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5 tips on how to adjust to the language barrier while abroad

Studying abroad often comes with learning a new language. Some may go into it knowing more of the language than others, but there are still plenty of frustrations. I am currently studying abroad in Costa Rica learning Spanish, and even with my intermediate level knowledge of the language and previous study abroad experience, I still have a hard time adjusting to the barrier. I don’t always understand what’s being said to me or how to communicate something to Spanish speakers around me. Since I’ve been here, I have tried to follow these five tips:

1. Relax/don’t stress out too much

Now, I know this is a lot easier said than done and is something I am still working on myself. But I believe it is very important when trying to learn a new language, let alone using it to communicate with others who may not speak your native tongue. For me, it is easy to shut down and not want to tackle a challenge that stresses me out. The first time I was abroad and living with a host family a few years ago was in Ecuador. I knew less Spanish than I do now and was anxious to communicate with them. As a result, I didn’t spend as much time with them practicing my speaking as I would’ve liked. In my current study abroad program, so far I’ve tried to relax a bit more. You won’t become fluent right away and that’s ok. Relaxing could be taking deep breaths or maybe even spending a certain amount of time to yourself to recharge before speaking the language you’re learning again.

2. Have a translation app or language dictionary on hand

Even for someone who knows a decent amount of the language of their host country, I don’t think you can ever go wrong with this tip. For me, my Spanish vocabulary is somewhat extensive but I still find myself always learning new words and how to use them. It can also help when you are trying to communicate with your host family or the locals of your host country. If you just can’t think of how to say something, having either a translation app or language dictionary on hand can be a huge help and a stress reliever. But, I wouldn’t recommend running automatically to these resources if you want to know how to say something. You may miss out on opportunities to stretch your knowledge or challenge yourself to figure out what you want to say. I know what helps me when talking to my host family or Spanish speakers in general is trying to use other words in Spanish that I already know to describe what I want to say. You’re practicing the language in the process of trying to communicate a specific idea.

Spanish Dict is one of my go-to translation/dictionary apps for Spanish
Spanish Dict is one of my go-to translation/dictionary apps for Spanish

3. Speak the language as much as you can

As intimidating as this may sound, speaking is essential to adjusting to a language barrier. What other way will you learn unless you practice? Throughout my Spanish fluency journey, I have taken many Spanish classes. In these classes, I have had to practice more reading and writing than speaking. This is one of the reasons why I can read and write Spanish better than I can speak it. Being immersed in a country where they speak the language you want to learn forces you to speak it as well and communicating with others will improve. When I went to Ecuador, it was really hard for me to comprehend and speak to the people I met while I was there. While my speaking still isn’t the best, I have noticed a huge difference three years later in Costa Rica. It is easier for me to understand and communicate with the Spanish speakers here because I have taken several courses taught in Spanish over the last few years. I’ve also had multiple interactions with Spanish speakers at the jobs I’ve had or even just where I live despite not speaking it that often. 

4. Watch/read things in your host country’s language

This is something that can be entertaining as well as educational. Learning a language comes with different components, such as listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Watching a TV program in your host country’s language or even the news can help with comprehension. Since I’ve been in Costa Rica, I’ve watched a few telenovelas (soap operas) and movies in Spanish. It’s been a way for me to learn new words and spend time with my host family at the same time. If you are just starting out learning a language, I would recommend watching with English subtitles first, then gradually move to subtitles in the language spoken in the TV program. At some point you’ll be able to watch without any subtitles at all. I have tried this process and the level I’m at now, I prefer to watch with Spanish subtitles. But, trust me when I say this will help with comprehension. 

Watching TV in Spanish with my host family
Watching TV in Spanish with my host family

5. Know it’s ok to ask questions and for help

You’re adjusting to a new language and culture so it’s ok to feel like you don’t know everything. If you’re like me, you like to have everything figured out. It can be easy for me to feel like I need to know every single thing there is to know about Spanish to have the best experience while I’m abroad. In reality, studying abroad is a learning experience in itself. Asking questions or for help is part of that learning experience and is completely ok. You won’t get reprimanded for wanting to learn more. Take everything one step at a time and you’ll feel more comfortable being surrounded by your host country’s language in no time.

Thanks for following along with my study abroad experience so far! I’m excited to continue sharing with you all. 

Read about a different point of view on this same topic in another blog post below!


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