Cultural Experience | Resources

11Tips for Learning a Language While Studying Abroad

Study abroad is without a doubt the best way to learn a language. Being constantly surrounded by a language different from your own can encourage (or force) you to get really good at this target language. The whole process of learning a brand new foreign language or getting more fluent in one you already speak can be pretty difficult at times.

Here are some tips and tricks to help you stay calm, speed up the process of learning a language on study abroad. 

Live with a host family. 

No matter where your language skills are when you arrive in your new host country, this is the best and fastest way to learn their language and culture. Not only will you be constantly surrounded by the language, you’ll be forced to use it to communicate. As scary as this might sound, it’s not. Your host family will be patient with you and they want to see you succeed.

¡Hay que practicar! 

As my host mom constantly reminded me, you must practice. During my time abroad in Spain I was lucky enough to have a host family that encouraged me to speak all the time. It might be hard at first but speak as much as you can. Questions are your best friends. Asking questions gives you the opportunity to learn more about the culture and gives you practice with your speaking and listening comprehension. Be interested in everything, ask your host family questions at meal times, tell new friends about your friends back home, make small talk with store clerks or people waiting in line at the grocery store. Not only will this improve your language skills, you’ll also help you make meaningful connections with people that could last a lifetime.

It’s ok to ask people not to speak to you in English. 

This is one of the things that I struggled with the most during my time abroad. While it’s tempting to fall back into speaking English with other kids on your study abroad program, it will only hurt you in the long run. Politely remind your friends that you’re abroad to learn a language, they’ll likely understand. If all else fails, respond to their questions and comments in the language you’re trying to learn, eventually they’ll get the hint.

Get Reading.

Spare time between classes? Try reading a few pages of a novel or magazine in a foreign language each day. Practice street and metro sign as you explore the towns in your study abroad location.

Keep a journal.

Keep a blog or journal in a different language. This a great way to improve your writing skills and get you thinking in a foreign language. Any weekend trip is a perfect opportunity to write entries in that language, then ask a native speaker to read back your entries.

Take classes with locals. 

This was the best decision of my study abroad experience. It was terrifying at first, but the opportunity to take classes taught by local professors with local students was invaluable. Even if this option isn’t available to you, classes still give you the opportunity to practice and hone your language skills, so go to them!

Talk to the locals

Taking classes is not the same as having a conversation with a locals in a coffee shop or bar. Don’t be shy strike up your conversation and practice your new found language skills.


You’ll meet a diverse group of people and you can pick up different words and phrases as you go, it’s a great way to help the local community and its also free!

When you make mistakes, laugh them off.  

You’re going to make mistakes. Don’t let this scare you just embrace it. While abroad in Spain a local girl in one of my classes asked me if she could borrow “un folio”. Having no idea what a folio was, I told her I was sorry but I didn’t have one. When she turned away I looked up the word “folio” on my phone and realized it meant a sheet of paper, of which I clearly had many sitting out on my desk. Swallowing my pride I tapped her on the shoulder, explained what had happened, and handed her a sheet of paper. She was really sweet about it and we laughed together all through class. Although this is a funny example, you’ll probably have moments that aren’t as funny or aren’t as easy to fix. Which brings me to my next point:

Don’t lose confidence.

Learning a language is hard. You’re going to have bad days. Days where you can’t make yourself understood, days where you can’t understand. Don’t let these days get you down. They’re part of the process and you’re going to feel that much better on the good days (when words start coming naturally or you have your first dream in the new language) for having struggled through the bad ones.

Leave without regrets. 

You don’t want to leave wishing you had gotten to know the language better or had learned more about the culture. So let go of your reservations and fully immerse yourself. You won’t be sorry you did.

How to Learn a Language While Studying Abroad

Hannah Polston

University of Denver | 6 stories

Hannah Polston is currently a junior at the University of Denver studying Anthropology, Spanish, and Psychology. She just got back from an incredible experience studying abroad in Cádiz, Spain. When not figuring out how to go abroad again she can be found laying on the beach back home in San Diego, California, knitting (a never ending sweater), eating mac and cheese, and/or exploring the great outdoors.

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