Erin Explores

by Erin Elaine

Some advice about living abroad – Language

In the past nine months I’ve learned a lot about the challenges of living abroad. There are many things I was expecting before arriving, but I’ve also encountered a lot of things that hadn’t occurred to me before. This post will deal specifically with learning a foreign language. In the future I’ll write about things like adjusting to a new culture, being away from your loved ones, and other topics. So, if you’re thinking about moving abroad, or if you’re just interested in the topic, please read on.

You Can’t Learn A Language Through Osmosis
A lot of people assume that if you live in a foreign country for a certain amount of time, you will just magically learn the language. As if simply being in a place is all that’s required, and after x number of months, you will simply be fluent. News flash, it doesn’t work that way. Learning a foreign language takes an extraordinary amount of dedication, practice, and time. Some people will live in a foreign country for three years and won’t learn more than Where’s the bathroom? and May I have the bill, please? whereas others will live in a foreign country for 6 months and will make an effort to practice the language for several hours every day, and those are the ones that will get to the conversational level quickly, and will eventually achieve fluency, with enough time.

Most Native English Speakers Take For Granted How Easy It Makes Our Lives While Traveling
Native English speakers know that if they go to Paris, they might encounter some people who don’t speak English, but in general, almost everyone they meet will speak at least a little bit of English. There might be some miscommunications, and they might have to resort to gestures sometimes, but generally they can get by. But if your first language is Russian or Japanese or any other language, suddenly everything becomes a lot harder. Those people either have to hire a translator, speak English themselves, or be mute for their entire trip. In the past nine months I’ve met people from literally dozens of different countries, and almost every conversation I had was in English. Here I am making friends, speaking my native language, while this girl from Thailand or this boy from Greece are struggling in their second or third language. Imagine needing to master a foreign language before you could travel outside your tiny home country. It would be extremely limiting. Being a native English speaker opens so many doors.

Learning A Foreign Language Takes Time
No, you can’t buy Spanish For Dummies and get a Word Of The Day Email and expect to be able to have a conversation within a month. People who think learning a new language is easy generally only speak one language. Americans are especially guilty of this. When people come to this country they need to learn the language! Um, okay, have you ever tried to learn a language, particularly one with no rules? No? Okay then shut up. So many Americans think that learning a foreign language is so easy that it’s not even worth attempting. It’s extremely ignorant and annoying. They think they can just snap their fingers and learn German in two months. It doesn’t work like that.

Be Willing To Look Like A Fool
Learning a foreign language means you will make a fool of yourself at some point. Probably quite often. But there isn’t a way to learn a language without doing so. The trick is to take it in stride and keep trying. There is simply no way to learn a foreign language without making lots of mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes will be tiny, and sometimes the mistakes will be huge, and will completely bring an entire conversation to a halt. But you have to keep trying. This is something I still struggle with a lot. Sometimes I’m pretty shy around native Spanish speakers, because I don’t want to make mistakes. But in the past nine months I’ve tried to put myself out there a bit more and be willing to make mistakes.

Having A Basic Language Foundation Before Moving Abroad Will Help You Immensely
I had taken some Spanish classes before moving to Madrid, so I knew the bare basics of the language. I think this was one of the main factors that prevented me from feeling culture shock. I still felt like a mute baboon a lot, but having the basics was extremely helpful. Being able to read a basic menu. Being able to ask someone their name. Being able to hand over the correct amount of money in a store. Or, when I was looking for an apartment, and the apartment number was 3D. I knew it was on what Americans would consider the 4th floor. Upon arriving at the correct floor, I realized the doors were all unmarked. If I had no knowledge of Spanish, I would’ve had a 50/50 chance of knocking on the right door. But, with my basic level of Spanish I knew that izquierda means left and derecha means right, so I knocked on the door to the right and got this apartment. So, having a basic knowledge of the language is helpful in countless situations.

Learning A Language Is A Constant Process That Should Never End
Like most skills, you have to keep practicing a new language in order to remember it. I took two years of French in high school, but now I remember nothing beyond basic salutations. Even after living in Spain, if I were to go back home and not speak Spanish anymore, I would slowly start to forget it, bit by bit. Even people who achieve fluency in a foreign language need to practice it. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Start Taking Classes Immediately
A combination of structured classes and open-ended conversation time is a great mix for learning a new language. A huge advantage to taking classes in the country itself is that your teacher will be a native speaker! I really learned a lot during my Spanish classes here in Madrid, and I would recommend it to anyone. Particularly if you’re moving somewhere with a low cost of living, try to start taking classes as soon as possible. I waited 3 months to “settle in” first, but I would have settled in faster if I’d been improving my language skills at the same time. Also, try to find a few conversation partners who have a lot of patience. Spend half an hour speaking in your new language and then half an hour speaking in English, that way both of you benefit. It’s also a great way to make friends.

So, these are my basic tips for living abroad, in regards to learning a new language. I hope this post will be helpful to a couple people. And if you have any advice that you think I should’ve included in this post, please comment below. Thanks!

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This entry was posted on June 21, 2013 by in Culture, Language, Madrid, Spain, Travel and tagged , , , , .
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