Studying abroad is like no other experience you’ll ever have in your life. It’s like a blend of school and traveling, and if you like both of those things, you’ll like studying abroad. However, just because it’s fun, doesn’t mean that all moments will be happy and amazing. Sometimes it’s hard being in a new country with potentially a new language, new people, new everything. Though my own study abroad experience was not extensive as it could have been (I only studied abroad for a summer for 1.5 months!), here are my top 6 tips for how to prepare for your study abroad trip (well, mostly language and culture wise!):
1 Listen to EVERYTHING
Comprehension precedes production, so listen to music in the target language, listen to videos in the target language, listen to everything in the target language. Even if you still don’t understand what’s being said, it’s likely that you’ll pick up a couple of words and phrases, and you’ll feel at least a little bit more comfortable with not knowing what’s being said once you’re in the country. Just make sure to practice your listening comprehension to prepare yourself for the sudden change of language.
This tip is also dialect/accent specific–though listening to any kind of Spanish will help your comprehension of the language, listening to the specific dialect of where you’re visiting will help you the most because, for example, Argentina, Spain, and the Dominican Republic all have different rhythms, slang, phrases, etc.
Fun fact: Even if I had been studying Spanish for about 4.5 years, when I went to Nicaragua, I had NO idea what anyone was saying, and I got freaked out until the last two days. Somewhere within the last two days, I relaxed and was able to understand. And to this day, I don’t know if it was me freaking out or me just getting used to how Nicaraguans speak Spanish.
2 How would I say that?
This doesn’t take much effort because it’s more like a brain game, which you can do wherever you are. If you say something in your native language or someone says something to you, think about how you would say it in your target language. For example, if I’m having a conversation with a friend and I say “wow, that’s awesome!” I would think to myself after, “okay, how would I say this in Portuguese?” Depending on how advanced you are, these phrases may not be translated word for word, and that’s okay, as long as you get the general meaning over. This is especially useful for phrases that you use a lot.
Overall, this tip is making sure you’re getting used to actively producing the target language so it’ll help with fluency once you’re in the country. Even if you’re not saying it out loud, producing a full phrase or sentence in your head can help when you have to think and use the language on the spot when you’re studying abroad.
3 Research slang (if you can)
Research some commonly used phrases and slang in the language or of the place you’re studying abroad in. If you’ve never traveled outside of the country or never spoken/learned the language of where you’re going, and you’ve taken classes on the language, you’ll quickly realize that real language is not like classroom language. People are using all sorts of slang and phrases you’ve never heard before, and chopping off the ends and beginnings of words–my Portuguese teacher always said that one has to learn a language twice: once in the classroom, and again when you go to the country or speak to someone from that country. It’ll also help your language skills seem a little more relaxed–learning languages in classroom make the learner seem a little bit more formal than normal, so knowing key phrases can help.
4 Research the place you’re going to stay
I feel like preparation for a study abroad trip consists of a lot of research. This time, it’s researching the general area where you’ll be staying. Research the location relative to other parts of the country, research historic monuments or important places, popular beaches or natural parks, museums, anything. These things are reflective of the history, things that tourists like to see in, and sometimes even places where locals go.
If you’re lucky, your program will already have some excursions of famous and well known places planned, but it’s good to know where certain places are if you have some free time and want to go exploring on your own.
Personally, like to research a bit of the history and demographic; when studying abroad in Salvador, Brazil, I learned that Salvador was the first capital of Brazil, and that there was a lot of slave trade that occurred in that area. Because of the slave trade, that city consists of many people that are of African descent. And even though I stood out like a sore thumb, it was really fun for me to be able to experience everything that not only Brazil had to offer, but specifically Salvador, Brazil had to offer. The culture in Salvador is distinct from any other part of Brazil, and it’s because of its history that makes it so culturally distinct.
5 Research foods!
As an offshoot of the previous point, make sure you research food in the area. Depending on where you’re going, some places will have really popular regional foods that you can’t find in other places of the country (or at least, ones as authentic). For example, you can find churrasco (Brazilian BBQ?) anywhere in Brazil, but food items like acarajé and moqueca are special to the region because of the African influence.
If you’re lucky and staying with a host family, there’s a chance that your host family will naturally know how to cook these things and have these recipes. My host mom made me mocqueca de peixe about 2 or 3 times while I was in Brazil! (picture below)
Besides researching specific food items, if you’re a major foodie, you can also try and find certain restaurants you want to try in the area. Food is just as much as the experience as anything else.
6 Prepare to be “outgoing”
The duration of your time studying abroad will be spent experiencing completely new things. Just going abroad is a big step, and depending on how your program is structured, there might be extra excursions or activities. Don’t be afraid to try something new out (I SAMBA’D). Don’t be afraid to participate in classes–you’re there to improve your language or to learn more. Don’t be afraid to talk with locals, which will help improve your language skills–if you want to improve, don’t continue speaking in your native language. It’s even harder if you’re shy, but if you want to push yourself as a language learner and as a person, chase those experiences, and you’ll reap the benefits.
Actually me in Brazil; you can take the girl out of ballet but you can’t take the ballet out of the girl. Plus a little samba at the end!