Learning to Speak an Unusual Language: Where, When, Why, and How?

by Julia Kitlinski Hong

Learning a less common language for you is like being part of a secret club. When you meet other members you exchange words that to people on the outside seems like a code to crack. For a linguistic enthusiast like yourself, spending the better half of your Friday night with Rosetta Stone might seem like one way to fluency and instant membership, but that barely scratches the surface.

You really should take the time to go abroad, enroll yourself in some intensive language classes, and immerse yourself fully in the culture and daily life of wherever your cool new language is spoken. 








Globe

Picking where to go can be based on family history or personal interests.

It sounds a little overwhelming, it’s true. And you may have valid concerns about tackling this new language that isn’t too widely spoken, but the benefits of learning a new language always far outweigh your fears. Imagine you are on a bus a few years from now, and you hear a couple chatting to each other in Finnish or Tamil. You cannot help but strike up a conversation, and pretty soon you are reminiscing about your time in Finland or India. It will be little moments like these that will make it all worth it. 

But first, let’s rewind and start at the beginning, and have all your burning questions answered. Here’s where, when, why, and how you should learn that unusual language abroad:

Where in the world should I go?

The United Nations recognizes six different languages as official languages for their organization: Russian, Mandarin, French, English, Spanish, and Arabic. These are the most commonly spoken languages around the world, and therefore, the most useful to learn for both personal and professional purposes. That means that the rest of the world’s roughly 6,900 languages are possibilities for those of you who want to venture off the well-trodden language learners path. 

It sounds fun, albeit dizzying, but there are better ways than simply spinning a globe, closing your eyes, and pointing to choose a country or city to study in. If you’re interested in learning your own family’s native or ancestral tongue, whether it’s Portuguese or Tagalog, heading home to “the old country” is your best bet. Being completely immersed in the language all the time can at first seem like a death wish, but you’ll come to realize how valuable learning a language in the proper context is. 

You’re obviously going to want to study the language wherever it’s spoken natively, but that doesn’t mean you can’t combine passion and pragmatism. Love Japanese films? Do you want to learn more about the Japanese film industry AND be able to watch movies without subtitles? Signing up for Japanese language courses in Kyoto can help with that. Are you curious about authentic Thai cuisine and believe that learning Thai will help you understand it better? A stint in a Chiang Mai language school is the only way to go.









Autumn leaves in a forest

Each season has its pros and cons; regardless of when, do stay as long as possible!

When is the best time to go?

Uh, how about right now? There’s no better time than the present! When you’ve got that inspirational fire to learn a new language and the time to do so, the worst thing that can stop you is doubt. You may second guess yourself and think that you need to do a little prep work back at home with language classes or Rosetta Stone, and of course you should take a little time to prep yourself, but if you are waiting to be fluent before you actually go abroad that’s just a little self-defeating. It’s scary, but signing up for a language course halfway around the world will never be something you regret.

The duration of your stay will depend on how long you can afford to stay in another country. If you’re working full-time, you’ll need to get creative with your paid time off and sick days, and/or take a sabbatical to give yourself enough time in-country to really pick up the language. It’s been proven that it takes 575 to 2200 hours, to be able to be conversational with a new language for native English speakers. This translates to at least a few months to make progress with your chosen language. Depending on the country itself, you can stay for up to a year or more if you are granted a student visa as a full-time language student.

Something else to consider is what time of year you want to go. Keep in mind that the summer (or winter, depending on the hemisphere) season tends to be more expensive and very crowded, since it’s prime tourist time in addition to all the summer study abroaders.

Why should I even bother?

Learning a lesser known language is about gaining the keys to a whole new world. Sure you can probably rely on English in most instances around the world, but then you are truly missing out! To fully immerse yourself in a culture and connect with locals, language learning is key.

Even if you start out with only the basics, like simply saying merhaba to greet others in Turkey or a quick przepraszam when you accidently bump into someone on the street in Poland. These interactions may seem small, but they are significant opportunities to connect with others. It shows that you are putting effort into learning about your host country, even if you feel like your vocabulary is on par with a three-year-old’s.

There will be days when you will be frustrated and ready to give up and go back to the warm and fuzzy embrace of your native country and language, where you don’t have to stumble around for words when trying to ask “do you have this in a size 12?” But you know these are temporary setbacks and that your talented linguistic mind will master this new language in no time. After all you excelled in AP Spanish and were considered a natural by Senorita Diaz.









Success in a bilingual dictionary

Mastering a new language takes a lot of time and commitment.

How can I turn my linguistic dreams into a reality? 

There are a number of ways to achieve your language learning goals abroad, including signing up for traditional language classes that focus on grammar, writing and oral communication. Depending on your time and financial resources, you should consider an intensive course to get the most out of your time abroad. To begin the process, check out listings, reviews, and staff and participant interviews on GoAbroad. Reading reviews will help you choose a school that best fits your needs based on the desired duration of your stay, your language level, and the specific city or town you want to call home. 

Insider Tip! You can (and should) live in a homestay with a local family during your time abroad. You can work as an au pair, and get housing, some of the cost of language classes, and some meals provided for you in exchange for taking care of children and helping to tutor them in English. Total immersion with a host family will have you picking up your new language in no time.

For mono linguists and polyglots alike, learning a new, unique language outside your high school or university’s core curriculum is more than just a resume booster. It’s a badge of honor. It’s membership to a super cool, super hip club.

If you’ve got a pretty good grip on Spanish or French, why not try picking up some Portuguese? Maybe think way outside of the box and pick up one of India’s many dialects? Once you get the hang of one language, keep the ball rolling and see how many you can keep learning! Not only will it make you smarter and sexier (who knew?), but it will provide you with endless travel opportunities, and who can pass that up?