How to Study Abroad in a Foreign Language
When I was in the planning stage for studying abroad, many different programs tried to sell me their perfect version of academics in a foreign land. Some took pride in their excursion-based, globe-trotting setting, where participants visit the sites and cultures that they learn about in class, such as having art class at the Louvre or Latin class a block away from the Colosseum. Other programs touted their appeal to foreigners through American professors and independent living arrangements.
However, as I have mentioned in previous posts, one of the reasons that I chose this program in particular was so that I could improve my Spanish skills and attempt to integrate into Peruvian culture as much as possible.
But even so, after I had selected this program, the idea of studying abroad was still overly romanticized, both by my home university and by IFSA-Butler itself. While I received endless information regarding culture shock and safety tips, I felt extremely underprepared when it came to my future classes. Not only would I be taking a full schedule of classes in a foreign language, I would have to adjust to a completely different learning system.Like any Millennial, I scoured the Internet for the best tips out there, only to come up empty-handed. It seemed as though EVERYONE had forgotten the first half of the term “studying abroad.”
Now that I just finished midterms (yes, everyone is done with school and the semester is only halfway through), I feel as though I can offer some advice for those worried about taking classes in a foreign language. So here it goes:
- UNDERSTAND YOUR HOST UNIVERSITY’S EDUCATION SYSTEM
This is one of the most important things to consider about studying abroad, yet it is often overlooked. Here in Peru, the grading system is completely different (we are assigned a number from zero to twenty rather than a percentage or a letter grade). Also, the way that Peruvians approach education is different. Rather than the individual working for his or her grade, the entire class works together to beat the system. Group study sessions are much more common here. A third major difference is through testing style. Rather than a combination of true/false, multiple choice, short answer, and essay questions, Peruvian professors give out a few essay questions, which can be a positive or negative feature. Instead of worrying about specific details, I need to understand the entire theme of the course. It also helps to improve my writing skills!
- BEFRIEND YOUR CLASSMATES
You would be surprised to learn that even the library system is completely different. Had I not befriended a fellow Peruvian classmate, I would not have known about an upcoming quiz, how to check out a book, or known what to study after each class. Speaking of studying . . .
- DO BACKGROUND RESEARCH ON THE TOPIC OF STUDY
This has been SO HELPFUL to me, especially in my Peruvian History class. I have found that if I look on the syllabus and do a quick Google search about that day’s topic before class, I understand the lectures much better. They are not nearly as boring, and I retain more information.
- TAKE NOTES IN THE TARGET LANGUAGE
When I was in taking advanced Spanish courses in high school, I took notes exclusively in English, simply because it was easier. When I went to study the concepts that I had learned, I relied on these English notes to prepare for my quizzes and tests. This was fine until I was taking the exam and couldn’t remember certain Spanish vocab because I had learned it in English. I would either waste my time thinking of a proper translation or not explain myself clearly, thus resulting in a lower grade. Even though it’s more difficult, if you learn your material through your target language, you will retain the information better when it comes time to take the exam or write a paper.
- READ OUT LOUD
When doing readings for my classes, I found that I got bored very quickly. Sometimes I would read an entire page and then realize that I didn’t understand ANYTHING. So I decided to read out loud to help me stay on track. Not only did this help improve my speaking & pronunciation skills, but when I combined sight and hearing, I retained much more information. I could also understand more words because I could better detect their origins by hearing them pronounced rather than just glancing at them on paper.
- SUMMARIZE EACH CHAPTER
Since understanding and retaining information from readings in a foreign language will undoubtably be more difficult, do yourself a favor and write a small summary (in your target language) at the end of each chapter. That way, when you return to your readings while studying for a test, you can quickly go over the information that you’ve learned rather than sifting through everything again.
- USE THE POMODORO METHOD
The Pomodoro Method is a productivity technique that I love to use when studying, especially in a foreign language. Here’s how it works: set a timer for twenty-five minutes. During this time, work with absolutely no distractions. Then, after the timer goes off, take a five minute break. After four cycles (a total of two hours), take a longer break, somewhere around fifteen to thirty minutes. This technique is nice and incredibly useful, especially when completing work for classes that are not as interesting.
- IMMERSE YOURSELF IN THE HOST LANGUAGE
As frustrating as acquiring foreign languages can be, push yourself to use your target language as much as possible, even during your down time. Find a YouTube channel or a website that you love in the foreign language so that you can practice as much as possible. I know this tip sounds cheesy and kind of dumb, but it has actually helped me a lot. The more I push myself to use my Spanish, the better I become at retaining information for my classes. My language skills have only refined since I’ve been here in Peru, and that is thanks to a few instances of allowing myself to move out of my comfort zone.
There you have it! Studying college-level ideas in a foreign language is quite difficult, but if you push yourself, it’s not impossible. Having a successful semester abroad is a combination of simple study skills and language learning techniques. Even though it seems daunting, studying in a foreign language is very rewarding. Remember, if you’re brave enough to study in a foreign country for six months, you are completely capable of studying in a foreign language.