How to Learn a Language While Studying Abroad

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How to Learn a Language While Studying Abroad

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

After I finished my university degree and moved to Spain, most of my initial friends there were not Spaniards but exchange students learning Spanish. Europe’s Erasmus programme brings together students who are interested in the cultural and language exchange options of spending one of their university years (usually the 3rd) in a foreign country. Similar programmes also exist outside Europe.

Since I spent so long with those friends, I almost feel as good as an “honorary Erasmus student” myself. But to be honest, I wish that I’d known about Erasmus and taken the chance to travel before graduation so I could experience life abroad for a semester or a year. The best part would have been that it wouldn’t have delayed my graduation date back home at all!

Today Winfried who blogs at The Wham is here to share his thoughts on how studying abroad works. If you are currently a student, or entering university soon, it’s well worth considering looking into this. Over to you Winfried!

In 2014 and 2015, I spent ten months in Norway as part of the University of Vienna program in Scandinavian Studies. This program was not even my main studying program, but it gave me the opportunity to get in touch with the Scandinavian world. These ten months in Oslo were some of the best times of my life. I made friends I’ll keep for life, I met my now girlfriend Alejandra (from Argentina), and I became conversationally fluent in Norwegian. Even now, back home in Austria, I get notifications on my phone from a Norwegian news channel, I watch TV-shows and movies in Norwegian, read Norwegian books from time to time, and chat with friends from Norway. Keeping the language alive motivates me to travel there again.

In this post, I’ll share the opportunities that are available for university students who’d like to study abroad. I’ll also go through the benefits of studying abroad, and (perhaps most important of all), show you how to avoid the English trap to ensure you have a full immersion experience.

Who is Eligible to Study Abroad?

If you are a student at any level (from high school to graduate school), then chances are you could study in a country of your choice for 6-12 months and learn a new language while you’re at it. This is true wherever you live. Most universities worldwide are already part of an exchange network. Even if there is no existing network at your university, it’s usually possible to make an arrangement to study abroad.

Erasmus provides a good framework between the institutes of different universities in the European region, initiated by the European Commission. They also offer some financial support to help with moving overseas. If you’re studying in Europe, you can find lists of all partner institutes in your home university

In the U.S., there are networks who can help you with an exchange, such as the University Studies Abroad Consortium. For other regions, you may ask your university administration, who may organise everything for you, or search online for websites such as

Instead of going through official programmes, you can also contact your favoured university directly and apply yourself. This is the most individual and flexible way to study abroad, although you may have to discuss this option with your professors or university administration before making an application.

In my case, I was studying Scandinavian Studies at the University of Vienna and I could choose between universities in Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Germany and Norway. I decided to study in Oslo for one year to become fluent in Norwegian.

In order to be part of the Erasmus exchange, I had to choose classes which fit into the curriculum of the University in Vienna. This was challenging on an organisational level, but in the end it worked out perfectly. Classes I ended up taking included Celtic and Old Norse Studies, Language Programming, and Media Theory.

What Are the Benefits of Learning a Language Abroad?

During my six years at university I spent in a total of three countries. I can now proficiently communicate in French, English, and Norwegian.

When you are abroad, it is fulfilling to communicate with local people in their own language. You understand their culture better and become a part of it. You begin to understand how big the world is, how many people and ideas and mind-sets and philosophies are out there. Your own understanding of the world also changes; it feels smaller and more interesting! The new language connects you to the place, you can read the ads, newspaper, local news and discuss issues pertaining to the area you are in.

Why Study Abroad? Why Not Just Stay at Home?

Culturally and academically, studying abroad is highly rewarding.

Staying at home is nothing new. It’s exciting to live in a new country for several months while learning a new language through immersion.

You’ll also have a lot of new experiences. Your exchange university will differ from your home university in many ways: Professor-student interactions; teaching and learning methods; how students interact with one another. This will make you realise the pros and cons of your own university.

You will also learn how to get by in a new country and become more independent.

How to Learn a Language When Studying Abroad

As you’re reading this blog, it’s likely you are wondering: how can I learn a language while studying abroad?

Let’s start from the beginning: either you learn the language before you move overseas, you already know the language, or you start learning when you’re in your host country.

1. Learn the Language Beforehand

Your home university may offer courses in your target language. This is how I learned Norwegian, and I studied for four semesters before moving to Oslo in Norway. If your university doesn’t offer language courses, you can look into other institutions that offer classes or learn through the abundant language-learning resources online such as italki and Duolingo.

