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7 Ways to Study a Language Abroad Without Going Broke


Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Hello from Ireland today! After some time with my family, I fly to London for a week (location locked meet-up details right now on the Facebook page), and then I start my next language mission! To find out what that is, make sure you are subscribed to the Language Hacking League email list, by signing up on the top-right of the site and look out for an email on Monday.

I'm almost ready to sit down and get back to blogging myself, to catch you up on my summer travels and mini project, before I begin my next huge missions!

Until then, I have a great post with excellent suggestions today, from Susan Shain who writes at travel junkette and is a bit of a specialist in working seasonal jobs that help her fund her world travels. I know these suggestions will help those of you who want to figure out a way to fund a potential upcoming stay abroad. Over to you Susan!


You'd love to study French at the Sorbonne. Or maybe Chinese at a fancy language institute in Shanghai. There's nothing like being immersed in the language you're trying to learn. It is, hands down, the best way to get comfortable quickly.

But there's just one small problem: traveling abroad to study a language costs a lot of money. Or at least, that's what most people think.

How can you study a language abroad if you can't afford to house and feed yourself, let alone pay for language classes? It seems impossible, doesn't it?

It's not. All it takes is a little creativity, and the willingness to put in some work. Of course, you'll have to save up the money for the plane ticket (unless you use frequent flyer miles!), but once you get there, there are several ways to cut costs.

Here are seven ways to study a language abroad without going broke:

1. Volunteer

Volunteering abroad is a great way to both improve the world and your language skills. When you volunteer in a community, you'll be more than a traveler or visitor. You'll become immersed in their world — and in their everyday chatter! You'll earn the trust of those with whom you're working and living, which means more chances to connect and practice. If you find a good program, it will cost you little or nothing to sign up, and you may even receive free or discounted accommodation.

I recently put this into practice during three months volunteering in Nicaragua. Getting better at Spanish and volunteering abroad were both on my life list, so I decided to look for volunteer opportunities in Latin America. I ended up working with a fabulous organization in Nicaragua called La Esperanza Granada. I spent my time at a public elementary school where the other volunteers were the only people who spoke English.

Not only was this an incredibly fun and rewarding experience, but it was a great way for me to improve my Spanish. Let me tell you: teaching 3rd grade math or trying to keep students from jumping on the desks is a surefire method for getting your speaking skills up to par!

2. CouchSurf

CouchSurfing is an online community in which people offer up their couches (or beds, or floors) for travelers to sleep on — free of charge. Its goal isn't to list free places to stay, but to encourage cultural exchange and international respect and understanding.

I've used CouchSurfing when traveling in expensive countries like Norway and Japan, and I've had nothing but positive experiences. If I'm traveling alone, I only stay with women, and when I'm hosting, I only host women or couples.

CouchSurfing fosters cultural exchange, and language is a huge part of culture. It offers an easy venue for meeting locals (and hopefully, making friends) who speak your target language. If you're traveling abroad, ditch the hostels, where there's a 99% chance you'll end up speaking English. Stay with a local for free, and practice your new language to your heart's content. (Just be sure that your host wants to speak their native language. Some of them, smartly, use CouchSurfing as a free way to practice their English, which probably isn't your goal!)

TIP: If you have a very limited travel/language budget, then find a cheap flight to a city that speaks your target language. Don't travel within the country — just stay in that city and surf with different hosts every few nights. You'll speak a lot, spend very little money, and get to know a place well. Best of all, you'll have a group of new friends that speak your target language. Hopefully, these same friends will come to visit you, allowing you to return the favor AND practice your target language in your hometown.

Here are Benny's thoughts on using Couchsurfing to work on your languages.

3. Teach English

To any and all native English speakers who say they can't afford to travel, whether it be for student loans or other reasons, I tell them to go teach English abroad. There are many places where you can earn money, but South Korea is best. Not only will you earn a great salary and bonuses, but they'll also pay for your flights and housing. Plus, you get five weeks of paid vacation. (I’d never experienced the glory of that before!)

I taught English through the EPIK program in South Korea for a full year. I hate to admit to a community of polyglots that I didn't make much progress in learning Korean — but the point is, I could've if I’d wanted to.

If you teach in a country whose language you want to learn, you’ll essentially be getting paid to study a language abroad. Sure, you’ll be spending your days speaking English, but you’ll hear your target language all the time, both at school and in your everyday life. Just make sure to get out of the expat bubble and make some local friends.

