Language Learning: How to Improve Social Language Skills while Studying Abroad

social language learning during study abroad dining with friends

Social language skills are the most fun to build and form the backbone of further development.

Language learning is one of the most commonly cited studying abroad benefits. You’ll see it program descriptions and student resumes. But what makes studying abroad so much better for language learning? Immersion and regular practice in a variety of social language situations.

Social language skills, or “Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills” (BICS) are the first step in building fluency in a new language. Of course, you have to be studying in a country with a different native language to gain any benefit, but that goes without saying. Choosing to study abroad in a country with the same native language is weakness. (Although I reserve pity for those of you whose schools offer nothing else).

You don’t need to be fluent – or have any ability whatsoever – to study abroad in a country with a different language. You can find universities that teach their courses in English in France, Germany, The Netherlands, Japan, Taiwan, and many other countries! Take your content courses in English and practice language learning outside of class.

Starting with Social Language Learning

Even if you have language learning experience, starting with social language ability will help you master complex skills more quickly. Mastering Basis Interpersonal Communication Skills will help you feel more at home in your new environment and make conversations easier in a variety of situations.

I’ve met advanced language learners whose experience was only in a classroom and it always shows. A person with lower fluency but better social language ability will come across as more fluent, which will open more doors. Even something as simple as mastering daily greetings with native inflection will help.

Social language learning is the first step toward mastery as well as a lasting drive to learn. We use social language skills in emotionally significant environments, like pursuing our hobbies in a student club or even on a date. That emotional connection makes it easier to remember and build upon. Each time we return to the same activity with more experience, we can build on the previous experience with new grammar and vocabulary.

Social Language Learning: What to Look for in Your Study Abroad Program

The most important characteristic is location! Your study abroad program should never be in a country with the same native language as yours. Sorry, Americans, but “British English” is no a viable second language.

Next most important is interaction opportunities. The more chances you have to interact with other students and the community in social situations, the better language learning experience you will gain. Look for:

1. On-Campus, Shared Housing with Local Students

social language learning through living with students from other countries

Living with a roommate with a different native language is having 24-hour access to social language learning.

Shared housing with someone from another culture is a 24-hour language learning lab. Living together calls for constant interaction in social situations. Plus, you’ll be able to introduce each other to your friends for even more opportunities.

Your roommate can help you master local greetings and introductions. Even if you have language learning experience, you might find that the textbook differs from real life. Your roommate will teach you to sound and feel more natural in conversations. She or he is also someone you can ask for explanations. If you run in to a social situation where the language goes over your head, ask your roommate later to find out what was going on. Next time, you’ll be able to keep up and push your language learning to another language.

Spend time with a group of your roommate’s friends to learn how they talk amongst themselves. It’s almost inevitable that we speak more slowly and simply to second-language speakers than we do among our friends. You can pick up a lot from listening to peers interact in their native language. If you can learn to keep up with them in conversation, you will have the backbone of language skills you need for mastery.

2. Language Conversation Partner Program

Language conversation partner programs are designed to help improve social language skills. Meeting with the same person on a regular basis gives you a chance to talk about your recent activities and to challenge yourself to use new language each time.

Throughout your year or semester abroad, you’ll consistently push and get better. Plus, the connection you make during the program could lead to a lasting friendship that will give you even more chances to converse in your new language.

Another, unique, benefit of language conversation partner programs is what you learn from teaching your language. Listen to the questions your partner asks about English. Take note of any peculiar phrases or idioms she or he uses. These are hints about how people speak in that language, and they are things you can use.

3. Homestay Programs

A homestay, like having a local roommate, is a 24-hour language lab. But with a homestay, you’ll be exposed to more variety of language. You’ll learn how families communicate internally. The home is where people are most relaxed, so you can learn to speak as they do at their most comfortable.

Casual speech may be unlike the formal, grammatical language you learn in class. It is how people truly communicate in social situations. It may be harder to understand for all that, though. Think about your own family. We tend to leave out parts of sentences if we think the other person will understand. Learning what to leave out, and how to understand the unspoken, is a key part of language learning mastery. You’ll probably find the same elisions in more formal settings, too, and your homestay experience will help you better understand them.

