When learning a language, nothing beats studying abroad. But what’s the best way to go about it? People from six different countries share their experiences.
Growing up without any school exchange or study abroad opportunities, I didn’t realize what I had missed until I moved to Europe. It seems almost everyone I meet here has spent a period of their studies in a foreign country — and many even in mine, the United States.
But even if your teenage years are a distant memory, it’s never too late to consider an extended stay abroad program, and to reap the benefits of studying a foreign language. The six stories below reveal how different approaches to studying abroad resulted in very different experiences. Some enrolled in the European exchange program Erasmus, while others packed their bags and relied on their own resourcefulness to build a life abroad. At the end of each anecdote, the raconteurs divulge little life lessons that have stayed with them ever since.
On my own, I decided to move to Paris to avoid the shameful fate of only speaking your native language in a foreign country. I was a poor student and booked the cheapest hotel possible in Pigalle, close to Place de Clichy. Even though I had studied French at school, I immediately realized that I was woefully underprepared, barely able to say “bonjour” and “comment ça va?” — the most basic things were out of my reach.
The situation changed, however, when I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my hotel room. A black rat was mulling around peacefully, weaving his way through the hotel furniture. Knowing that I had to get rid it, I summoned all my courage and called the slumbering concierge in the middle of the night. With the telephone in one hand and a French dictionary in the other, I screamed, “Monsieur, Monsieur, aidez-moi! Il y a une souris dans ma chambre !” (Sir, sir, help me! There’s a rat in my room!). When the concierge arrived armed with a broom, I screamed again, “Non! NON! NE LE TUEZ PAS !!!!” (No, no, don’t kill him!). He was perplexed by my apparent change of heart, but his momentary confusion afforded the rat the opportunity to escape through a hole in the wall. Everyone, including the rat, was happy with the outcome.
In times of need, we’re more resourceful than we think.
Looking back now though, being rejected was the best thing that could have happened to me — in the end, I decided to move to Canada after high school, entirely on my own. I applied for a job, bought a phone plan, found an apartment, called tax officials and figured out how cup measurements convert to grams when I wanted to bake a cake — all on my own, and all in a second language. It was tough, but having to organize every single aspect of my life without help from anyone ultimately propelled me to fluency in English (and, of course, to evolve as a person).
Don’t let the fact that you’re not actually studying abroad spoil the fun of studying abroad! Missing out on a scholarship or a place in an Erasmus program shouldn’t keep you from going abroad. It’s one of the best things you can do — both for your language education, and for your personal evolution.
Teamwork makes the dream work — let others enlighten your way. Don’t be shy, ask for help when needed, and be humble enough to learn from others.
Then a friend threw a party at his flat and in rolled a motley crew of fellow foreigners. This came as something of a shock — I thought I was the only foreigner in the village. When I asked what the hell they thought they were doing there, they looked at me quizzically and replied, “Erasmus, of course.” I can’t quite believe it now, but I honestly had no idea what they were referring to — Erasmus, lamentably, just isn’t a thing in England — but as I listened to their stories, I became intensely envious. I exorcised this envy through imitation.
Despite working full-time, I pretended to be Erasmus for the next twelve months. I stayed out late, woke up late, studied Spanish in books and bars, and got wrapped up in self-congratulatory discussions of how we were flattening frontiers just by being alive in that place and at that time. It was at once vacuous and hedonistic, and also enormously formative and influential. But that’s how one’s youth should be, shouldn’t it?
Taking the journey from complete stranger to familiar local in a new country will afford you a pleasant mix of humility and confidence.
The house was located in Wood Green, North London, a very residential area. I got out of the underground confident that I would be just five minutes away from my final destination. Big mistake. I found myself in the middle of a sea of British houses, not a single living soul to ask for directions, lugging a 30 kg suitcase, and a good ten years before mobile phone ubiquity. Just as desperation kicked in, I bumped into another human being, and proceeded to torture him with my Neanderthal English. After 10 minutes of me struggling to understand his hard north London accent, he took pity on me and simply offered to give me a lift to the house. I could not have been more grateful.
Better to ask the way than go astray. Don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself when you are not sure of what people are talking about. This is how we all learn languages.
The following year was one of the most amazing times of my life, full of adventures and discoveries, but also, sometimes, pain and heartache. The frustration of not being able to talk freely and understand an entire conversation was sometimes hard to take. My flatmates didn’t make any effort to talk slowly or simply, asserting that I had to learn: “Aber du musst lernen”, they would say. They were both from Thüringen in East Germany, and had grown up together.
Do the calculation: friends forever (secret language) + from a village in the East (strong regional accent) + flatshare (jokes, alcohol, everybody talking excitedly) = a whole lot of confusion. I felt completely lost at the beginning, but I persevered, even if it sometimes meant swallowing my pride. I’m now fluent in German and Thüringisch! And I take some malicious delight in dropping an argotic term into the middle a conversation with German natives, just for the pleasure of hearing the question, “What does that mean?!”
Take it easy and don’t be discouraged when it gets difficult and frustrating. You become fluent in a language only by practising and being patient. The pleasure that you get from being able to express yourself in a foreign language — making a joke or wielding some slang in the middle of a conversation — makes every effort worthwhile.
Illustrations by Pintachan.