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How to Deal With Language Barriers When Studying Abroad

October 5, 2016

If you are studying abroad in a place where they do not speak your native language, chances are you’re going to run into language barriers. Regardless of how long you’ve studied your host country’s language, walls will arise in the form of local nuances, slang, forgotten vocabulary and more. Here’s how to cope!

Don’t Be Shy or Embarrassed

You may feel like you have the language skills of a local five-year-old, but your speaking won’t improve without trying. I often fall into the trap of letting my more fluent friends speak for me; don’t let this happen to you. Speak up and have thick skin because you won’t always be understood, and that’s alright. After those first successful interactions, your confidence will skyrocket and you’ll be comfortably speaking in no time.

Prepare for Mental Exhaustion

Few things are more humbling than having to work very hard to communicate a feeling, thought or need. This will likely be an unfamiliar experience for you, and it can be quite tiring. Give your brain a break every now and then; have a chat with someone in your native language for quick relief. After your brain is rested, jump back in with your renewed spirit.

Practice, Practice, Practice

The best way to practice is to make local friends (refer to “don’t be shy or embarrassed;“ you’ll have to put yourself out there). This will help you develop everyday conversational skills that eventually lead to fluency. When you’re alone, review class notes, watch movies in the local language and play around on language learning apps. I recently downloaded the app DuoLingo to keep my basic vocabulary fresh. It’s a fun and easy way to cross check your skill set when you have downtime.

Be Able to Laugh at Yourself

Language barriers can be funny. For example, my host family took me to the beach one weekend and asked me to compare their beaches to mine back home. I was trying to explain that their beach had a more potent sea smell, but the best I could do was say, "There’s fish in my nose.” They did not ask a lot of questions after that. You just have to laugh.

Put On That Accent, Honey

Accents are undoubtedly the most difficult aspect of learning a new language. I could not for the life of me explain to my French friend the difference between “cheap” and “sheep,” and why her pronunciation of the word “beach” is very important. Accents can be tough, because you don’t want to feel like you are over doing it or mocking the language. Just listen to the locals and give it your best shot.

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