Language Study Abroad – How to Make the Most of It

Today’s guest post is by Brooke Schoenman from Brooke Vs The World. Brooke has a variety of experience learning languages abroad, from learning Spanish in Guatemala, to Russian in Kyrgyzstan. This is her thoughts on language study abroad, and how to make the most of it.


Take it from me, a language study junky, that stopping off in the midst of traveling to study a foreign language can be the best decision you make.  It can be more cost-effective, more culturally insightful and a much speedier process than typical study methods in your home country, but only if you attack it wisely.  And believe me; I’ve partaken in more than my fair share of language study abroad, which is why I’ve decided to divulge a little of what I’ve learned to help you make the most of your own experience.

Don’t expect it to just happen.

Thinking that just because you are living in a country you will magically pick up a language overnight is the worst mindset to fall into.  Not only is it just not true, you will also experience a little bit of disappointment when your time has ended and no real progress has been made.  The best example I can give is when I spent a semester in Italy in university only to come out with minor gains in language use.

 What was my problem?

I thought it would just happen by being in Italy.  The truth of the matter was that I cared more about getting the right credits while abroad, so I could finish school as soon as possible, than I did about my language acquisition.  This led to me choosing a program where I spent 90% of my time living and traveling with other Americans, and that did absolutely nothing in terms of my Italian practice.

You might find it interesting to know that I learned more in my one month of Spanish study in Guatemala and my 5 months of Russian study in Kyrgyzstan than I did in my entire university career attempting Italian.

 What changed?

The mindset and the method.  I realized I had to put in quite a bit of effort to see improvement, even when stuck right in the middle of a country that speaks the language.

 Go off the tourist path.

A big problem for travelers wanting to partake in language study abroad is that they want to choose a popular location, and everyone knows that popular locations are more likely to be tourist locations.  Sure, there’s no problem in wanting to be in beautiful surrounds while studying, but it can pose obstacles for the immersing student as the locals are more likely to know a bit of English… and use it when conversing with you.

To escape this problem, I suggest to find a location further off the tourist path.  When I moved from the infamous San Pedro, Guatemala to the harder-to-reach Quetzaltenango, I could see big benefits since I was actually forced to use my Spanish while out and about.  That, combined with fewer backpackers to distract me with their English-speaking ways, helped me to get more out of my time.

 Stay with a host family.

It can be awkward, stressful and invasive, but living with a host family while studying a language abroad is priceless.  Being able to take what you learned during the day home to a real-life situation really enforces the language in your mind, helping it to become more of a natural response instead of something you have to think about.

I spent time with host families in both Guatemala and Kyrgyzstan, and it definitely added another element to my travels.  Not only did I get extra practice with my foreign languages, but I also gained extra responsibility that kept me from wasting away into the traveler abyss.  Instead of spending all evening at the pub, for example, I now had an obligation to make it back early to family dinners.  It simply helped me nail down a schedule more conducive to learning and studying.

 Avoid English speakers.

Like the plague.  It may sound pretentious and anti-social, but reverting directly back to your native tongue after lessons can basically undo the hard work of the day.  Of course, to what level you take this depends on your personal goals and ability to cope alone (without anyone to share the experience with in your own language) in difficult situations.  I, for one, found it useful to befriend other students so that we could spend time together studying and watching movies in that language.

 Talk, talk, and talk some more.

How many students go through school and university studying a language to feel like they really understand it – the grammar and the vocab – just to get all wide-eyed and stutter when put in a speaking situation?  I’ll raise my hand to that one.

Reaching conversation level is said to be the most difficult part of language acquisition, and rightfully so.  It combines the ability to remember proper grammar and vocabulary, the ability to translate thoughts into correct structures, as well as  the ability to pronounce everything properly into one difficult package.

