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How to Learn a Language While Living Abroad

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Hey language learner!

Living abroad is a dream for many people, and if you’re doing it right at this moment, hearty congratulations! I’ve done it, and it’s not easy.

Did you arrive in your host country with the goal of perfecting your target language? Kudos to you! But, if you’ve been in your host country for a little while now and you’re still feeling stuck at an intermediate level with no wiggle room, then keep reading.

Before arriving in my host country with the goal of chatting with natives, I found it imperative to get some hours of conversation practice under my belt. If you’re unsure of how to arrange a language exchange, check out this step-by-step post on online language exchanges from Fluent in 3 Months team member Shannon Kennedy.

Conversing with strangers, in general, let alone in a foreign language, can be daunting and it takes getting used to. I know, I get it. I teach English for a living and I see how my students react when they’re first placed in a space where they’re forced to speak in English. But I’m also a language learner, and I’ve already had to overcome some mental blocks to start talking to people. Like everything in life, confidence and competence come hand-in-hand with practice.

I can share with you my tried and tested tips for increasing conversation skills and expanding vocabulary while living in your target country. This is a non-exhaustive list to include in your daily speaking. Learning my first foreign language has been one of the hardest things in my life yet also one of the most fulfilling. If you’re lucky enough to be living in your target language, it’s time to seize the opportunity! Use these techniques and I’m positive you’ll be improving day by day.

Tip 1: Jot down the vocabulary you are exposed to in situations throughout your day

Be constantly on the prowl for new vocabulary and expressions to expand your lexical range.

For instance, is it your first time visiting the dentist in your host country? Carry along a pen and paper and write down the context-relevant terms you hear used.

This tip works just as well for speaking to the plumber who comes to fix your sink, or perhaps the local administrator at a government building. All professions have their jargon and it’s advantageous to learn vocabulary that could serve you in the future.

If carrying around a pen and paper makes you feel too much like an old school reporter, opt for writing a notes document on your phone, which you can pull out more casually.

Any way you do it, by writing a list as you speak to people especially in professional contexts, you will undoubtedly come across new material to learn.

Tip 2: Aim to spend time with individuals who possess a mastery of the spoken word

Not everyone harnesses language to the same degree. Certain individuals are less verbose than others, some tend to overuse clichés. We all know the pleasure of a fascinating conversation, dotted with linguistic idiosyncrasies and humorous turns-of-phrase.

Anyone could possess this quality, I would argue, it’s not a matter of social class or education. I’ve had these kinds of chats with particularly witty bartenders or heard a funny quip from the lady who trims our dog! When you find those rare individuals with the gift of the gab – hang out with them! I even secretly prepare a handful of quick and relatable topics to whip up in conversation, if only to hear how this person responds.

Combine this with Tip 1 and tap into others’ lexical mastery to find inspiration for your own language learning.

Tip 3: Speak to People of All Ages

Seek out interlocutors that run the gamut from youthful to elderly. How?

This has often happened to me after befriending a local who then introduced me to a family member. Why should we aim to speak with these people?

Children are great because they’re incredibly non-judgemental, as writer Emily discusses when she gained more confidence in German by speaking to children when she lived in Switzerland.

Teenagers tend to be on the forefront of new terminology and slang – often extremely useful for getting closer to the hallowed-ground of ‘sounding native’.

At the other end of the spectrum, the elderly are conservative with their language use and are therefore inclined to utilize well-worn structures and idioms. However, it is always important to note particular terms that have not aged well and which now may be considered old-fashioned or even offensive. Also note that if one of your goals is to hone in on the dialect of a particular place, older speakers will often possess these dialectical nuances. Old folks are often keen on a chat, too!

Tip 4: Do not limit yourself only to native speakers

Natives should be a jumping-off point for conversing but don’t rule out non-native speakers. It’s no foregone conclusion that others who have learnt your target language aren’t as capable.

Remember that natives also make mistakes, get lazy with grammar structures, and at times they use terms erroneously. For example, in Italy, where I live and work, I am surrounded by especially younger people who leave out the subjunctive tense willy-nilly as though it were optional.

Now, I’m not going to harp on about the importance of every grammar rule, but the biggest offenders of grammar laziness tendencies are normally the mother-tongue speakers. Non-natives can often be hyper-aware of grammar. And yes, they will make mistakes, too. But if you speak with non-natives who have spoken your target language for a long time, they’ll also be potential wells of knowledge that can be tapped for your benefit.

Keep a critical but open mind when speaking to native and non-native speakers alike.

Tip 5: Penetrate beyond the superficial – listen to people

With the aim of mastering a language clearly in the forefront of our minds, sometimes we can fall into the habit of taking advantage of people just to practice our target language. We focus on how they’re speaking but not what they’re saying.

If you are speaking to someone who is divulging a personal story to you, and all you’re doing is picking out vocabulary items, then you’re doing it wrong! Penetrate below the surface and parse out the substance of what the person is trying to tell you just as much as their method of communicating it.

Why? First, you’ll be a better conversationalist and you’ll connect to people on a more profound level. Second, being detached from the language you’re using is detrimental to its acquisition.

You’ll never come close to mastering a language if all you’re doing is repeating phrases you’ve heard, void of their emotional nuance and significance. Really listen to people!

Tip 6: Ask for feedback from a friend

When I think about learning the language of the country, the person who comes to mind is my nonna, who arrived in Australia from Italy in the 1950s.

My nonna spent most of her adult life Down Under, and yet always struggled to communicate in English. Why? In part, for the ways migrants were treated back then, and in part, for her own lack of education, but also because native speakers wouldn’t correct her mistakes.

In most countries, it’s considered rude to pick people up on the way they speak. Native speakers tend to gloss over non-natives’ grammatical errors if the language is still understandable. But as language learners we don’t want to be merely understandable, we want to communicate correctly and articulately in our target language.

So, find a friend who you’re comfortable with and ask them to alert you to any mistakes. Even if they can’t explain the reason why it’s incorrect, they can point you in the right direction.

Tip 7: Know when to be a self-critic and when to take the win

Being a good conversationalist in any language takes practices and will require you to make mistakes. A lot of mistakes. When you speak to natives especially, understand when it’s appropriate to be self-aware of your errors.

Maybe you use a word incorrectly, maybe you mis-conjugate the verb, maybe you get halfway through a sentence and realize you have no idea which construction to use in order to get your point out. It’s all normal and necessary. I do it and it sometimes hurts my pride.

As language learners, we need to just move on. Work out what went wrong and fix it for the next time.

Conversely, aim to also focus on the times you did something right. Be it a time you made someone laugh, or perhaps a meaningful piece of advice given to a friend. Take stock of the times in which you successfully applied your target language and relish in your gradual improvement.

author headshot

Dominic Simonelli

English Language Teacher

From Melbourne, Australia, Dominic Simonelli is a graduate of Media and Communications and is currently based in Northern Italy.

Speaks: English, Italian, Spanish

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