July 21, 2015
Before I studied abroad in France, I could read and analyze a novel in French, no problem - but I didn’t know how to make small talk. Classrooms are a great place to learn a language, but if you want to make the most of your immersion experience, learning shouldn’t end on campus! Here are a few tips I’ve found useful for improving language skills outside the classroom while living abroad.
1. Labels and posters and signs, oh my!
Want to learn more vocabulary or focus on a specific grammar point? Consider using the space in your dorm or apartment to constantly reinforce your learning objectives.
I’ve used this for both French and Turkish. Start by labeling things in your living area, writing big and putting the labels in noticeable spaces. Add labels regularly to develop your vocabulary! This works especially well if you’re a visual learner; you’ll be constantly noticing the labels and connecting them with the physical item. This can also be a fun bonding experience if you’re living with someone who speaks a different language or who is trying to learn English.
I also would draw and label pictures for my walls and would put a weekly grammar lesson on my bedroom door, where I saw it every day. Being surrounded by whatever I was trying to learn helped reinforce my lessons and help them stick!
2. Listen to music
Listening to the music of the language you are learning is a great way to improve your pronunciation, learn new words, and engage with the culture. Play the radio, YouTube, or a Spotify playlist whenever you can. Don’t forget to look up the lyrics!
3. There’s an app for that
In Turkey, I was learning the language entirely by immersion—no classes, just my own initiative—and I spent about an hour a day commuting to and from my job. I wanted to use some of that time to study Turkish, especially to prepare for the workday, but didn’t have access to data on my phone.
I ended up downloading a free flash card app on my phone and making decks based on what I was teaching myself at the time. I was also able to find other people’s decks and practice that way! An offline dictionary was also great, and included a “word of the day” feature that introduced me to random other words.
Consider getting podcasts, audiobooks in your target language, or other language-learning tools to make the most of your smartphone while abroad! (But remember: data is expensive! Make sure anything you download will work offline.)
4. Make friends (or, better yet, date!)
Speaking your target language outside of the classroom is an awesome way to gain confidence and develop your speaking skills, without the pressure of a formal classroom setting. I know that before going to France, I would get so nervous in class about making mistakes, I would almost never speak up. After spending a year abroad, speaking French socially, I was much more confident in class. Plus, I learned how to actually communicate with people not just academically - it made me connect more fully to the language.
In Turkey, where I was learning entirely by immersion, my friends were the main way I learned the language. They’d speak normally, and over time I was able to understand everything without it being simplified. It made me want to study more so I could join in the conversations. When I could make myself understood—without perfect, or even close to perfect, grammar—it gave me more confidence to continue trying.
5. Watch movies or TV shows
I don’t just mean local movies or TV shows, though that’s a good idea, too. Look for movies and shows you’re familiar with that have been dubbed or subtitled in your target language (ideally, both). You’d be surprised what you can find online! Just look up the word for “dub” in your target language and search away.
Regardless what methods you decide to try, taking steps to work on your language skills outside of the classroom will be tremendously rewarding!
Julianne Angeli is a grad student who studied abroad for an academic year in France. Most recently, she was a Fulbright scholar in Turkey.