The simple solution is to talk, and to talk a lot at that.  Being in a country that speaks the language gives you the perfect opportunity to practice your speaking, accent and pronunciation, so do try to strike up a conversation or two outside of lessons.  Yes, people, and pronunciation is very important; in some countries, pronunciation can mean the difference between a simple question and a derogatory remark!

Is this starting to sound like more work than you had in mind?  For travelers that just want a basic knowledge to help them buy tickets and order food while traveling, then these tips are not so important.  For those that are looking to truly make the most of living abroad and acquiring a language, then I definitely suggest taking this entire article to heart.  It’s just worth it!

-Brooke Schoenman

16 Responses to “Language Study Abroad – How to Make the Most of It”

  1. Erin says:

    Great post with some really useful advice. We are currently studying Spanish in Buenos Aires and although I´m learning a lot about the grammar I know that I really need to take your advice and stop speaking English. It´s just so hard stumbling along in Spanish when the person you are speaking with speaks perfect English. Anyway, we are going to Paraguay next so hopefully there´ll be a lot less English speakers to tempt me.

  2. Brian Setzer says:

    Good stuff Brooke! I have no doubt that immersion is my only chance. Will be needing to know the language once I take my motorcycle to Mexico.

  3. @Erin – I understand completely, and it is difficult especially when you feel like you could already communicate effectively in English. How many times did I find myself banging my head on my desk in my Russian classes? Oh… cannot even begin to count the numbers. And, then, one day I realized I was actually conversing!

    @Brian – Immersion is totally the way to go – and it always gives you something interesting to blog about 😉

  4. Ron says:

    Do you think Rosetta Stone is as effective as taking a course in a foreign country?

  5. nan says:

    Yes, so accurate! I speak 5 or 6 languages, all learnt in the countries, on the spot or with tv in originallanguages updates at home, reading a lot in the foreign langage whilst at home. Nowadays I don t have tv and only converse via webmail or telephone and travelling to friends or for my interpretor work. but the most important is that after living for 2 decades in a region with it s own language, having spent time with intensive courses and eveningclasses, I can say I am unable to learn a language that isn t spoken everywhere, all day long . In fact only few people use this language actively here and as I learn through speaking firstly, it has been frustrating to see after mastering several languages to have to give up on this one. So go to native speakers, immerse yourself in a family or a community,or why not taking up a little job or better even volunteertask, because language is uncomprehensible if not linked to customs, cuisine, schoolsystems, shops, political outlay, and all these subjects are so easily being explained to you by locals. One word though, for esperanto, that language I did learn (though now forgotten) quickly because it is very international and easy and when you learn it you are surrounded by speakers. So don t let this put you off learning that one, very useful for travelling or even putting you at ease with foreign languages in case you’re blocked by phychological barriers.

  6. Seems like pretty solid advice to me – nice work, Brooke!

  7. @Ron – I actually haven’t used Rosetta Stone, but I imagine it probably wouldn’t be as good as taking an intensive course. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve heard it is a great tool… Anyone else have any specific advice for Ron on this?

    @Nan – 5-6 languages?! Wow, you’re my idol 😉

    @Andy – Thanks! 🙂

  8. Great advice. Even when living in a foreign country you have to want to learn the language and work at it. It doesn’t just happen.

  9. Great tips and so true! I’ve learned the hard way that living / travelling in a country isn’t a way to learn the language. I wish I’d spent some time taking Spanish courses in Mexico.

  10. Steven says:

    Excellent article. Sadly, even after studying several languages throughout my life, English is the only language I’m actually conversant in. 🙁 Great tips though.

  11. Julie says:

    You’re so right. You need to go out of your way to integrate yourself in the local culture. Don’t just expect it to happen just because you’re there. There are many things I figured out pertaining to this subject a few months into my study abroad experience and wish I had known from day 1. That’s where connecting with other students and learning from them can help. Check out Students Gone Global, launching in January, which will be a blogging network just for study abroad students. You can share travel tips/ideas/get inspiration while creating a blog for your friends and family. It’s a pretty cool concept.
    Check out


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