developing a foundation, but there comes a time when you must go forth and use it. Often, confidence with speaking can be the hardest part of learning a new language. You can also grow more familiar with understanding the local English accent. You'll also likely meet amazing new friends!
Because language exchanges tend to be introductory conversations or small talk, they can often become boring. We recommend coming with a list of questions and topic ideas. You can even use a textbook you are studying from to help with vocabulary.
Where to find them? Check university ads, language clubs, Facebook or Meet-up.
Find Ways to Battle Homesickness
We'd be remiss to talk about studying abroad without talking about homesickness.
If you are far from home, especially if it's the first time you've been gone for so long, it can be very painful. You might miss holidays or birthdays. Phone calls help some, but some nights all you might want is your grandma's hugs or your favorite snack.
Not to mention, speaking a different language all day can be very draining. Even just hearing so much English can be exhausting! You might be feeling demotivated about your language skills--and if so, Maria has some tips for you.
So, our recommendation is it's okay to be homesick. It's natural! Here are some tips we have for soothing the pains of homesickness:
- Pack a few extra snacks from home that you know you will miss. If (when) you eat all you brought, try to find an international store that might stock them.
- Call family every now and again! Time zones can be tough, but seeing your mom can do miracles. That said, calling too often might make you miss home more. Try to strike a balance!
- Watch a show from home. Just hearing your native language can be a comfort.
- Bring the clothes that make you feel confident and cozy. Fashion might be very different where you go. For example, most American cities are very, very casual! While you might prefer blending in with the current fashions in your new home, bring clothes that you feel most comfortable in, like a favorite pair of pajama pants.
- Remember--studying abroad is a short time! Most of the time you'll be too busy having a blast to be homesick, but even if you do miss home, remember that it will be temporary. Culture shock, social faux pas, and homesick nights are a learning experience, and those bad feelings won't last forever!
Study. Grow. Explore!
Studying abroad is challenging but it's also a great chance to delve into another culture, history, and language.
You will get to know the ins-and-outs of a place's slang and everyday English, which is something you often can't get in books or even on TV. Whether it's making friends in your classes or nailing your coffee order at a cafe, you'll pick up so much English on the way.
Just remember--keep your mind open, your chin up, and your English ready to use! The world is your oyster (some fun slang for you. It means: the world is big, open, and full of potential). Good luck!