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5 Ways to Overcome Language Barrier Fears & Study Abroad

Aug 9, 2016 1:30:00 PM / by Stephanie Sadler

❝If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.❞ ‒Nelson Mandela

If there's anything that has the ability to swoop us straight out of our comfort zone, it's a language barrier.

5 ways to overcome language barrier fears and study abroad

It starts as early as sitting in the airport where you might hear announcements or conversations in Italian or Spanish before you depart for Florence or Buenos Aires. And when you land, you'll navigate your way through the airport, sometimes helped along by signs in both English and the native language of your destination. From there, you're immersed in a different world and simply explaining to your taxi driver how to reach your host family's apartment or ordering lunch can become a daunting and frustrating task. 

We've been there too. Luckily, through (sometimes very awkwardly) navigating our journeys to various parts of the non-English-speaking world, we've learned a few lessons along the way. And so we've come up with these very useful tips and recommendations that will make studying abroad somewhere like China a lot less intimidating and a lot more of an exciting adventure. There's no doubt that studying abroad in a country that requires some grasp of a foreign language encourages you to push your boundaries. You'll gain confidence as you go, make unforgettable connections, unlock a very different part of the world and have the opportunity to build an amazing new set of skills to highlight on your resume. 

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Photo: Chinese New Year by Kisha Patel

Here are five ways to overcome the language barrier fears that are holding you back from studying abroad: 

1. Learn as much as you can in advance. 

While you don't have to be fluent in Italian to study abroad in Florence by any means, we encourage you to learn as much as possible before you travel. Studying doesn't have to feel like a chore either. When you're learning new vocab and grammar, you can supplement hitting the workbooks with all sorts of fun activities in the language you're learning: listen to podcasts, watch movies, read children's books or novels depending on your level, pick up a newspaper or magazine or browse local websites to see how well you manage to work your way through the menu at a restaurant on your bucket list. We'd also recommend checking out the Duolingo app and, if possible on your home campus or online, connecting with a language partner.

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Photo: Learning Italian by Emily Kearns

2. Don't be a perfectionist.

The one thing that will hold you back from learning more than anything is perfectionism. Speak to locals, even if you aren't 100% sure you're using the right words. Ask people to correct you as many times as it takes for it to sink in. You will make mistakes, so take risks and don't be afraid to be wrong. When you're learning a new language, the worst thing you can do is to take yourself too seriously. Be encouraged by the fact that when you're studying abroad in a global city, many people you come across will likely have some experience learning another language too and they will know what it's like and sympathize. Just explain at the beginning of the conversation that you're learning and ask for help along the way. 

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Photo: Madame Tussauds, Shanghai by Colin Speakman

3. Plan ahead & be prepared.

While you're abroad, you might volunteer with locals or spend a day out with native speakers of whichever language you're learning. Ahead of time, think about the people you're going to be with, their interests, what you're curious to know. Use this information to formulate a handful of questions or comments in advance. You might even anticipate some of the questions they will ask you and you can think about how you will answer them, if there are any essential words that you'd like to include that you're not sure about. Use Google Translate or ask your CAPA team for advice. While you're in conversation later on, you might not be able to follow perfectly or have a response for everything, but you will have this prep work to fall back on and that will be a comfort. Also, in speaking-intensive situations, learn to listen carefully and be engaged instead of letting your mind wander, even if you're struggling. It can be tiring to be consistently mindful, but you'll be much better prepared to participate if you're fully focused.

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Photo: Book Fair in Buenos Aires by Tommy Sullivan

4. Don't automatically default to English.

You will get stuck sometimes (and probably more often than not, at least at first). That's inevitable. What's important in the learning process is that you don't automatically default to English when you can't think of a word you need - especially when you're in the company of locals who do speak some English. This is the easy way out and you know it. Instead, find the best way around it. For example, if you don't remember the word for "apple" and that's what you want, don't automatically go for a banana instead because you remember the word. Talk your way around it by saying something like "the round red fruit" and use body language and gestures to approximate its size. The person you're speaking to will guess what you mean and you're unlikely to forget that particular word again. Always make the effort to speak their language on someone's home turf. Your efforts are appreciated.

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Photo: A homestay note by Emily Kyle

5. Review & revise. 

One of the best things you can do is to carry a small notebook and pen around with you or use the notes app in your phone. Write down any new words, sentence structures, bits of grammar, etc that you learn during the course of the day. Every night before you go to sleep, review these, and do the same in the morning when you wake up. Once a week, go back through all of your notes from the last seven days and star the ones that you still don't know right away. Keep practicing these. You might want to make a new list at the end of each month with the words and phrases that you're still stuck on. You can also use your notebook to jot down sentences or words in English that pop up in your thoughts through the day that you'd like to know how to say in the language you're learning. 

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Photo: Exploring Shanghai by Nora Larkin

Studying abroad with CAPA and worried about language in any of our cities? Check out these blog posts: 

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Topics: Shanghai, China, Language