How to Improve Communication Skills during Study Abroad

Learn how to improve communication skills during study abroad and reap the benefits for life

It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are if you can’t communicate your ideas effectively.

School will not teach you how to improve communication skills. It’s up to you to take action and practice. Fortunately, study abroad is one of the best opportunities to become a better communicator.

The most important step to improve communication skills has nothing to do with talking. It’s all in awareness and understanding of others,according to business magazine Forbes. Studying abroad will give you focused practice in understanding people from completely different language and cultural backgrounds. When you learn to understand them, you can apply your skills at home for lifelong benefits, too.

Communication skills will help you secure an interview, get a job, and advance in your career, according to personal coaches. The benefits go beyond your career, as well. Improving communication skills will help you in social situations and strengthen your personal relationships.

What We Mean By Communication Skills

Some of the best communicators I know are those that talk the least. Communication skills does not mean the “gift of gab” or dominating a conversation. Quite the opposite.

The most important communication skills to improve are listening and understanding the person you’re talking to.

Have you ever heard someone complain that people just “don’t get it”? The scholarship panel “doesn’t get” how brilliant your research topic is. Your potential customer “doesn’t get” how your product is so much better than your competition’s. The public “doesn’t get” the meaning of your art.

These are all excuses of poor communicators. People who never took the time to understand who they were talking to or to improve communication skills.

Perhaps the best manual I’ve ever seen on how to improve communication skills is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The whole book is a series of communication tips and stories showing how they were applied for profit. Almost all of them are about understanding, not talking. I highly recommend picking up this book before studying abroad. (Or during, or after. Any time! It’s easily one of the most valuable books I’ve ever read.)

Study Abroad to Improve Communication Skills

You can improve communication skills anywhere, with a little effort. But studying abroad is a more effective laboratory to practice.

You’ll be surrounded be people from other cultures and language backgrounds and learn to understand the way they think. You’ll be exposed to different beliefs, upbringings, and priorities. In short, you’ll have to communicate with people more different from you than anyone you’ve met before.

When you practice developing that keen awareness and understanding with people from a completely different background, doing the same in your home country will be less of a challenge. Study abroad is a benefit multiplier for improving communication skills.

To Improve Communication Skills During Study Abroad: Select the Right Program

The best way to improve communication skills during study abroad is exposure to a variety of ways of thinking and opportunities to practice. Your study abroad program can set you up for success, or for unnecessary challenges.

For the best outcome, look for a program that offers the opportunities below:

1. Local Community Interaction

How to improve communication skills during study abroad interact with local community

Community service and community interaction are opportunities to practice communicating with a diverse slice of the population.

One of the best ways to expose yourself to different ways of thinking is to get into the community. Exposure to local culture, especially if you’re in a rural area, gives a stronger contrast and forces you to understand a different way of thinking.

When you’re surrounded by the university or study abroad program students, even if they’re from other countries, you’ll have some things in common. You’re all students. You’re all interested in international studies. You probably have similar academic backgrounds. You’re all worried about grades and finding a job after graduation.

But that’s not the case off-campus. In the community, you’ll meet people focused on bare economic needs, like food and shelter. Or people who are focused passionately on their trade. When you interact, listen to the language they use. Are they optimistic or pessimistic? Religious? What does their conversation return to: family? politics? money? Pay attention to learn where their values lie.

Later, write down your memories of your conversations in a journal. What stood out or seemed strange to you? Reflect on the difference between how the community speaks and how you’re used to speaking and look for trends over time.

This practice will help you build the keen awareness and understanding necessary to communicate your ideas in a way they will be received.

You’re not only going to learn about how to communicate with your community. You’ll build repeatable communication skills that you can use with anyone from another background in the future.

2. Campus Events for International and Local Students

Take any opportunity to break out of your social circle and meet new students and practice communication skills. On campus events are a great way to meet students from the local country and international students from other countries. The more diverse a group of people you communicate with, the more flexible your communication skills will become!

Cultural Events and Trips

Improve communication skills during study abroad by listening and asking questions on tours

When you travel, pay attention to how local and international students interact with your destinations and the language they use to describe them.

