When I arrived to Florianópolis, Brazil to spend a semester abroad, I knew only about three phrases in Portuguese. When I arrived in Santiago, Chile, to spend a second semester abroad, I knew zero Spanish. And when I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand to spend a third semester abroad, all I could say in Thai were the names of my favorite foods. I spent three semesters studying abroad with USAC and I made it a goal to learn as much of the local language as possible each semester. I left Brazil and Chile proficient in Portuguese and Spanish and I left Thailand being able to communicate in a language that intimidated me.
Whether you are currently studying abroad or preparing to go, the thought of learning the local language might seem daunting. How will I get around the city without speaking the language? What do I do if I need to ask someone for help? How do I even introduce myself? While it was definitely easier to learn Portuguese and Spanish than Thai, I left each semester abroad feeling confident and proud in the language abilities I had acquired in such a short amount of time. Because of this, I wanted to give a few tips to students who may be wondering how they can also learn a new language abroad.
Tip #1: Take language classes
Taking language classes offered by USAC is the strongest way to get your foot in the door when learning a new language. My first month of class in Florianópolis was an intensive Elementary Portuguese class. Spending a few hours a day immersed in Portuguese at the beginning of the semester allowed me to gain basic skills needed to communicate in day-to-day situations.
USAC’s Santiago program has a Spanish-focus, with four Spanish language tracks available from beginner to advanced levels. I started in the Intermediate track and finished the semester with 12 Spanish credits and an advanced level of Spanish. While I also took other classes offered, such as Globalization and Dances of Latin America, having a Spanish-focus allowed me to rapidly improve my language skills.
When I was signing up for classes in Thailand, I wasn’t sure if I should take a Thai language class. To be honest, learning Thai seemed extremely difficult. However, I decided it was probably useful to learn basic phrases, so I signed up for the Thai Language for Daily Communication course. The class ended up being extremely useful when living in Chiang Mai, as it would have been more difficult to learn Thai on my own.
Tip #2: Live with a host family or in an apartment with local students
Choosing your housing option wisely can have a huge difference on the language acquisition you will gain during your time abroad. Living with host families in Brazil and Chile allowed me to be completely immersed in Portuguese and Spanish every day. Because I was spending a lot of time with other American students in class, it was always nice to return to my home stay and get to practice my language skills.
If your program does not offer a host family option, another useful step is to share an apartment with local students. Living with locals will give you many of the same immersive benefits of living with a host family, meaning that your language skills will improve both in class and at your apartment.
Tip #3: Spend time with a language partner
Many USAC programs organize a “language buddy” program, which allows USAC students to connect with local students at their host university. I would definitely recommend spending time with the language buddies as much as you can! While I was in Brazil and Thailand, I got to know many local students who were language buddies with USAC. Not only was I able to practice my language skills with them, but I learned a lot about my host cities and culture through being friends with local students. In addition, they often came on field trips with the USAC students which gave even more opportunities to get to know the local Brazilian and Thai students.
Tip #4: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
I’ll never forget my Brazilian host mom’s face when I asked her where the “soup” was for the washing machine instead of “soap”. When I got to Chile, I confused Portuguese and Spanish so many times that sometimes even I had no idea what I was trying to say. In Thailand, when I had no idea what someone said I just nodded and smiled… a lot. However, it is crucial to at least try to speak the language whenever you can. Even if you feel nervous, say something. If you make a mistake, the worst that will happen is someone corrects you… and then you learn for next time! The key to language learning is to never get embarrassed. If you don’t understand something someone says, ask them to repeat what they said. Eventually, you’ll begin to understand and everything in that language will start to click.
For me, realizing I had become proficient in a new language after just a few months was one of the most rewarding parts of studying abroad. Whether when I took my Chilean host sister to the movie theater and understood the entire movie in Spanish or the days I realized I had spoken nothing but Portuguese, the smallest moments often brought the biggest accomplishments. And while Thai is much more difficult to learn than romance languages, I left the country being able to have basic conversations with locals, which was a really great feeling.
While learning a language might seem daunting, my advice is to not be afraid! In my opinion, learning a language abroad is actually one of the most fun aspects of studying abroad. It gives you the opportunity to connect with locals that do not speak English, forces you to get out of your comfort zone, and gives you an immersive view of the country. While learning a new language from scratch is definitely a challenge, these tips and the resources that USAC offers will help you immensely when studying abroad.
This article was contributed by Jenna DeLaurentis. Jenna studied abroad in Brazil, Chile, and Thailand with USAC. You can see more about Jenna’s study abroad adventures on her YouTube Channel, Jetsetter Jenna.