Avoid the English trap
When Sarah Doerkson went to study at the University of Ghana in Accra, she didn’t speak any of the 70 languages used in the country besides English. But she wanted to pick up Twi from scratch. “I went to the market and found that the word ‘papa’ can mean something good, father, or fan, depending on how you pronounce it,” she says. “Luckily, ‘Help, I need something to stop this constant sweat’ is quite easy to get across with body language.”
Doerkson was placed in accommodation with Ghanian students who let her practice, and she advises anyone studying abroad try to avoid sticking to their first language, even if it’s spoken there. “The official language in Ghana is English and in the capital you can easily get around with it, but it can really endear you to people if you at least try to use it,” she says. “Messing words up is often a nice conversation starter.”
It’s always tempting to spend a lot of time with people from back home; they get your language and your cultural references. But you might miss out on the very thing you came for, leaving with a British expat’s experience and a small vocabulary.
Staying outside of big cities can be a big help when practicing a language. English is often less likely to be spoken in smaller towns – bear this in mind when looking at your university options.
Don’t worry about being slow
Even if you’ve been studying the language in advance, the transition can be tricky. Marcela Leone moved to Paris from her home country of Brazil six weeks ago to begin her master’s degree; she speaks five languages, including French at B2 level, but still finds it tough to get her message across. “It’s not like a language course. People speak so much faster. I often talk on the phone with my eyes closed to focus. I thought writing in French wouldn’t be hard for me but last week it took me two and a half hours to write an email.”
If you’re spending your year abroad on a work placement, make sure your employers and colleagues understand the level that you’re at with the language – and that tasks may take more time than usual while you’re picking it up.
Make the most of media
Audiobooks, language learning apps like Duolingo and podcasts can come in handy, advises Tom Bourlet, who learned Spanish in Bolivia. And so can lo-fi techniques. “One tip someone gave me was to stick Post-It notes to everything with the Spanish term on them. For example, kettle is tetera. You’ll start using the Spanish term for everything around the house.”
When you’re out, a good translation app will be your lifeline – Google Translate is usually reliable, but it’s also worth checking out WordReferenceand SpanishDict, for instance.
And explore the local media as much as possible; watch TV shows with English subtitles, read trashy magazines that will help with colloquial phrases and pick up the newspapers whenever you can – a knowledge of current affairs in the area might give you something to talk about.
Be prepared for mistakes and confusion. You could be asking for directions to an exhibition (“mostra”) in Italy – and might well realise you’ve asked how to get to the monster (“mostro”). But the way to master those misunderstandings is to throw yourself into challenging situations. Look for events aimed at local people (not just international students). Facebook and MeetUp are likely to have lots of options, and keep an eye out for posters around your university and in cafes and bars. Maybe find or set up a conversation exchange with people who want to practice the language – but beware of picking up second-hand mistakes if you’re learning from a non-native speaker.