Cultural events, like festivals or performances, or school trips are great ways to build understanding. Try to stay close to local students. Ask them questions about the meaning of the event or location. If you’re at a festival, performance, or holiday party, try to find out how they celebrated with their family in the past.

The way they answer will tell you how they react to their own culture. Pay attention to see if they’re proud, modest, or embarrassed. Modesty is probably masked pride. Respond with praise, just as you would for pride, and see how they react.

If you’re on a trip and you haven’t managed to stick with one local student guide, pay attention to multiple groups. Observe how the international student groups react to the environment and the locals. See if there’s a difference in the mixed groups. You don’t need to stand there with a clipboard and take notes. Just pay attention out of the corner of your eye. Then reflect later in a journal or blog. Over time, that’s enough.

Campus Gatherings

Some schools and programs will offer international coffee hours or “brown bag” discussion lunches. These are great opportunities to practice and improve communication skills. Student and faculty attendees come to these events because they want to talk and make connections, so you don’t need to hesitate to talk to someone new. And since most people enjoy talking about themselves best, it’s a great time to ask questions and observe the responses.

The more people you can listen to and try to understand, the better your communication skills will become. Don’t just think about what you want to say next, but really listen to their words and the subtext. Try to pick out the themes and priorities then use those same themes to respond when it’s your turn to speak.

3. Small Class Sizes

how to improve communication skills during study abroad groupwork in small classes

Small class sizes increase interaction and communication opportunities and give you more chances to understand the people around you.

Smaller classes mean more interaction and opportunities to improve communication skills.

In a large lecture hall, you’re only task is to memorize and prepare for an exam. Small classes, however, focus on student interaction and participation. You’ll have more group work, direct interaction with the professor, and opportunities to express your ideas.

You will have to express your own thoughts and ideas in a small class, so it isn’t all listening and observation. But you do not need to go first. Listen for the professor’s perspective and subtext, then observe your classmate’s responses. Identify the points they make and where they are emotionally invested. If a response surprises you, take the time to understand where it came from. Try to develop understanding and awareness of those around you.

Then, when you do offer your input, you can test your communication skills. Your goal shouldn’t be to kill the discussion with a “win,” but rather to elicit further conversation and input. When you encourage others’ input, they will see you as a better communicator and will be drawn to you. As I mentioned at the top, some of the greatest communicators are those who say the least.

It’s fine to make mistakes at first. If everyone grasped how to improve communication skills right away, there’d be no need for countless books and studies on the subject! Reflect on the responses you get and try again. Over time, you will improve your communication skills to the point where you can encourage others to reach your conclusions without your having to tell them. But it all starts with listening and understanding.

4. Shared Classes with Local Students

There’s an important difference between shared classes and classes for international students: The instructor’s focus. In a class with only international students, the instructor should pitch their language at you. You’ll have little difficulty understanding the content or intent of the class, because it’s designed for an international audience. In terms of practicing communication skills, it’s little better than being at home.

In a shared class, like it or not, the instructor’s primary concern is going to be with the local students. This is an excellent opportunity to improve communication skills. Presentation of material will be based on the local society’s expectations. Maybe you’re used to detailed explanations, but the professor only cares about memorizing facts. That can teach you about authority in communication. In that culture, those with power expect underlings to take their statements at face value. If you want to sound like an expert there, you’ll have to communicate in a similar way.

Observe the way that local students interact with faculty members and compare it to how international students interact. Does it change based on the instructor’s nationality? These are all clues that can help you build your understanding and force you to think differently about communication.

These combined classes can be especially valuable if they’re taught in English in a non-English speaking country. Usually, that means the class will be dumbed down a little bit. Assignments will be less challenging, so you have more time to focus on the communication styles. You’ll also get the chance to practice communicating in basic English to an audience with less comprehension. That’s a skill that can come in handy even in English-speaking countries when communicating across industries or interests.

Learning to get your ideas across in the simplest way possible is an essential communication skill.

