How to Make the Most of Your Foreign Language Trip

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how-to-make-the-most-of-your-foreign-language-tripSo you’ve decided to take the plunge.

You’re going on a trip to a country where they speak your target language.

Congratulations!

Learning a language on your own is one thing, interacting face-to-face with native speakers is another thing altogether.

But it’s great and exciting.

I made such a trip and ended up living in Costa Rica…married…with three kids…and fluent in Spanish. Married with children may not be your ideal, but it shows a lot of good things can come from doing something bold.

Before I settled here I actually came here three times for a total time of 9 months. Some of that time I stayed with a Homestay family.

Naturally, I gained experience on how to get the most out of a language trip abroad. I’m sharing it in this post to help you make your trip equally successful as mine.

Table of Contents

Phase 1: Before You Go

Choosing Your Destination

I’ve found that in many cases people actually start to learn a language because they fantasize about interacting with native speakers.

In their mind’s eye, they see how cool it would be to converse and share with people from a certain country. This plants the seed that motivates them to learn the language.

What language you learn is often determined by your impression of a certain people or culture.

So I assume you already have one or multiple destinations in mind.

If not, check out these websites for some inspiration:

  • Trip Advisor Has a simple quiz that recommends you places based on your travel preferences.
  • Tripzard  Nice quiz with a lot of detailed questions. Don’t know about the results, though. Based on my travel experiences, I can’t trust their crime rating system.
  • Buzzfeed – Turkish Airlines  Another nice quiz but with few destinations.

Researching Your Destination

Now you have one or more target destinations, it’s time to research them. It’s important.

I was about to go to Ecuador when hell broke loose over there. They even occupied the airport.

Luckily, it happened before I went and I decided to go Costa Rica instead. I’m still here….

Safety & Security

Safety is often a concern when traveling abroad, especially these days. In some cases, like my little Ecuador story, it may even be a reason not to go to a certain country.

Needless to say, researching the safety of a country is important. 

The Bureau of Consular Affairs website from the US department of State has a lot of useful information for that purpose.

You can check out information on:     

  • Safety and Security
  • Entry, Exit and Visa requirements
  • Health
  • Travel and Transportation
  • and more…

bureau-of-consular-affairs-website

Just put the name of your country in the search box that says: Enter a Country or Area.

Don’t be too alarmed by some of the safety & security information: As a government they are basically required to give as much precaution notices as possible, which paints a really dark and somewhat exaggerated situation of a country. Still it’s wise to take them into account when you do go there.

Local Security

A country’s overall security doesn’t always correspond to local security. Therefore you’ll want to do a more in-depth search of your destination.

You can Google the following:

  • Safety + town or city name
  • Robbed in + town or city name
  • Murder in + town or city name

Those should give you some traveler reports of incidents happened in your destination town or city.

Again don’t be too alarmed just yet. Use common sense: multiple incidents in a small town is somewhat alarming but not necessarily in a large city.

If the information found isn’t enough to make up your mind, post a question about local safety on forums like the one from Trip Advisor.

Visa Requirements

Before you go, you must know the Visa requirements of the country you’ll be visiting. Otherwise you might be put on the first flight back home.

If the Bureau of Consular Affairs website doesn’t offer enough info on visa requirements, then Wikipedia can be great source for this, although you should always double-check with the corresponding authorities.

All you have to do is visit Wikipedia and search for: 

Visa requirements for * citizens

Examples:

Wikipedia has Visa requirement information for a tremendous amount of countries. Probably all, but I didn’t feel much for entering every country in the world in the search box, if you don’t mind. 😉

Visa-Requirements-Map.jpgWikipedia’s Visa requirements map for Indian citizens

Vaccinations & Travel Insurance

Just as important as Visas, are vaccinations.  Although the health hazards are sometimes exaggerated, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

A good website to check for vaccination recommendations and requirements per country is the CDC website.

Just select the country you’re going to where it says: “–select one–“. It’s just below the “For Travelers” header.

 The last thing you want is to have an accident or fall ill in another country where maybe the medical care isn’t quite up to the standards you’re used to. Vaccinations should prevent some illnesses but there’s still other nasty stuff that could happen to you.

Therefore, I strongly recommend you get a good travel insurance. However, you’re on your own here, because I’m not qualified to recommend you any. 

For a start, you can check out travel insurance comparison website Squaremouth.

Make sure you research the plans and insurance companies that come up on this website by using Google and other sources.

Choosing Your School

Unless you’re already closing in on fluency, you can’t really go on a language trip and not take classes while you are there.

Even if all you do is converse with your teacher and receive feedback, it’s worth the effort and money. 

Sometimes, the town or city in the country you go to is determined by your choice of school. Your first destination of choice within a country may not have a school, or not an attractive one, so that you have to settle for another place because the school there seems better. I think it’s good to give preference to the quality of a school. You can still visit your first choice destination when you’re more competent in your target language.

