Studying abroad

7 ways to learn a local language while studying abroad

If you are studying abroad or planning to do so, you might have chosen to go to a country whose language you already speak fluently. But more and more schools are offering their Bachelor and Masters programs in English, which makes it possible to study there despite the fact that you don’t speak the local language. 

Even if your studies are completely in English, there will be many other areas where the local language will be used and the benefits of learning it are huge. Being fluent in the local language helps you integrate into the community and experience the local life to the fullest. Not to mention that you might miss some great opportunities just because you don’t speak the local language. But reaching that fluency can be hard, especially if we don’t have a lot of time to spend just on learning the language.

The good thing is that learning a foreign language is easier when we live in the environment where that language is spoken. We constantly see the signs on the street, read the labels in the supermarket or listen to the voice in the subway telling us which station is next. The fact that we are always surrounded by unknown words can be overwhelming, but at the same time those are all great triggers that help us adopt a new language faster.

Here I want to share 7 different activities that you can do to learn a local language during your studies. All of them helped me reach from zero to B2 level in French in two years. These methods don’t require a lot of your time (each of them is around 1-3h per week depending on your availability and motivation), but if you are constant in using them they can bring you great results over a couple of months or years. And some of them can be so fun that you will forget that you are actually working on your language skills at the same time.

1. Take a language course

This is a classic way of learning. Intensive or regular tempo, individual or group work, integrated module or conversation course… There are many variations depending on your existing level, time and money budget, motivation etc.

This structured way of learning covers all the aspects of learning the language and therefore brings many benefits. Especially for the beginners, learning the basic grammar and pronunciation can be easier with clear rules which you are given in class. And you will probably be less nervous to say your first sentences in front of fellow learners than native speakers.

The good thing about studying abroad is that many universities will offer free or discounted language courses for foreign students, so make sure you ask around if there is an option like that at your university.

2. Use apps for learning languages


I assume that you have already heard about Duolingo, and maybe you already tried it for a short period of time. I personally know a lot of people who really improved their language skills just by using Duolingo – but it was necessary to use it for months and years to see serious results.

Only 5,10 or 15 minutes a day working on anything can make a difference, and so applies for learning a language. Duolingo is there just to provide the content and gamify the experience – but the discipline, willpower and continuity, without which there are no results, are up to you. If you manage to persist in it, the compound effect that you will see in the end will amaze you.

Apart from Duolingo, you can also use some more specific apps to practice a particular aspect of the language. For example, you can have grammar apps that focus mainly on conjugation and use of different tenses. Doing grammar exercises always reminds us of school and grading, but doing 3-4 sentences in public transport every day will add up to a whole 2-page homework.

3. Listen to podcasts


Depending on your level, you can listen to podcasts on some topics that you are genuinely interested in like business, travel, history etc. Or you can listen to specialized podcasts that are meant for learning a language – like an audio language course.

This way of learning should be complemented with some other form, because you are missing the visual part of seeing the text and reading it (and for some languages, like French, there might be a lot of differences between what you hear and how you spell it 😀 ). However, you are exposed to hearing the language and understanding it without non-verbal signs, which is challenging for learners, but necessary to master later on.

The biggest advantage of podcasts is that you can listen to them in situations when you would usually waste time like waiting in queues and taking the public transport. You can also use them while doing housework e.g. vacuum-cleaning and washing the dishes. Since you are multitasking, don’t expect to understand everything (especially if you are a beginner). However, it is a great way to get used to the sound of the language. Plus, if you are striving to become fluent in a language, you should be able to set the table and listen to who is speaking to you at the same time, right?

Of course, if you are more of a visual type, you can watch youtube videos instead of podcasts (although, in that case you might need more concentration).

4. “Word of the day” game


When you are already at your studies, you will constantly be bombarded with unknown words, and many times you would think – “Oh, what a useful/interesting word, I have to remember it”. 

Well, the idea behind “word of the day” is just that – you write down a new word each day. It does not have to be structured in any way- one day you can remember a vegetable, the other day a phrase to express the joy, followed by memorizing the word for a suitcase. The only important thing is complementing this with some kind of spaced repetitions, so that these words end up in your long-term memory.