Just because I’d studied beforehand didn’t making things easy. In the beginning, it was difficult for me to understand “real” Norwegian, with the dialects, fast talking speed, and complex vocabulary. It was also difficult to write academic papers. I was concerned my grades would suffer. That said, most people don’t expect to have the best grades when they study abroad. You study overseas to learn about a new culture and language, not for amazing grades. Anyway, in the end almost every single exchange student passes their classes. Also: when you hand in your first assignment about a really exciting topic in a new language (e.g. six pages about Celtic culture), you feel really accomplished.

If you already know the language to B1 level, you may be allowed to join classes in the local language and accelerate your progress. The guidelines of the host university decide whether this is possible, based on a language test or certificate. I had to take a placement test in Norwegian and was allowed into classes taught in Norwegian.

Most importantly, when you are in a class taught in your target language, you have the opportunity to get in touch with local students! They are the ones who know the language and will be happy to teach you. Making friends with the locals is the most crucial point in exchange semester. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

2. Learn the Language While Studying Abroad

Many students go abroad on short notice. It is not possible to prepare before they leave, so they either take an intense two-or-so week course or study once they’ve reached the host country.

If you do this, you’ll find yourself sharing a classroom mainly with international students. Teaching can be either in English or in the local language. As your language skills are unlikely to be good enough for joining regular classes, you’ll probably be encouraged to stick with classes taught in English. If you manage to learn the language during the first semester, you can join local language courses in the second semester.

Many friendships form in the language class or in the regular classes. Within my Erasmus exchanges, students liked to party, enjoy their time at the fjord, and travel together. All of these activities are mostly done in international groups with few or no locals involved. The language used is almost always English, which creates what I call the “English trap”.

Why Students Fall into the English Trap

English is the universal language, at least in Europe. If someone does not speak the local language, English is always used. Pretty much everyone speaks it.

Wherever you are, as a language learner, locals won't always understand your attempts to speak their language and may switch to English if you look like you’re struggling. Of course, it depends on the English proficiency of the speaker, which varies in different countries. In France (I was there for a school exchange) locals struggle with English and are hesitant to speak it. In Scandinavian countries, most people are fluent in English, so English is their go-to language for foreigners.

I have met many exchange students who did not go to Norway to learn Norwegian, but English! Of course it is perfectly fine to train your English with other international students, in class, or even with the Norwegians.

The friendships formed in international groups are almost always English speaking. In other words it’s really simple to just speak English – and it is hard to arrive at the local level of the language.

How to Avoid the English Trap (Before It’s Too Late!)

What if you couldn’t learn the local language beforehand and are now stuck in classes taught in English? Don’t worry, there is still hope! It comes in the forms of the following:

Student Organisations

This depends highly on the organisation of the university. In Norway, for example, the university encourages students to join student societies. I found plenty of the following: hiking groups, interest groups (European Union, movies, gaming club, etc.), and volunteering at cafes/pubs in the basement of the faculties.

That is where I met most of my Norwegian friends. I helped out at the bar, served coffee in the afternoons, beer in the evenings, sat there to study and constantly met new people. You are guaranteed to meet locals, perhaps one fifth of them were exchange students, and all of them either spoke Norwegian or were learning it.

So go find a student organisation you’re interested in, and spend a large chunk of your free time there.

The Buddy System

The idea with a Buddy System is that students who know the university show new students how things work. This includes where the buildings are, where to go if you have a problem, and so on. During my first semester I was in a buddy group, and in the second one I was the buddy leader of another group. Mostly I was meeting international people (including my now girlfriend!) which was a really fun time. Other Norwegian buddy leaders helped me and organised activities, so I had opportunities to keep learning Norwegian.

Language Tandem

This is perfect for those who prefer a one-on-one arranged meet-up. Tandem partners speak a language you are learning, and they want to learn yours. So you teach for a bit, and then you are taught in the other language. It’s a win-win-situation. I taught German to two Norwegians, and talked in Norwegian with them.

Freetime Activities, Think like a Local!

You like to sing? Google will reveal which local choirs there are in your city. You can join a sport team, hiking group, skiing centre… anything you like! Chess, dancing…

Any hobby you have, there will be locals who want to do the same. Find them!
Most universities host a whole range of free time activities for international students, but then again, you’ll get caught in the English trap! At times you will have to put extra effort into avoiding the English trap, but it’s always worth it.

About the author: Winfried runs a travel blog with his girlfriend, Alejandra, at The Wham. He has lived in France, New Zealand, Norway, Austria and will soon move to Germany. He cannot talk highly enough of taking advantage of an opportunity to go abroad on a study programme.

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