Yellow talk bubbles with flag stickers and Hello written in foreign languages

Lost in Translation: How to Overcome Language Barriers for Study Abroad

Studying abroad in a country with an unfamiliar language can be fun but scary! Here are some tricks to prepare ahead of time and ease into it while there.

While potential language barriers may be a deterrent for those on the fence about studying abroad, language learning is also the place where you can grow the most during your experience. Whatever language level students have entering their study abroad program, there will always be communication challenges, whether with local students, their host family, or with people in the community. The following tips can help you overcome any language barriers you may encounter. 

Before you study abroad

Because many study abroad programs don’t require a minimum language proficiency, for those who have little to no knowledge of the local language, it’s wise to learn the very basics beforehand. Many programs will have a guide of basic topics to cover, such as the phonetic alphabet, greetings, and everyday phrases. Of course, students shouldn’t stress about getting all these things down perfectly, as they’ll be reinforced once you get to the country and start taking classes.

For those who already consider themselves proficient in their target language, basic review via self-study is always a good idea to gain extra confidence before being fully immersed. Although many students have been studying a foreign language for years, there is no substitute for immersion, and even the most advanced language learner can feel overwhelmed at first. Some good self-review can include going over old textbooks and homework, finding new lessons online, or listening to music or watching movies in the language. Another thing students should do is download a dictionary app on their smartphone that can be accessed even when there is no internet connection. While Google Translate is useful for phrases (though not entirely accurate), it relies on an internet connection that may not always be available. There are plenty of free dictionary apps that are helpful when you need to look up a word on the go.

Related: The Top 5 Things to Consider Before Studying Abroad

During your program

While many students will naturally improve in a language through immersion, there are many bad habits that can impede their improvement, like becoming complacent in their language study or getting used to not understanding things. In order to make use of every opportunity to grow and strengthen your language skills while you’re abroad, there are some simple things you can do. The first is to look up useful words and phrases before entering certain situations to reduce potential language barriers. For example, before going to get a haircut, it may be a good idea to look up how to say things such as, “Please cut it short,” or, “I would like a shampoo and cut.” Students should also look up words and phrases for situations they find themselves in often. For instance, being able to understand phrases shopkeepers use is essential to surviving your study abroad experience.

During moments of struggle where you don’t comprehend a word or phrase, it can help to ask the native speaker to explain it more slowly or use different, easier words instead of just asking for it in English. Following this exchange, students should make a note of the word or phrase on their smartphone to refer to later. This ensures better retainment rather than learning the word and immediately forgetting it. When all else fails, there’s nothing wrong with using body language or broken sentences with major grammatical mistakes; most locals will appreciate the fact that you’re trying to communicate in their language. While some students may have the initial reaction of trying to communicate in English, hoping the people around them will understand, those who struggle to speak in a foreign language are usually the ones that improve the most.

After you come home

Going home can be a mix of feelings—some feel relieved that they’re finally in a place where everything is familiar again, while others are sad to leave at a time when they were just getting more proficient in the local language. The good thing about our heavily globalized world is that foreign language learning doesn’t have to stop once your program is over. Although there is no replacement for immersion, the second-best thing is to use the language frequently with native speakers. Setting up a way to keep in contact with people you met abroad is important to continue improving. Engaging in daily text conversations, weekly video chats, or even an occasional letter is a good way to keep the language fresh in your brain. Who knows—maybe some day you’ll return to your study abroad country for work or vacation, and the ability to keep up on the language will be a great advantage.

Related: How Knowing a Foreign Language Can Help Your Career

Learning a foreign language can be one of the most difficult but rewarding skills you develop in your life. It's going to take hard work, but it's also going to be so worth it when it improves your study abroad experience—and your career opportunities after. Just try your best, and even if you make a few mistakes along the way, the people you meet will appreciate you making the effort to speak in their native language.

Did you know there are also scholarships for learning languages? Check out some opportunities to fund your international pursuits now!

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About Naomi Hong

Naomi Hong graduated from Occidental College in 2018 with a degree in International Relations and Japanese and a minor in Economics. She currently works as a concierge/front desk agent at a luxury hotel in Southern California. She's passionate about hospitality and travel and hope to continue my career within the hotel industry. She also enjoys writing articles about career advice, studying abroad, and learning new languages. 


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