My Top 10 Tips for Learning a Foreign Language
Within the next month or so, thousands upon thousands of students all over Europe will be packing their bags and joining the legions of 3 million Europeans before them who have done Erasmus. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Erasmus is one of the best things about the European Union (in my opinion, at least) and it is a programme available to any university student in an EU country. It offers you a very simple way to study abroad, work abroad in a company or teach your native language in a school abroad.
In the UK people tend to begin their Erasmus placement in the September of their Third Year Abroad, but in other countries some people begin in September or in February.
Many of those lucky people setting off for their Erasmus year (or semester) will be doing so with a number of aims in mind: to discover a new culture, gain valuable experience of living abroad (much prized by future employers – I can promise you!). One aim almost everyone will share is the desire to either learn or perfect a foreign language. Living abroad is a fantastic opportunity to do so, but there are certain things you can do to make sure you take full advantage of the experience. So here are my top 10 tips for learning a foreign language, from someone who did the Erasmus experience twice over, once in Spain for 6 months and then in Italy for another 6 months. I’ve tried to make these tips relevant for anyone, Erasmus or not.
1. Share a flat with locals
Locals who preferably don’t speak your mother tongue. In a new country it can seem very tempting to move in with fellow expats, but if you do so then you immediately limit your exposure to the foreign language and therefore halve your chances of perfecting it. An added benefit of living with locals is they can introduce you to the local culture, cuisine (ie. their grandfather’s homemade Limoncello or the local speciality of paella), their friendship group, and generally become an invaluable source of local knowledge.
2. Move abroad alone
Very closely linked to no.1, move to your new city of choice alone if possible. You may be delighted to find out that you and your best friend from home will be living in the same city, but this won’t really give you the true experience and it won’t lift you out of your comfort zone. If at all possible, move to a totally new city with a completely blank address book.
3. Date a local
Find yourself a native boyfriend or girlfriend, again preferably one who doesn’t speak your mother tongue. It’s true that a boyfriend/girlfriend will improve your language skills better than anything else as you’re likely to be spending lots of time with them, and they have the patience to hear you out, even if your sentences are splattered with grammar mistakes. Our Year Abroad Co-ordinator at Exeter (a very straight-talking and to-the-point woman, it has to be admitted) even advised those of us with boyfriends/girlfriends at home to dump them before the Year Abroad (!) specifically in order to learn the language through a local lover.
4. Cut yourself off from your home country
Change your internet homepage to a local newspaper in a foreign language (for example, El País in Spain & Corriere della Sera in Italy), block websites you always use at home, including radio stations and TV channels. Instead add a foreign radio station to your homepage. Take out foreign books from the library, go to the local cinema, watch local television and try to immerse yourself completely. I’m not saying you should delete your Facebook account or cut all ties to your family and friends, but limiting the amount of your native language that you hear and read will do wonders.
5. Make friends with locals
Hopefully you’ll automatically make friends with other students, your colleagues or other language assistants. Don’t fear if not, as there are other ways to make friends in a new country. If you enjoy tennis, join the nearest tennis club and attend a mix-in. Volunteer to help out with a local charity, which will be more than happy to accept you and will help you to meet other volunteers. Any hobby you have is likely to be popular with others in your new country, so make an effort to find them.
6. Write a diary in a foreign language
Forcing yourself to record the ins and outs of your experience abroad will force you to practise the written language, not just the verbal, and will also serve as a valuable record of your year. Once you return to your home country, time will pass all too quickly and you’ll be grateful of a way to remember it all.
7. Encourage people to correct your mistakes
When speaking in the foreign language, make it perfectly clear to whoever you’re speaking to that you won’t be offended if they correct your mistakes. Sure, they’ll still understand your main gist with a few mistakes, but if no one points out where you’re going wrong then you’ll get into bad habits. Actively ask them to correct you and thank them when they do.
8. Pretend not to speak English
If you’re reading this then I’m assuming you understand English. English seems to be a lingua franca for Erasmus students across Europe and lots of people will want to practise it with you. Either agree to do a tandem (practising both of your languages) or simply pretend you don’t speak English. In restaurants and shops, put on a bemused expression if they speak to you in English and force them to speak in the local language. Say you come from Scandinavia, or a little-known Eastern European country and they almost certainly won’t be able to catch you out by speaking in that language instead. I always used to claim to be German, and it worked a treat.
9. Keep a vocabulary list
You’ll come across idiomatic expressions that textbooks would never teach you. If you want to be able to incorporate them into your lexicon then keep a list of them, either in a Notes app on your phone or in a good old-fashioned notepad, and carry the list with you everywhere. Eavesdropping on other people’s conversations on the bus, coming across a new sign, you’ll pick up new vocab everywhere and your memory won’t be able to hold it all.
10. Au pair or live with a local family
This 10th tip is something I’d recommend everyone to do at some point. Students taking a Year Abroad can fit in a summer working as an au pair either before or after their official Year Abroad and it’s one of the cheapest ways to learn a foreign language. I spent an incredible summer au pairing for an Italian family near Rome (read my blog post about it) and was lucky enough to take leaps and bounds with my Italian while living on the beach and building sandcastles all day long with the two daughters. Being surrounded 24/7 is an unparalelled opportunity, and you’ll learn how the locals actually live. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Are there other tips you would give to help learn a foreign language? Which of these have worked for you?