Try to get more information from a school by asking the following questions:

  • How do they teach? What materials and teaching methods do they use? Do they emphasize conversation or is it a more traditional approach?
  • Do they offer one on one or group classes. One on one classes are preferable but very small group classes can work as well due to the potential social support. 
  • Who teaches? I prefer native speakers but there are advantages and disadvantages to both native and non-native speakers as teachers.
  • Is there any homework to do? I’m against homework. I’ll explain why later.
  • Do they give you some sort of study certificate? Could be useful later in life…
  • Do they have a Homestay program? A Homestay is crucial for optimal learning, see section below.
  • Do they offer trips and special school events? Not absolutely necessary but still helpful.

And of course…. there’s always good ol’ Google. You can search for:

  • town name + language school      to find schools in the area you’re interested in     
  • school name + review                      to find reviews of the school
  • forum + School name                      to find comments from students of the school

Of course, the more recent a page is the better.

You can also look for suitable schools by visiting these websites that offer language schools at various destinations and in various languages:

  • Amerispan – Offers courses in 13 languages and has schools in 28 countries
  • ESL – Experienced organizer of foreign language study trips
  • Foreign Language World – 66 schools around the world
  • Don Quijote  – Specializes in Spanish and destinations in Latin America and Spain

Choosing Your Homestay

Ideally, your school arranges your Homestay. It’s usually cheaper when it comes included in a package deal with classes. 

But what’s even more important is that most schools know these Homestay families. And that’s basically an extra layer of security.

Still, there are some advantages to arranging your Homestay family yourself:

  • On Homestay.com you can see pictures of the house and (some) members of the families listed there. You can also read reviews of people who already stayed at a house. Most schools will not allow you to choose your family yourself.
  • Sites like Lingoo.com and GoCambio also offer exchanges where you can get free accommodation in exchange for your skills or accommodation at your home.

Homestay com Image 
Homestay.com: Search results for “Panama”with corresponding families on the right

Disadvantages of Arranging a Homestay yourself:

  • Obvious security issues
  • Can be more expensive
  • Destinations on Homestay websites often limited to popular towns and cities

Schedule Your Trip Way Ahead of Time

One of the best ways to make sure you actually study and do your language learning activities is to schedule a trip to a country where the language is spoken. That is: when you go alone and stay with a local family.

When you know you’re going to be surrounded by native speakers, you have no choice but to make a great effort to learn a good part of the language beforehand. You have a need to learn the language and that’s the best motivation you’ll ever find.

Therefore, you should schedule your trip way ahead of time. Way ahead…like…6 months or more.

If you do that you’ll create a “study or die” situation. And that works like crazy! It’ll help you get through the tough days when you don’t feel like doing your language learning activities.

When I was preparing for my Costa Rica trip, I gave in many times, only to come to my senses the next day: “I just have to able to hold at least basic conversations, if not living with my Homestay family will be very tough” I thought.

Now, there’s one caveat:

If you are one of those people who believe that going to the country and taking classes each day will have you conversing fluently in a week or two, the above strategy won’t work for you. But that’s just not realistic, no matter what they promise you. Your brain needs time to assimilate a language.

To take advantage of having all those native speakers around you, you must already be at or close to the intermediate stage. Don’t throw away this fantastic opportunity by leaving all the language learning until you are there!

Just remember this: To get the most out of a foreign language trip, most of the learning should be done before you go.

How Long Should Your Trip be?

A tough question with a simple answer.

As long as you can possibly go…

Language wise, the more time you spend in the country, the better. But you’ve got to take into account how much time away from home and family you can stomach.

And there’s, of course, your professional life. Maybe the longest time you can escape is two weeks, due to other obligations. 

So basically, it’s up to each individual. Personally, I really like the time frame of three months. It gives you a good amount of time to get to know the culture and the real spoken language.

But even two weeks can be enough to give your language learning a serious boost. Even though it may be primarily a motivational boost.

Arranging Your Flight

With that out-of-the-way, it’s time to order your flight ticket.

Here are some quick tips that should help you order a flight.

There are many flight ticket comparison websites. Finding and ordering a ticket on one of the following trusted sites is usually a good bet:

travelocity-2

Searching for a flight ticket on Travelocity

Flight tickets can be pricey.

Here are some tips to get lower fares:

    • Prices may not differ much from site to site but they can vary dramatically for different dates.
    • If you’re prepared to fly at odd hours or with more stops than necessary you can often get a cheaper ticket.
    • Make sure you research additional airline fees as not all on-board services may be included in the price.

Time to Roll up Your Sleeves

Now your language learning journey is all set, it’s time to take advantage of the sudden surge of motivation.

