Advice for Navigating a Language Barrier while Studying Abroad

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A language barrier, in general terms, is any kind of barrier that makes communication difficult between people. I believe that it is fair to say that every student who studies abroad will most likely face some degree of a language barrier, and it often presents itself differently to each student.

Some students decide to study abroad in a country where they don’t know a single word of the language spoken. Some decide to travel to a country to improve a language they have been studying and wish to reach proficiency. Some decide to go to a country where they are completely fluent!

Regardless of your comfortability with the language of your study abroad location, every place has its own dialect, unique expressions, seemingly nonsensical idioms, and so on, so do not be surprised if you find yourself in a situation where you struggle to communicate. Sometimes being in a place where you do not natively speak the language can be extremely overwhelming, but my biggest piece of advice to you is this: if you are facing a language barrier, is that it is okay to mess up and make mistakes. In my personal experience, most people will be very patient with you and simply want to help you become more comfortable with their language.  

My Experience with a Language Barrier:

I have been living and studying abroad in Russia for close to two and a half months and my personal experience with the Russian language has been very interesting. I have been exposed to the Russian language from a young age, as my father was born in Kiev, Ukraine, but when I arrived in St. Petersburg I was by no means close fluent.

My biggest goal with coming to Russia was to become more comfortable with Russian and be able to speak more proficiently. Living here has been wonderful, but also quite frustrating. Prior to coming to Russia, a majority of my vocabulary was similar to that of a child and being here has made me feel like I am learning how to speak again. I am capable of understanding people when they speak to me, I know how to read and write, but it is as if my tongue has completely forgotten how to communicate with my brain, making my tongue extremely clumsy.

With time, I have become more comfortable with my Russian. On some of my more frustrating days, I remind myself of a few things that have proven to be quite helpful.

Here’s my advice for becoming comfortable with a language barrier while studying abroad:

1. Forget about being perfect.

One of the biggest things I have to remind myself of is that no one expects me to be perfect when I am speaking Russian! Most people don’t even speak their native language “perfectly” and without error. The only person holding this expectation over me is myself.

A thought I often tell myself is that I should be perfect in Russian already, but I’m simply not, and I have to keep reminding myself that it is okay. My host mom often tells me that it’s okay to take my time to explain myself — particularly when I start apologizing for, what I feel like is, my awkward Russian language skills.

2. Remember that having an accent is a sign of bravery.

Another thing I often struggle with is my accent. Sometimes people tell me that I speak very well, but other times I stutter in Russian and am very aware of my accent — especially when I am nervous.

What helps me through the times where I feel like I will never properly speak Russian is something one of my professors told me back at home. She was Brazilian and spoke English with a fairly strong accent. She told us at the beginning of the semester that she always views speaking another language with an accent is a sign of courage and bravery. So, I want to tell you that it is okay to not sound like a native speaker. If anything, it shows native speakers just how much effort you have put into learning their language!

3. Set reasonable goals for yourself.

When learning a new language, it is the small victories that are often the best. One thing I like doing is setting small daily or weekly goals for myself!

For example, earlier in the semester I was struggling to remember the difference between temporal conjunctions (connecting words and phrases that are related to time, such as before, afterwards, during, etc.) and wanted to work on memorizing them. One night I decided to start writing in a journal where I would write about my day (of course, only in Russian!) and would make myself focus on using as many temporal conjunctions as possible.

Naturally, I still make some mistakes with these conjunctions, but doing this small task every night has helped me greatly! One week, I decided I would review how to say words in my apartment by stopping and making myself recall the Russian word every time I saw an object! These goals can be as simple as trying to ask at least one question a day with each of the primary question words in the language you’re practicing, or watching a new movie every week and trying to understand as much as you can!

4. Be creative and don’t rely on Google Translate.

Online translational tools like Google Translate can be extremely helpful in quickly accessing new words, but it is important to not become dependent on them. When you want to speak to someone in a normal conversation abroad, whipping out your phone and reading word-for-word can takes a lot of time, and often you don’t absorb what you are saying. It is best to rely on the words and grammar you are comfortable with and only use Google Translate when you absolutely need it.

5. Expose yourself!

By traveling with other Americans, you always have a safety net of comfortability with speaking English. But, if your goal is to really learn a new language, one of the best things to do is make yourself hear, read, and speak your target language as much as possible.

One thing I like to do every morning on my commute to the university from my homestay is to use an app called LingQ. It gives me daily readings in Russian and will provide me with definitions of words that I do not know. My commute to the university usually takes me 25-30 minutes. Logging into LingQ during this time helps turn a commute that I would have otherwise wasted on my phone into productive exposure time.

There are countless ways to help expose yourself to your target language:

  • Listen to music in your target language
  • Interact with international students
  • Use mobile apps on your phone like LingQ, HelloTalk, etc.
  • Watch TV, cartoons, films in your target language
  • Find a conversation partner
  • Live in a homestay
  • Read books in your target language

6. Prepare elevator speeches.

If you are new to the language or are nervous to talk to others, try preparing some elevator speeches for yourself. These can be very useful in helping you speak on a lot of different topics and can vary in length!

One of the most useful elevator speeches I can think of is introducing yourself.

“Hey! My name is Dmitry Tereshenko. I am an international student. My major in university is Linguistics. I enjoy reading, drinking coffee, and traveling to new places!”

You can use these “ready-to-go” speeches to practice ordering food, explaining your interests, talking about family, etc. These are useful because they help get you comfortable with expressing yourself, with pronunciation, and help you absorb grammar by practicing speaking.

TThis post was contributed by Dmitry Tereshenko, a student from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte who is spending his spring semester studying abroad with AIFS in St. Petersburg, Russia.

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