6 Ways to Turn Study Abroad into Lifelong Language Learning

Lifelong language learning is a marathon and #studyabroad part of the race.

Language learning is like sports: If you’re not constantly improving, you’re regressing.
And it impresses the opposite sex.

Is studying abroad the goal of your language study, or a stepping stone to lifelong language learning?

As soon as you stop actively learning a thing, you start to forget it. It’s especially true with languages. Yet, many (underfunded) college language programs treat studying abroad as the end goal. Once you come back from study abroad, you’re “finished” and they have nothing left for you.

But your foreign language skill is not something you can brain-dump after the final exam, like freshman chemistry. I’ve spent the last several posts on this blog talking about the benefits of language learning during study abroad. When you come back to your country, you owe it to yourself to pursue lifelong language learning.

Fortunately, you can set yourself up for success during study abroad, with a few easy-to-apply steps.

Before we start, though, let’s be clear. None of us are going to study a language our whole lives just for the joy of studying it. We need another reason. The list below is the six best ways I found to motivate myself through continued language learning.

It’s about finding the intrinsic motivation that works for you.

Factors in Lifelong Language Learning

Personal relevance to lifelong language learning comes from #studyabroad

Your study abroad memories are a personal connection and reason to continue your language study.

The Language Parliament recognizes 7 factors that contribute to lifelong language learning. Four of these – specific to intermediate learning – are directly related to study abroad:

  • Personal Relevance: Your experience using the language while living in country, your friendships with native speakers
  • Learning Environment: Combination of classroom study and extracurricular application, constant exposure
  • Multiple Senses: Constant exposure to the language in print, TV, audio, conversations, etc.
  • Encouragement: Experiencing immediate, practical benefits of improved mastery, see results and progress

In my experience, the most important factors on that list are Personal Relevance and Encouragement. It was the relationships I build during study abroad that motivated me to keep studying Japanese so I could visit my friends again. The sense of accomplishment I felt in going from zero ability to dreaming in Japanese in just a year supplied the encouragement I needed to keep up my studies.

You’ll find your own motivations. But for a start, here are the best ways I have found to get a head start on lifelong language learning during study abroad.

What to Look For in Your Study Abroad Program

Of course, you have to be in a foreign language speaking country! It’s going to be very difficult to find motivation for lifelong learning of German if you’re in the UK.

Beyond the country, the most important factor is you. You need to find your own personal motivation for lifelong language learning. I can’t tell you what it’s going to be. But I can tell you the best ways I know to go looking.

The first thing you’ll want is a program that offers the most opportunities for meaningful interaction.

1. On-Campus Housing with Local Students

live on campus with local students during #studyabroad to motivate yourself for lifelong language learning

Residential campuses, especially with mixed local & international housing, are the best for contributing to lifelong language learning.

This is really two benefits rolled into one.

A local roommate is your first connection to the campus and student life. He or she is someone you can practice speaking with, yes. But the two of you chatting in your room likely isn’t going to be enough. More importantly, your roommate is a source of information about opportunities and activities on campus.

A university that offers on campus housing also usually offers on-campus activities. After all, they don’t want you to hate life there. It’s bad for business. Higher residential rates mean that there are more students around and more things to do. Find out what’s going on (through your roommate or otherwise) and get involved!

Making personal friendships with local students is a great way to inspire lifelong language learning. You might even recruit someone to follow you home on exchange to your university when it’s over. Either way, a deep friendship will motivate both of you to keep up your language skills. The desire to travel to visit one another also gives you a practical reason to keep up lifelong language learning.

2. Arranged Community Interaction Opportunities

Connecting with the local community during #studyabroad gives you a reason to pursue lifelong language learning to return in the future

Get involved in the community – through teaching, service, or social groups – to strengthen your connection and give yourself a reason to keep studying.

Community interaction gives you another chance to make friends, but more importantly, it gets you involved in something meaningful. You might be giving a cultural presentation at a local school, or volunteering at an environmental cleanup. You can experience making a personal, visible contribution to the people around you. In my experience, that is highly motivational. That kind of experience can become addictive.

My students constantly tell me that community interaction events are their favorite part of studying abroad at my university. Most of our activities are cultural exchanges with schools. More than a few departing students have told me that they end up wanting to come back to work as language teachers in the future. That, in turn, is motivation for them to continue lifelong language learning.

Maybe teaching isn’t your thing. It wasn’t for me when I studied abroad in Japan. But I enjoyed interacting with the local community more than I had at home. I felt more comfortable, and liked the way people interacted. That motivated me to keep studying Japanese so that I could come back and live here in the future.

3. University Holds Events for International and Local Students

An active event calendar is the sign of a university that cares about building student community. That’s perfect for your lifelong language learning goals.

Events – whether trips, roundtables, coffee hours, etc. – are opportunities to establish new friendships. If you’re struggling to connect with the local students, then events will help you overcome cultural barriers. The students who come want to interact with international students, so you should have an easier time starting conversations.

Events also tend to bring in participants based on a theme, so you have a common interest and topic to discuss. If it’s a trip, talk about the place you’re going. Maybe you’ll find a traveling buddy for future explorations! If it’s a discussion group, you can find someone who shares your passion for an issue or cause.