If you’re still at a basic language learning level, don’t be dismayed. In my experience, a homestay means lots of new introductions. It’s a great chance to practice your self-introduction until you can repeat it flawlessly. You’ll also be able to pick up new words and greetings from the people you meet and add them to your growing social language ability.

Taking Action for Social Language Learning

You are much more likely to learn and retain new language if you use it for a specific purpose. Language that helps you get what you want will stick in your head faster. So take every opportunity you have to get involved in something that interests you.

4. Join a Student Club

language learning improves on teams and clubs because of emotional significance

In a club or sports team, your need to improve language skills to keep up with the team will increase your learning speed.

According to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, social language skills come easier if you have a reason to communicate.

That’s a fancy way of saying you learn language better when you’re doing something you enjoy. When you join a club or sports team, you’ll need new language to communicate with other members, and that will drive you to learn faster. Learning while doing will also help you understand new terms quickly as you can match them to actions. If you’re already familiar with the activity from your home country, you’ll learn even faster.

Clubs and teams are also great ways to get involved in the social scene. They are opportunities to build one-to-one friendships or participate in group parties and trips. Most of my international students report that they made more local friends through clubs than anything else. Whether they joined the tennis team (and went hiking together) or the Tea Ceremony club (and participated in ceremonies with the local community), clubs opened doors to social activity.

5. Take a Language Course

OK, so maybe this isn’t as much fun as a club, but it provides a key anchor for language learning.

Your social encounters will help you build your language learning mastery. Regular class meetings reinforce that learning by helping you understand the structure behind your interactions, and giving you a safe place to ask questions and make mistakes. For some students, experience may not be enough to improve their language learning, they need deliberate instruction, as well.

In either case, in-class and extra-curricular language learning feed off one another. Your social interactions give you motivation to learn more. The classroom gives you the foundation to support your language learning and development.

6. Get Involved in the Community

social language learning during community service

Community interaction is a great way to practice social conversation and gain exposure to more ways of speaking.

Community interaction and service learning are opportunities to practice social language skills with people who are less likely to speak your language. At the same time, the nature of community events is open and welcoming, so people will be tolerant of mistakes and difficulties. The community members who come to these activities want to communicate with you.

Participating in multiple events throughout the year will help you push yourself as your language learning continues. Your first self-introduction may be basic. But, by the end of the year or semester, you’ll be much more comfortable and fluent. Each interaction is a chance to practice and try to add new words and phrases to your repertoire.

Plus, one of my personal favorite parts of community interaction: you get to learn the local dialect. Mastering just a few words in the dialect will help you appear far more fluent than you actually are.

I had next to no language ability before I studied abroad in Japan. I lived in Shiga prefecture, in the Kansai region, which is known for having a different dialect from standard Japanese. But I didn’t know that. I learned to speak, and to inflect, from my host families and classmates throughout the year. Then, I went to Tokyo on a trip.

When I got to Tokyo, unbeknownst to me, I spoke with a Kansai accent. Immediately, that meant that locals understood I had experience living in Japan. Of course, they laughed at the accent, but they took me more seriously than they would have if I had spoken textbook Japanese.

How to Leverage Social Language Learning Benefits of Study Abroad

Social language learning is the gateway to advanced language skills for research and business. It helps reinforce grammar and speech patterns plus teaches you to be more comfortable interacting in the language. Finally, social language skills are what you need to maintain long-term relationships with your study abroad network.

social language learning can be the background that lands you a better job

Language skills open up more exciting job opportunities

Your language skills will open gateways to new job opportunities. According to an EU study, as many as 20-25% of hiring descriptions call for foreign language skills. That percentage increases among jobs that require more education (read: offer more pay). Social language skills alone may not get you the job, but being comfortable with social language will certainly help you in the interview and in using your skills after you’re hired.

Even if you don’t plan to use foreign language for work, you can see lifelong benefits from learning additional languages. improves your memory, creativity, and problem-solving skills. Plus, it helps you become more outgoing and social and makes you a better traveler.

I don’t know about you, but that’s reason enough for me.

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