5. Language Conversation Partner Program

How to improve communication skills during study abroad: Join a language conversation partner program

Joining a language conversation partner program is a great way to practice understanding and communicating

Through teaching your language and learning another, you’ll be forced to think about how you communicate. A language conversation partner program is a great way to focus on understanding and building communication skills.

When you learn to speak in another language, you’ll pick up the grammar rules and ways of phrasing ideas. These might be different from what you’re used to and force you to think in new ways. For example, in Japanese, the verb comes after the subject and object, and the negative comes last, so you never know the meaning of the sentence until the very end.

Consider, as you learn, that native speakers – native thinkers – always think that way. That could help you understand them, improve your listening skill and become a better communicator.

Through language partner programs, you’ll also be teaching your language to someone with a lower ability level. You’ll have to make yourself understood using simpler terms and grammar. You may even struggle to explain an idiom or grammar point that has no equivalent in your partner’s language. That’s perfect!

When you understand your partner’s way of thinking and values and can illustrate a point in a way that makes sense to them, you’ll have achieved a new level in communication skills.

Taking Action to Improve Communication Skills During Study Abroad

The number one action to take is to get out into social groups and be an active listener.

I’ve highlighted above several opportunities that your university or program can offer to help you, but any situation works. You can practice in International Student Orientation, hanging out with friends in the cafe, or even talking to the study abroad office about mailing your transcript home. Listen deliberately, identify the other person’s priorities, and phrase yourself in a way that makes sense to them.

Before we close, though, here’s one more of the best (and most fun) opportunities to get involved and practice communication:

6. Join a Club or Student Government

Join a team or club to improve communication skills during study abroad

Joining a team, club, or student government is a fun way to practice communicating with students from other backgrounds

Clubs and student government are ways to work with the same group of students throughout the semester to achieve a common goal. Whether it’s getting better at tennis, or putting on an annual festival, you’ll be talking about the same topic that interests all of you.

When you work together toward a goal, you’ll have a better perspective in other member’s individual priorities. Who is focused, and who is there just for fun? Reflect on the way both types of students speak or react to ideas to understand them better.

As a new member of a club or student government, you’ll probably have the benefit of indoctrination, as well. One of the senior students should explain to you the group’s priorities and your role. If nobody does, then ask. Tell them you want to make sure you understand how things work here, as opposed to at home. This is one of your few opportunities for an explicit explanation of priorities and ways of thinking that will help you better understand your host culture as a whole.

Communication Skills are Essential to Lifelong Success

Improving your communication skills will benefit your personal and professional life.

The Committee for Economic Development identified the top skills needed by their member businesses. Both oral and written communication skills were in the top 6 (along with several other skills you’ll build during study abroad). Written communication skills were also in the top 5 “hard to find” skills among employees in the same survey. So, improving communication skills will help you get hired.

Once you have the job, your communication skills will help you get promoted faster, as well. The cynical adage is, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” That isn’t completely true, but when you can understand your superiors’ needs and priorities and communicate clearly with them – using the skills you built during study abroad – you’ll have more opportunities to make an impression and earn consideration for advancement.

If your goal is to work for yourself, then communication skills become even more important. An entrepreneur who cannot communicate his or her vision or product to a customer will not succeed. Learning to understand and approach people to gently guide them to your point of view is a make or break trait.

Finally, improved communication skills yield benefits within your family. Making deliberate efforts to understand and communicate with spouses and children leads to improved family life. Personally, I use Dale Carngie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People as much as a guide to fatherhood as I do at work.

Studying Abroad is the Best Way How to Improve Communication Skills

Studying abroad forces you to deliberately practice understanding. It challenges you to get away from your way of thinking and consider the other. It surrounds you with people who might communicate differently.

Consider study abroad to be your personal “Communication Skills Retreat.” It’s your chance to break away from the normal, where you coast along with familiar friends and familiar conversations that aren’t going to serve you in the long run. It’s a challenge – and it might be tough at first – but that just adds to your potential growth.

When you learn to understand and communicate with someone from another culture, you’ll have a skill you can apply in any setting, any country, throughout your life.

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