The Dirty Truth About Learning Languages Abroad

by Julia Kitlinski Hong

Do you have dreams of effortlessly learning Spanish over paella with locals in Madrid or envision yourself easily conversing in French once you move to Biarritz?

Le sigh, if only it were that easy. In reality, language learning requires hundreds of hours of determination and some moments where you want to throw your textbooks against the wall. There will be days when you feel like you have made little progress and have the vocabulary of a toddler. Learning a new language abroad is not for the faint of heart; there are a lot of components to thoroughly research to make sure you are not wasting your time. Here are some of the most important things to consider before pursuing a language program abroad:

Students of different race

Your time frame might not match your language goals.

Can you only stay abroad for a month? It is important to see if a school’s lessons match up with your own time frame for learning a language. Take into consideration that some schools offer specific courses that cater to accelerated learning and that this will be the best route to go if time is of the essence.

It is also important to consider the best time of year to go abroad and learn a language. Going for a month or two during the summer can be ideal, since a lot of schools have special summer language programs. The downside is this season can be a popular time and a few months is not enough time to get the full benefits of language immersion. 

Realistically, a limited time abroad will not make you proficient in a language. Depending on your language choice it could take anywhere from around 575 to 2200 hours for native English speakers to master. If your goal is to be simply conversational a semester (three months or more) of immersion language learning should suffice. Unfortunately, there is not a special pill to take to be able to master a language other than months, sometimes years of hard work, including that dreaded P word: practice.

Schools can be shady, or a scam.

Think you found the language school that dreams are made of? Be careful if it seems too good to be true because it probably is. For some schools, their main priority is making money and not the well being of their students. Even worse, some private schools can be a scam and are non-existent. Definitely a situation you do not want to encounter once you arrive in a new country! 

To avoid a school that is only in it for the money, sit down and make a list of all the questions that you can ask reliable sources, like former students. Better yet consider choosing a school through a trusted third party provider. Scour the web for forums, blogs, and testimonials of a potential school. Read online reviews, but be suspicious if they all are focused on how wonderful the school is, since they could be paid reviews. Dig a little deeper and double check the school’s accreditations and teacher’s certifications and training requirements. If a school is not upfront with their certifications and teaching degrees this is a huge sign to steer clear. 

One red flag that you should watch out for with scam schools are email addresses that are non-professional, such as those ending with instead of the school's name. Another giant hint that a school is a phony is if they ask for large sums of money up front and request you to wire it to them right away. If something seems fishy with a language program abroad it probably is, trust your gut!

Students having a tour

Not all teaching methods are created equal.

Your favorite middle school teacher was right when she told your class that everyone learns differently. This applies to language learning as well. Some schools focus more on conversation, while others on textbook learning. Do your research and see what teaching techniques a particular school utilizes and if that fits into your own personal learning style. Nothing is a worse waste of your hard-earned money than zoning out in a language class because you are still stuck on accusatives while your teacher has moved on to possessives.

Not sure which style works best for you? If you are a beginner, look for a school that focuses on a blend of conversational practice, reading, listening, and writing skills. Since language learning is all about sharpening these four skills, this style benefits most beginning to immediate learners. If your language skills are advanced, conversational may be the way to go.

Consider taking an immersion course where you learn by speaking only that language while in the classroom (not an easily feat, especially for beginners). It can be frustrating, but throwing yourself in headfirst will speed up the learning process and have you dreaming in another language in no time!

Have a dreaded association that dates back to your school days whenever you hear the word homework? Do not be tempted by a school that boasts that it does not give out any homework to its students. There are only so many hours you can spend in class learning a language, so it is important to continue to practice at home as well. If a school prides itself on not giving out homework that should definitely be a red flag that you should avoid it at all costs.

Class size makes a difference.

Will there only be a handful of students in your class or more than ten? The class size matters because it will determine the speed of your lessons and also how much personalized attention you will receive. It is ideal to have a smaller class, especially if you are a beginner and would benefit from as much guidance as possible. In a larger class, it is easier to feel lost, especially since everyone is at a different level, even if they all are considered beginners. 

Research the size of classes in a potential school and consider if the class size will be beneficial to your language learning goals. Typically language courses given by a university are larger and private language schools tend to be a bit smaller, but there are always exceptions to this. 

If you do end up feeling lost in a larger class, supplement your lessons with a conversation partner or get some of your classmates together for frequent study sessions to review what you learned in class.

Remember practice makes progress, and you, my friend, need all the practice you can get.

You shouldn’t live in an apartment.

Will you be living in an apartment with other students or with a homestay family? Consider that where you choose to live will have a huge impact on your language skills. Living with students that share the same native language will make daily communication easier, but you will not have as many opportunities to practice your new language, since you will mostly likely resort back to your native language when communicating. If you are keen on living with other students, try finding locals that can provide plenty of opportunities to practice your language skills with.        

Homestays are the preferred way to continue to immerse yourself linguistically outside of the classroom, especially since the family will always communicate in their native language. Naturally, there are bound to be cultural and linguistic mishaps throughout your stay, but just chalk this up to part of the experience of living abroad. It will make for great anecdotes to relay to your friends and family back home after you get over the initial feeling of wanting to hide in your room forever.

There are a few things that you should be wary of before you commit to a homestay. One of the biggest concerns is making sure the host parents are in it for the right reasons. For some language schools, families are paid a certain amount to host a student and this incentive may be the main reason they do it. This is not to say that monetary reasons are the main motive for most host families. A large majority want to welcome you into their home because they know this will be a mutually beneficial experience for you both. To make sure your homestay visit is the later, research what former students have to say online before you decide this is the best housing option for you.

Smaller cities are the ONLY way to go.

Hoping to be in the heart of a major city? Think about whether or not that is really beneficial to you learning a language. Being in the center of Berlin or Hong Kong might seem exciting initially, but in reality, how often will you really practice your new language when a majority of the locals can speak English? Instead, think about going to a smaller town where you will be in the minority language-wise and will be forced to converse in a new language. You may have some days where you will cry in frustration, but then a local will ask you for directions and you’ll experience that perfect moment where everything clicks...just as you send him/her off in the wrong direction because you mixed up right and left. Hey, baby steps, right?

Students posing a peace sign

And the dirtiest truth of all is…

It takes serious time AND commitment AND grit to learn a language abroad. Not everyone is cut out for it. At the end of the day you have the most control over your learning experience. You have to take responsibility for your own language learning; create opportunities for yourself and commit to speaking only French, Spanish, etc. and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Fear is the enemy of language learning. You can (and should) use those mistakes as learning opportunities, so get up, brush off, and keep on keepin’ on!

Successful students put in the time and extra elbow grease to learn a new language. It’s not an easy feat and many students will return home disheartened when they realize that trying to become fluent in four months was an unattainable goal. Despite these challenges, any determined student studying a language abroad can and will come home with a higher level of proficiency, adding an extra shiny bullet to your resume that will open you up culturally to a whole new world.

Ready to begin your language learning adventure abroad? Check out the many options for language programs abroad on GoAbroad; whether you are interested in learning Spanish, French, Arabic, or Mandarin, we have it all!