When you hear a word, you write it down, along with an example. Although you can write them on a piece of paper (and have a jar from which you draw words when revising), the best is to use some mobile app for flashcards. The apps will then take care of the repetition cycle that you should follow, so that you see the words that you haven’t mastered yet more frequently. All you have to do is commit yourself to 5 minutes of revision a day.

By creating your flashcards, you have more freedom, since you are the one deciding which vocabulary is priority at the moment and what are the words that you find useful and that you want to learn. And since you revise those words, you will have them “somewhere in your head”, and they will start to come naturally to you in the conversation.

5.“Happy hour” game


This is the concept that my friends and I came up with, and in this case it doesn’t have anything to do with beers and cocktails (although you could do this activity while having discounted drinks, making it a double happy hour 🙂 ). This “happy hour” assumes that every time we go out, we dedicate one hour to just speaking in the local language.

You might get used to speaking in English all the time with other students because it is easier, so “happy hour” is the opportunity to force yourself to speak the local language. You can do this with your fellow learners, or even better with friends who are natives in the language you are trying to learn. It will be difficult and you will be tempted to switch to English, but that is when the power of game steps in. With the announcement of the “happy hour”, everyone commits to speaking just the local language, but also to making sure that others do the same.

This is the activity that will subtly improve your oral and listening comprehension. There won’t be an exact moment when you start speaking more fluently or understanding the conversation with more ease, but there will definitely be moments of reflection when you will be amazed by your progress.

6. Watch shows in the local language


Whether it is a news channel, a series or a documentary, when you go to study abroad you will have more access to local shows both on TV and online. Even when you go to the cinema, you can watch an English movie with local subtitles. 

Depending on your current level, you can watch shows in the foreign language with subtitles in your native language, the language that you are learning or even without any subtitles.

What you can also do is watch your favorite shows again if they are dubbed in the local language. Since you are already familiar with the plot, your focus will be on the language, but you will still enjoy watching your favorite characters. Plus, it is an excellent excuse for yourself and for others – “No, I’m not binge-watching XXX for the 10th time, I’m practicing my French.” 😀

7. Find your “Tandem


I took the name “Tandem” from the program that is organized at my university, and the idea is to connect two people with complementary language skills. What the program does is that it finds you a peer whose native language is your target language, and who wants to learn some of the languages that you speak well.

After you have found your “Tandem-buddy”, you organize sessions where half of the time you are “the teacher”, and the other half you are “the student”. Your buddy is helping you master their native language, and you are helping them do the same with your language. The two of you agree on the frequency and dynamic of work i.e. if you just want to practice conversation or more specific things like you want them to also correct your essays.

Make sure you ask around if your university organizes a program like this and pairs you with your buddy. Nevertheless, you can always find your “Tandem-buddy” by yourself. Apart from learning a language, this is also a great opportunity to meet new people.

My 2-year journey of learning French 


Before coming to study in Switzerland, I didn’t know any French. I started learning French in May 2019, a couple of months before my studies abroad started. At first I was committed to using Duolingo every day (that 100 day streak below is from that period 😀 ) and listening to podcasts in public transport and during walks. I also did a one-month intensive French course in my hometown during the summer. 

My 100 day Duolingo streak

Since Fall 2019 I’m doing French language courses at my university, which consist of 1.5h of group class and 1.5h of individual work per week. After coming to Switzerland, I stopped playing Duolingo and listening to podcasts, and focused more on watching films, series and youtube videos.

I was intensively using Flashcards in the first half of 2020, and that is the time when I really started to speak French. Now, apart from still taking the language course (I’m currently at the B1/ B2 level according to European language scale), I love doing happy hour every week when I hike with friends. 

The only thing left to try is Tandem – although I “tandem” a lot with my roommates who are French speakers. And they are getting good in Serbian. 😀

Language is easily forgotten if it is not used, and that is why it was really important to me not to make any big breaks from language-learning activities during these two years. So whenever I felt that some activity was not interesting anymore and that it didn’t bring me results that I wanted, I would replace it with some other ideas that I’ve shared above. By varying these activities, I never got bored and I was able to stay motivated to continue working on my French.

I hope these ideas will inspire you and I’m sure that if you include them in your daily or weekly routine, you will be amazed by your progress in mastering the language of your choice.

What is your favorite way to learn a foreign language? Do you use any other techniques and methods? Feel free to share in the comments. 🙂 

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