How to Learn a New Language Abroad

Posted on the 5th August 2020

One of the most delightful perks to travelling to and living in another country, is learning a new language. After all, it allows you to connect with new people in a meaningful way, in a way you couldn’t before. Evert recently returned from volunteering in Argentina and became proficient in Spanish through his experience. He wrote us to share his tips for success.


By Evert Lindquist, Lattitude Argentina Alumnus

One of the challenges volunteers face while volunteering in a country like Argentina is the language barrier. The thought of having to speak Spanish, Polish, Japanese, or other tongues in various situations can be intimidating. That being said, a wonderful opportunity to explore the land and culture of a new country should not be rejected simply because you do not speak the native language.

Take me for example: I went as far to prepare myself as taking a beginner-level Spanish course in my last year of high school, listening to Spanish music, and practicing regularly on Duolingo. Regardless of how much I tried prior to my fall 2019 placement in Neuquén, Argentina, I still struggled immensely with Spanish upon my first months of volunteering.

But now, having returned home, I am a confident Spanish speaker who has also picked up German and a bit of Vietnamese in the last four-and-a-half months. How am I able to tackle new languages quickly and effectively? That is precisely what I want to share with you.

Method 1 – Listen to the Locals

Even before you are able to have a real conversation in your target language, it can be incredibly helpful to just listen to the native speakers conversing around you. One can easily get caught up in learning cliché and formal speech from language apps and textbooks; in contrast, getting accustomed to the tones, mannerisms, and terms of speech other people use will prepare you for real conversations and guide you towards sounding more like a local.

It is natural for us as native English speakers to want to speak another language exactly how we would speak our own. That being said, it can often sound strange to other people when we try to translate ourselves word-for-word. When I was first in Argentina, I would always respond to the server’s “would you like anything else?” with “Estoy bien, gracias” (I’m fine, thanks); however, this is not actually a valid answer, with the correct response being “Estoy contento/lleno” (I’m content/full).

Avoid thinking about how your target language makes sense in English logically and structurally; this is where people often grow confused. For instance, “Qué onda?” is an Argentinian colloquialism that literally translates to “What vibe/wave?” but is really the equivalent to “What’s up?”

Method 2 – Use the Language for Something You Are Passionate About

Key to staying motivated while learning a new language is giving yourself a motive or end goal: Mark Zuckerberg learned Mandarin to talk to his wife’s Chinese family; hyperpolyglot Tim Doner taught himself Hebrew and Arabic to learn about Judaism and the history of the Middle East; and some learn Japanese to watch their favourite anime without subtitles.

Regardless of what you choose, it is vital to not let yourself grow bored with learning a language. It can even be as simple as picking a theme or subject for which you learn new vocabulary.

For me personally, cooking and baking became a popular activity during my free time in Argentina, thus I grew accustomed to knowing all my ingredients, appliances, and such in Spanish. Another volunteer staying with us from New Zealand tried watching her favourite show Friends with Spanish subtitles.

Whatever you need to do in order to give your target language some colour, it will make the overall experience so much more enjoyable.

Method 3 – Try Not to Overthink It

Although it might be stressful for some, please do not worry too much about getting the hang of your target language. If there is one thing I can guarantee, it is that no one ever came back from a foreign country without learning at least some of the native language, even if that means just a handful of words. The more time you devote to immersing yourself in the culture, trying new food, visiting different places, and meeting people, the quicker and more naturally the language will come to you.

I received free Spanish classes while volunteering and spent countless hours writing things down on whiteboards, rehearsing new phrases, and studying complex grammar. But, mark my words, I always picked up Spanish the quickest from the real conversations I had with friends and native Argentines while having fun. Being able to make mistakes around those who knew the language best allowed me to improve faster than I ever could on my own and return to Canada sounding like a real native speaker.

Try not to imagine learning a new language as a chore, but rather as a new window from which you can experience a different part of the world and a different way of life. ¡Nos vemos!

Volunteer As A Language Coach

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