Language barrier

The year abroad: dealing with the language barrier

You may have been studying languages for years, but your first real test begins the moment you’ve booked your tickets for your year abroad. Forget agreement rules and the subjunctive – living abroad will present a whole new set of challenges that you would have never come across in the classroom.

Whether you’ve picked up a new language recently or have been learning one since high school, the early stages of a year abroad are tough. Don’t be disheartened if you find yourself lost for words or someone asks you to repeat something with a bewildered expression. Language learning is an ongoing process, even for our own mother tongue. Whilst frustrating at first, stick at it and you will start to see considerable improvement.


Although tempting at first, try to avoid resorting to English at all costs. The moment you give in it can easily become a habit – you don’t want to be labelled as a tourist after all. Communicating in the native language of your host country is the key to integrating and making the most of your time abroad. You will find yourself gesticulating and coming out with some ridiculous phrases, but that is all part of the year abroad adventure.

Top tips for hurdling the language barrier:

  • Don’t carry a dictionary around with you: If you fish out your dictionary every two minutes to look up words, you will break up the flow of conversation and people will lose patience. If you have no idea what something means, ask for an explanation – you will be surprised how keen people are to help foreigners learning their mother tongue.
  • Imagine you are playing Taboo or Charades: If you can’t find the word you are looking for, describe what you mean. Throw in some hand gestures and what you’re attempting to say will instantly become more understandable. You may feel a little silly at first, but you may actually fit in better – many Europeans are known for talking with their hands for instance.
  • Carry a phrase book: If you overhear an interesting word or expression, note it down and look it up when you get a chance. This is the best way to sounding more like a native speaker.
  • Befriend native speakers: Rather self-explanatory really. Having international friends is part of the year abroad experience, but make sure you find yourself out some locals too. They’ll be able to answer all your burning vocabulary and grammar questions – though don’t treat them as your teacher!

So forget you’re a foreigner living abroad and take the plunge – you’ll feel like a local before you know it.

Do you have any more tips on how to deal with the language barrier? Let us know in the comments below.

Photo: woodleywonderworks / Flickr

French and History graduate, born and bred Londoner and wannabe Parisian. Studying a MA in journalism next year and hoping to move back to France at some point in the future!

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