How to communicate while studying abroad

by Ashley Williams


A pang of panic swept through me as the foreign exchange student I was hosting looked at me with a blank expression and a shake of the head after I asked for the car keys.

“I don’t know. Wait, the what?” she asked. I repeated my question a few times in English and resorted to my limited Spanish, hoping she would understand. Comprehension overcame her and she shouted, “Ah, the car keys! Your American accent is too good. I didn’t understand.” Turns out she had the keys and we were able to get home from the beach without borrowing a metal detector to track them down.

When you relocate to a new country where people speak a language you aren’t accustomed to, problems are sure to arise. You may have read your phrase book cover to cover and spent hours flipping through flashcards, but something as simple as not understanding an accent can throw off comprehension.

The trick is to not get embarrassed. We had a good laugh at the situation and it was the running joke for the remainder of her stay. If you take yourself too seriously, you will be afraid to practice speaking the language. Mistakes are expected and when people laugh, more than likely, don’t think you are stupid. Just go with it.

A good way to prepare is to immerse yourself in the country’s media before your visit. Movies, TV shows, newscasts, music and articles in your destination’s language are valuable resources. Not only do they allow you to learn the words, but you can also familiarize yourself with the way the language is used. After years of watching American TV shows with her sisters, my ex- change student knows far more about ‘The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl” than I do.

Before leaving for your trip, be aware of vocabulary differences between countries that theoretically speak the same language. Between the one Spanish student and the two Australian students I hosted throughout the years, I learned language is incredibly geographically specific. These differences generally don’t significantly interfere with communication, but they can cause minor confusion.

I recommend searching online for words and phrases with various meanings between regions. Most important ones to note are the terms that are innocent in one area and mean something offensive in another area. This can be especially pertinent when traveling between Spanish speaking countries, as there are so many with much variety.

Be prepared for differences even if you are going to an English-speaking country. If you are in Australia and someone calls you a “fair dinkum cobber,” you might not know whether you are being insulted or complimented. In reality, this is part of the fun. Some of the best conver- sations you will have while traipsingthrough foreign countries will be about words and phrases you don’t understand.

Probably the best way to enhance your skill in a language is to speak it conversationally. If you aren’t confident in your abilities, try find- ing someone to practice with before you leave.

The International Student Center on campus is a good place to look. On Fridays, its students host an international Coffee Hour, focusing on a different country or culture each week. This provides a unique opportunity to expose yourself to different cultures (and, the best motivator for college students, free food). You might even make a friend who can help you learn his or her language in exchange for help with English.

Another SDSU resource is the Language Acquisition Resource Center. The LARC provides a variety of services and can be helpful for people looking to learn other languages. Whatever you do, don’t expect to get by solely on English while abroad. People tend to be more welcoming when you try to communicate in their own language, providing excellent opportunities for you to learn.

The language of a nation is a large part of its culture. The more you understand and are able to use the language, the more enriching your trip will be.