Why & How to Learn Your Host Country’s Language While Studying Abroad

by Tara Maher

Before studying abroad, I was beyond nervous to live in Paris and speak French with locals. Although I could have chosen an English-speaking country, I felt it was important to challenge myself with a language component (and actually apply all those years of high school French!). I had taken a few classes in college, but let’s be honest: speaking French was just not my forte. So why did I push myself into this unknown situation? 

Language exchange partners in Costa Rica

Get to know locals through a tandem language exchange like these CEA San José students.

Here are four reasons why it’s beneficial to learn the language of your host country while studying abroad, along with how you can achieve fluency (or at least something close to it):

1. Daily activities are easier.

Think about all the small interactions you have on a day-to-day basis: shopping, asking for directions, or taking public transportation. Those routine conversations you encounter will not be as rudimentary once they are in a foreign language. You may struggle to understand the cashier when they ask “Did you find everything okay?” or “Would you like a bag?” Maybe you didn’t hear the announcement, missed a metro stop because it’s closed, and have to get off three stops away from where you wanted (been there).

Friends making raclette in France

Don't forget to attend activities with your program! The CEA Paris staff scheduled fun events like this one - making raclette while mingling with French students.

 Don’t be afraid. That’s part of the learning process, and it’ll quickly become second nature if you practice. After stumbling for a bit, you’ll become a pro at navigating the metro, giving directions, and maybe even getting mistaken as a local. 

2. The world becomes your classroom.

Typically, in a language class at home, you are not just learning how to form sentences or conjugate verbs, but you are also discussing cultural events, history, customs, or art. However, by expanding your learning outside of the classroom and into your study abroad city, you quickly gain first-hand knowledge of the culture by speaking to locals, asking them questions, and participating in community cultural immersion. Even in English-speaking countries, there are new words or slang that differentiate it from American English (like craic in Ireland or flats in England).

Getting to know little nuances about the language and incorporating them into your daily life will help you become more like a local while studying abroad.

3. Small conversations can create life-long friendships.

Being able to speak the language will allow you to create new friendships in your study abroad host city. Although you may be living in a place where English is widely spoken or people might always respond to you in English, push yourself to speak the language with the people you meet. You’ll form deeper connections with locals, and they might introduce you to their group of friends as well. Plus, the best way to become better at speaking a foreign language is practice.

Students practicing Spanish at La Escuela Oficial d'Idiomas de Sant Gervasi in Spain

Don't be afraid to step outside your comfort zone like these CEA Barcelona students practicing Spanish at La Escuela Oficial d'Idiomas de Sant Gervasi.

In the first couple weeks studying abroad, I was too afraid to speak with French students because I would forget words or speak too slowly. Don’t worry about making mistakes! It will certainly happen, but your confidence will grow the more you practice, and those slip-ups will quickly disappear.

4. Your résumé will grow.

Although many companies use English to communicate, knowing a second language is still very beneficial in the workforce, particularly in building soft skills, such as problem solving, team work, or empathy, and can give you a boost up from the competition. Not only can you boast about your language proficiency on your résumé, but you will be able to share stories during interviews about the time you gained problem-solving skills by navigating new cities in a foreign language or expanded your global competence by experiencing a new culture with locals.

Bonus: if you decide to volunteer or intern WHILE studying abroad, you can not only add to your résumé, but also practice your new language skills in a different setting.

So, How Should You Start Learning Your Host Country’s Language?

1. Determine what learning style works best for you.

Do you like the structure of a classroom setting? The flexibility of learning by yourself? How about the challenge of working with a friend?

See if you can fit a conversation class into your course schedule. Check out programs like Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, or other online platforms to keep you motivated. Find someone else who’s practicing and push each other to learn a new phrase every day or speak only in the other language when together.

2. Start learning and practicing before you go.

Start early. The more you know before you go, the better! Seeing foreign phrases or hearing the language will not be as daunting if you can recognize a few of the words or speak a couple sentences. If you have zero background, learn some simple phrases, such as “hello,” “my name is,” and “Do you speak English?” Seek out international students on your campus; they can not only help with your language learning, but also give you advice about the culture, customs, and local secrets of your study abroad destination.

If you have some background in the language you’ll be immersed in, consider staying with a homestay while studying abroad, because they will challenge you to speak the local language in a safe environment every day.

International student with host sisters in Costa Rica

One way to learn a second language is to live with a host family! Halle (CEA Granada alumna) practiced Spanish with her host sisters during merienda.

3. Continue learning and practicing while abroad.

Practice every chance you get with locals, with friends, and with the on-site staff. Listen to the radio, read the local newspaper, or haggle with local market vendors. Practicing your second language is an easy and fun way to make new friends and expand your network (check out some of our Best Tips for Language Learning Abroad).

Don’t be afraid to mess up, because it will happen, but you will learn from your mistakes and grow from them.

Studying abroad is an incredible immersion experience, so be sure to push yourself outside your comfort zone and take advantage of each and every moment!

4. Don’t let your skills disappear after you’ve returned home.

It might not be immediately noticeable how much your language skills have developed until you return, but those small interactions while studying abroad can make a difference. Don’t stop there, though!

Keep learning the language, especially if you want to go back one day. Just because you won’t be in your host country anymore doesn’t mean the importance of learning the language disappears. See if you can achieve a language minor to give your résumé a boost, meet international students on your campus, or participate in a language exchange program.

Learning a new language while studying abroad can be challenging, daunting, or embarrassing, but you’ll quickly discover that it is an extremely rewarding experience you’ll never forget.

This article was contributed by CEA, an international education company providing program opportunities in Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Established in 1997, CEA aims to promote academic and personal growth as well as global competence among program participants.