How can you overcome language barriers when studying abroad?

You may experience language barriers if you study abroad in a country where most do not speak your mother tongue or English. For instance, if you come from Singapore, speaking mainly English, and move to a country like Japan where most people speak mainly Japanese in their everyday lives, you may encounter communication difficulties.

Even if you have spent some time learning the language of your host country, language barriers would still surface in the form of local slang and regional dialects. However, let not these challenges deter you from studying abroad. By trying to overcome language barriers you encounter when overseas, you can derive useful lessons and memorable experiences from your study abroad experience, regardless of your language proficiencies.

We explore some ways in which you can overcome language barriers when studying abroad.

#1: Learn the basics of the target language

After deciding on your study abroad destination, start learning the basics of the country’s language, especially if the country is non-English. While learning a new language can be daunting for some, the key is to start small and gradually build up your vocabulary.

Memorize basic greetings, numbers as well as important expressions from your target language, and use these new phrases as often as you can, even before your study abroad adventure. If your budget permits, sign up for some language classes and practice your newfound skills under the tutelage of an experienced language professional. Otherwise, YouTube has tons of free videos teaching the basics of many foreign languages, such as Japanese and French.

For example, FrenchPod101 is a useful YouTube channel for French language learners of all levels. The channel has a Japanese counterpart, offering free and useful Japanese language lessons to learners as well!

#2: Make Local Friends

Language is more than grammar, rote learning and vocabulary. Rather, it is closely linked to the culture and history of a place. Making friends in the local community or your study abroad institution when studying abroad can be an excellent way to increase your language proficiency and overcome language barriers. University student clubs are great places to socialize, enjoy your interests as well as practice your foreign language skills in a real-life setting! While studying in Japan, I joined various club activities, ranging from soccer to language conversational groups. By doing so, I made many new Japanese friends with whom I could hang out with and practice my Japanese!

Besides, local friends can even offer tips on how to best communicate effectively in their culture. By simply chatting with your new friends with whatever you know, you will soon speak in your target language more confidently and seamlessly. You can even ask them to correct you if you make mistakes, in order to improve yourself even further. Moreover, local friends in your study abroad country can point you towards useful information you may find helpful while living and studying abroad. For instance, these local friends may introduce you to interesting cultural activities to enrich your student life, or even point you to discounts for students that may not be advertised in English!

#3: Join support groups for international students

It may be tempting to shrink into your shell when studying abroad in an unfamiliar environment. Also, you may be an introvert by nature and thus be more hesitant to go out of your way to make local friends. That said, you are not alone. Most likely, there would be other international students struggling with language barriers. Your university or higher education institution may have support groups to help international students assimilate into their new environment. Additionally, explore opportunities NGOs and even community centres offer to support international students living abroad. These groups may organize language exchange activities, cooking classes as well as other cultural events to help international students better integrate with the local community.

Again, when I was in Japan, I participated in community centre cultural activities that enabled me to meet local Japanese families living around my neighborhood. These Japanese families kindly invited me and other international students to their houses for language exchange sessions and meals.

#4: Take a language course at your host school

Many foreign universities or institutions provide language courses for international students, often for free. By enrolling in such courses, you can bolster your language abilities dramatically. These classes are usually set up to accommodate different proficiency levels and often include elements of local culture for students to better engage with the language and enjoy the lessons. What is more, you can make friends with other international language learners and improve your skills in your target language together. If you are already participating in informal language conversational sessions, formal language courses will help you better consolidate your language skills for business and academic purposes.

#5: Keep a language journal

While studying abroad in Japan, I relied on a language journal to enhance my Japanese language skills. This journal enabled me to write down and reflect on new vocabulary, phrases, or unique language patterns that I came across. By revising these notes over and over again, I reinforced my language skills. I also used the journal to set some language goals for myself.

When there’s a will, there’s a way

Learning a foreign language is no easy task for many of us. After all, we must deal with a completely new set of grammatical patterns, vocabulary and even writing. However, it is not impossible. If you are determined to communicate in and expose yourself to a different language and culture, adopting appropriate strategies tailored to your own learning style, you can gradually overcome roadblocks in communication when studying and living abroad. Thus, you can benefit immensely from such an experience. 


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