Building friendships with a reason to keep communicating after your study abroad ends is a great way to ensure continued motivation to keep up your language studies.

The friends you make at events can help introduce you to other activities on campus, as well.

4. University Buddy Program

Buddy programs are friendship accelerators. You join because you want to meet local students. They join to meet you. It’s a perfect environment for building connections and making the most of your experience – especially if you’re shy.

Buddy programs come in all different varieties. You might have individual pairings, a buddy group that puts on events, or simply an orientation welcome team. If it’s not individual pairing, then you will have to work harder to build an individual connection. Make sure to connect with one or two of the buddies in a group. Try to get a feel for who would share your interests and stick with them.

Remember that the buddy program is for both of you. One of the best ways to strengthen your friendship is to make sure you’re giving as much as receiving. I’m not talking about material goods, though. Your buddy probably has a specific interest in you, your home country, or travel abroad. Share information with him or her. Participate in activities that he or she enjoys.

Building up a genuine, two-way friendship with your buddy is a relationship that can follow you home. It will give you a chance to keep up your language practice, plus a reason to travel back to your study abroad country in the future. Both will motivate you to keep up your lifelong language learning.

Taking Initiative for Lifelong Language Learning

Get involved in everything.

The characteristics above may not be available at all universities and programs, but you should be able to find something similar wherever you are. If you’re introverted like me, you might have to push yourself, but you should alway be able to find a group willing to take you in.

5. Find a Language Conversation Partner

Join a language conversation partner program during #studyabroad to establish a personal connection and reason to keep studying.

A language conversation partner is someone you can practice with and a friend to continue talking to after you go home.

If your study abroad program has an established language conversation partner program that’s great. If not, you can use the approach below to find one without going out of your way.

When you find a language conversation partner, you know that person is excited to both teach their language and learn yours. You’ll never need to hesitate about asking them to talk in their language. You won’t need to worry if you stumble or need help. You’re both there to help each other with exactly those situations.

Once you build up a friendship with your conversation partner, that is something you can keep up after study abroad ends. Stay in touch by skype and emails to push each other to keep up your language skills. Plan to visit each other in the future.

The personal connection, plus the promise of using the language in the future, is a strong motivating factor for lifelong language learning.

How to Find a Language Conversation Partner on Your Own

A simple post on a student bulletin board – online or in real life – should be all it takes. If you’re at a loss, use this script:

Wanted: XXXXXXXX-speaking language conversation partner for English speaker. Contact: [Email]

You can add a description if you want – specify male or female, etc. (You might want to let them know what you are, as well.

I recommend using a dummy email address for this! It’s quick and free to set up an extra email account with a service like yahoo or gmail and have it auto-forward to your real address. That way, you’re not giving away your real contact information to everyone.

6. Join a Student Club

Join a cultural club during #studyabroad to practice your language in context of your hobbies

Club activities connect language learning with your existing passions and give you a reason to never stop learning.

This is one of my favorite ways to get the most out of study abroad, and it works with lifelong language learning, too.

A club is like a friendship buffet. You have a group of people that share a common passion and want to spend their free-time doing it. That makes it easier to approach your fellow club-mates and start conversations.

You’ll also get to use your language skills in the context of your hobby. Even if your classes are taught in English, local students tend to revert to their native language in clubs. You’ll learn words related to your passion and activities, whether that’s sports, art, culture, or games.

Of course, they should translate for you if you need it, which is even better. You get to hear words and grammar in their language, then get the explanation so you can match them up. As your time in country continues, you’ll need the translation less and less.

Clubs connect language learning with your existing passions. They take the mental association of language from a dull classroom, to exciting activities. Your club experience can be a perfect motivation for lifelong language learning in order to retain friendships and follow-up on your interests.

How to Continue Lifelong Language Learning After Study Abroad

#studyabroad is a lifelong language learning accelerator, not an end goal

Study abroad is a speed boost, not the language learning finish line.

Study abroad should not be the end of your language study. It is an accelerator. But you need to figure out where you’re going next. Hopefully, you’ve found your motivation from the tips above – whether that’s a friend in your host country, a travel goal, or even moving back in the future.

Now, we need to keep up your practice.

Skype, Facetime, and Google Hangouts are amazing free tools to keep in touch with your connections from abroad – and practice your language ability. I recommend continuing conversation practice with your friends. However, if that isn’t enough, you can find paid online conversation partners in many languages at very reasonable prices. Sometimes I find that paying for a thing makes me more likely to use it and stay focused on getting the most out of it.

Finding a meet-up of people with similar interests is also a great way to keep up your practice. Look for a local club – online or in person – based on your country or language. It’ll probably be easier with more “common” foreign languages and destinations, like Western Europe.

The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University also have excellent tips for their returnee students.

  • Join a language conversation program for inbound international students.
  • Write about your overseas experience to keep the memories and motivation fresh.
  • And of course, keep in touch with your friends!

Make a specific, SMART Goal to keep up your language ability. Remember why it matters to you: friendships, travel, or career interests, and make sure you keep that in the front of your mind as you continue your lifelong language learning.

Good luck!

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