At the moment, the teaching opportunities in Asia are boundless. You’ve probably thought about Japan and China, but what about Taiwan? That’s another great place to learn Mandarin Chinese while making bank. Teaching in Saudi Arabia is extremely lucrative. Job quality, cost of living, and pay vary widely across regions and within specific countries, so be sure to do your research.

If Asia or the Middle East aren't your style, you’ll have to search a little harder, and you won’t earn as much money, but there are still ways to do it. For example, I know people who’ve worked as teaching assistants in France or Spain.

Benny has also written about his experience teaching English abroad.

4. WWOOF

This is an opportunity that pretty much anyone can take advantage of — no matter where you're from or what language you're trying to learn. WWOOF, which stands for World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is a work exchange program. Volunteers work 4-6 hours per day on an organic farm, in exchange for free room and board.

There are WWOOFing opportunities up to wazoo in all corners of the world. You can do everything from picking weeds to stomping grapes to shearing sheep. The only cost is the WWOOF site membership fee, which, unfortunately, is usually separate for each individual country. The average cost is $25.

By working on the farm with your hosts, you’ll be able to practice your target language daily. You’ll have afternoons and days off to explore the surrounding areas, when you’ll also be able to chat it up. And the best part? The only thing you’ll be spending is a bit of elbow grease.

TIP: Choose a farm with hosts who speak only your target language. If they speak your native language also, you'll probably get lazy and be tempted to speak in it after a hard day's work. If your hosts don’t speak anything else, that won’t be a possibility!

5. Au Pair

Like kids? Maybe you should consider working as an au pair abroad. Though your employers may want you to speak your native language to your charges, that doesn't mean you won't hear your target language. The family will likely speak it amongst each other, and you'll be able to speak it when you leave the house.

The main benefit of working as an au pair is that you'll be in a country where they speak your target language — while earning enough money to support yourself. And, as Emily wrote in this recent guest post, it’s better to learn languages from kids anyways.

I’ve never worked as an au pair, so I don’t have much advice in this category. But luckily, I have cool friends: my friend Ashley wrote a super informative post on how to become an au pair abroad. She’s spent a couple years learning French while working as an au pair outside of Paris.

Benny also had the chance to interview two au-pairs, in Spanish, to ask about their experiences doing this.

6. Housesit

Housesitting allows you to stay in another country for an extended period of time without having to pay for accommodation. Though you’ll be in your own space and thus won’t be directly interacting with locals, you’ll have one of the costliest parts of a trip abroad (accommodation) taken care of. This means that you’ll have extra cash to immerse yourself in your target language by volunteering, taking classes, or just hitting up the local nightlife.

And if you're able to sublet your house or apartment while you're away, it might even provide you with the income needed for food and language classes. I've never had a housesitting gig, but I’ve heard that Trusted Housesitters and Mind My House are two good places to start.

7. Do a homestay and language program in a developing country

What if you don’t want to bother with working or volunteering? It is possible to focus solely on language learning; you just might need to reframe your thinking a bit. For example, if you want to learn Spanish: don't travel to Spain, where the cost of living is high. Go to Guatemala instead. That’s what I did.

Though this might seem obvious, it also might surprise you just how inexpensive it is to study in a developing country. While in Guatemala, I took six hours of one-on-one Spanish classes per day. This was in addition to a rewarding homestay with a local family, which included three home-cooked meals per day and plenty of cultural and language immersion. The total cost for one week? $215 US.

Because I only had a week, I studied for six hours/day, but if you were there for longer, four hours would probably be more manageable. The cost for a month of four hours/day would be $680. If you found an inexpensive flight, you could spend an entire MONTH living and learning in an exotic country for under $2,000. That’d mean saving $150/month for one year, or around $6/day. You could save $6/day to fulfill your language-learning dreams, couldn't you?

Though learning a new language is hard work, it doesn’t have to be expensive. With a little outside-the-box thinking and elbow grease, you, too, could soon be ordering cervezas, making new chingus, and reaping the many benefits of studying a language abroad.

Susan Shain has been working seasonal adventure jobs and traveling the world since 2008. She speaks some Spanish and French. For more information about traveling, working, and living abroad, check out the resources page of her blog, Travel Junkette. You can also catch up with her on Twitter.

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