Succeeding with a Language Barrier

Studying abroad can seem like an intimidating experience: new foods, new cultures, new standards of living, and new languages. The OSU Study Abroad office provides a substantial array of programs and universities spread across the globe that allow students to immerse themselves anywhere from Dijon, France to Bangkok, Thailand, and every place in between. Many students find themselves in English speaking countries, such as the England, Ireland, Scotland, and Australia. Spanish and French speaking students also often find themselves studying abroad in a country where the linguistic barrier is often broken down with useful terms, conversational phrases, and general familiarity with the language. But, one is inclined to ask, what about students who end up in places such as Brno, Czech Republic, Ljubljana, Slovenia, or Ankara, Turkey?

Personal Experience

On August 31st, 2011, at 11:37pm, I set foot in the Chengdu International Airport in Chengdu, Sichuan, China. I was 27 hours without sleep, two of my bags had been lost, and literally the only Chinese I knew was ni hao, or “hello”. As one could imagine, “hello” does a pretty poor job of telling airport security “I’m an American international student here for the first time, and I can’t find my bags. Please help.” With the help of a 22 year old flight attendant who happened to be walking by, I was somehow able to signify my cry for help. Things did not get easier as I spent my first few weeks in a city completely void of English speakers, as most locals had never left the city, much less completed formal training in helping confused American college students shop for groceries, get a cell phone, or travel to various places. For the beginning period, I relied solely on an oversized language dictionary and my now-superb charades abilities to get from A to B. As time went on, however, the crippling fear of stepping outside and communicating turned into a personal quest to challenge myself to improve. No longer would I need to act out that I needed a wallet, or be overcharged for peaches from street vendors. The immersion experience, with help from my new friends, allowed me to quickly overcome any challenges that I could face. By the end, not only was I able to carry on meaningful conversations with whomever crossed my path, but I was also comfortable enough to get on random buses and travel all over the country, seeing new cities, meeting interesting people, and trying incredible foods. That being said, what I had learned was even though I could finally ask what you were eating, I often found myself wishing that I was back in the day when I had no idea. There are only so many things you can order once you find out that everything is made of chicken intestines, cow stomachs, and pig brains. Ultimately, the difficulties that went in challenging myself with such a new and difficult language not only made the entire experience more incredible, but it gave me a great sense of personal pride and accomplishment.

So what should you do if you find yourself moving to another country and don’t speak the country’s language?

My advice is this:

1. Learn A Little Bit Before You Go – Very little is more frustrating the not having your luggage at an airport or not being able to order food day to day. Introducing yourself to a language before not only prevents that initial anxiety to an extent, but it allows you to become more comfortable with learning the language after you arrive. There is nothing like having a head start.

2. Make Friends – The most valuable resource that you will have in your quest to immersion is the people of the host country. Try to find local students who can also speak English to help you with the transition. With them, you can ask questions, listen to daily dialogue, practice your new abilities in a comfortable setting, and learn to speak like a local. Language aside, they also offer new and exciting insights into your host country.

3. Surround Yourself with Locals – Once you have learned a little bit, you are ready to go out into the world. Supermarkets, drug stores, taxis, and banks are all great places to practice your new language abilities. What I have found is that making an attempt to speak a local language is received incredibly positively. Their smiles and thumbs up are great motivation and feedback for the discouraged student who feels like he isn’t making progress. In China, I often found myself at a local tea shop playing cards with old men. Even though communication was still difficult, being around those who can’t speak English forcing yourself to be there will dramatically improve your abilities.

4. Don’t Be Afraid To Make Mistakes – We all hate looking stupid. Learning a language, however, is one place where it is entirely okay. When you start your day, leave the ego at the door and allow yourself to look dumb. I promise it is never as bad as you think. In trying to order chicken fried rice at one restaurant, much to the delight of the shop employees, I found myself trying to order a chicken butt. By bullishly speaking, you will learn to spot your own mistakes and fix them in the future.

5. Have Fun – That is what studying abroad is all about. Do something crazy, go on an adventure, don’t be afraid to say yes to new experiences. Traveling with friends, going to karaoke bars, and taking part in local traditions will be the best part of your experience, and it is complimented by the ability to speak and understand. By allowing yourself to truly experience this new culture, not only will your language abilities improve, but the overall quality and magnitude of the entire experience will be that much better.

If you are on the fence about studying abroad somewhere because of the language barrier, please at least consider my advice. It will be a wonderful, challenging experience that will help build who you are. Don’t let the fear of the unknown hold you back, but rather, allow it to push you forward to new heights. From up there, you just never know what you might see.

By: Collin Nolte


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