Time to get to work.

Remember, if you don’t get your language skills up to at least an advanced basic level, you probably won’t make the most of your language trip. And not just language wise, but you’ll also have a harder time to communicate with your Homestay family.

As long as you realize this, you’ll be working hard to improve your skills. You have no choice…..;-)

Now there many specific learning tips to be found on this and many other websites, but here are some important ones:

  • Use various learning materials, but don’t go overboard either. If you improve quickly adjust your materials to your increasing skill level.
  • Apart of your main learning materials, learn words and sentence constructions you’ll likely use when you are in the country. Learn to explain some facts about your country, you’ll likely get asked about them. Also, learn colloquial words and phrases of the country you’ll visit.
  • Don’t discount text books, just yet. Writing boosts memory. Aim for the more modern ones like the Practice Makes Perfect series.
  • Have a strategy to deal with learning frustration.
  • Start using real-life sources to learn from. FluentU lets you learn a language by watching and learning from selected YouTube videos, with the advantage that the language featured is generally the real spoken version of a language.
  • Listen to and watch multimedia in your target language
  • Once you think you can hold basic conversations, start to do language exchanges: Check out iTalki – also offers one-on-one lessons with teachers  (not free but discounted trial lessons are available) – and Hello Talk an App to text and audio chat with native speakers.

Don’t Expect too Much

So let’s say you went through all (or most) of the steps above:

You’ve chosen your destination, arranged your flight, school and Homestay, and you’ve worked your socks off to get to a basic conversational level in your target language.

You have reason to be excited! 

Yet, I need to tell you: don’t expect too much.

You see, both language and culture wise things may not turn out exactly the way you fantasized.

Firstly, language wise, you’ve probably been in a controlled learning environment up until now.

Even if you’ve been doing language exchanges, they’re still set up by both parties to learn a language. Now you’re going out in the wild.

Let me tell you: Things will come at you at 200 mph. You’ll be catching your breath at times. It’ll be easy to think you don’t know nothing of the language you’ve studied so hard.

But it’s normal.

Happens to everyone.

Don’t stress about it.

Once you settle a little, and with the help of your classes and your Homestay family, you’ll have a more positive outlook on your language skills.

Second, culture wise there will be probably more than a few things you don’t like. You probably won’t notice them in the beginning, but they can start to disturb you (somewhat) later on. 

Just know, that every society is different and has its own set of unwritten rules. Try to wonder about and enjoy the diversity instead of letting it ruin your trip. 

You’ll be at a distinct advantage if you read up on the culture of the country before you go. In fact, it would be somewhat ignorant not to do that!

Of all the things you could bring with you, the most important thing is your mindset. Expect to feel strange at times but don’t stress about it. Stress isn’t a problem, stress about stress is.

By making this trip you have the opportunity not only to grow your language skills, but also to grow as a person. And growth generally hurts a little. 

So there you have it.

It’s time to go on your journey.

I wish you a pleasant trip!

Not sure what to bring with you on a language trip? Download a free checklist that will help you with that.

Phase 2: While You are There

Engage as Soon as Possible

Now you’ve arrived at the country and at your new temporary home, it’s quite possible that you’re a little overwhelmed. Maybe you’re even feeling somewhat homesick.

Maybe you’ve postponed your first classes and you feel somewhat uncomfortable walking the streets of this town you don’t know yet.

The natural thing to do would be to retreat in your little shell…

Big mistake… That will only make it worse, trust me.

And not only that, but you’ll also fail to take advantage of this amazing opportunity that’s right under your nose.

So go to your school and engage with the locals and the culture as soon as possible in spite of your fears…and don’t stop.

If you do that, you’ll notice that the negative feelings slowly subside.

They have no choice… 

Don’t Accept Homework

Once your classes start — or even better, before — make it clear that you don’t want any homework.

Why?

Two reasons:

  1. You have classes for several hours a day. The homework would be extra hours you’re not out in the real world interacting with native speakers. You’d be wasting a lot of opportunities to practice your new language by also doing homework. Especially when it’s a lot.
  2. Your real homework should be:
    1. To notice things you keep hearing in conversations with native speakers but don’t understand, or at least not totally.
    2. Write down things you want to say but can’t express properly yet.
    3. Bring these things up in class, or just ask your conversation partner.

If you really want homework, ask your teacher for homework you can do once you’re back in your own country, or homework you can do really quickly.

Limit Use of Your Native Language – or any language other than your target language

When you’re alone in a foreign country, where everything seems different, it’s possible that you start to crave some familiarity.

In some cases, that familiarity may come from other foreigners. And while it’s okay and maybe even inevitable to hang out with them some of the time, there’s also a great risk that most of the time you’ll be talking a language other than the one you want to learn.

Remember: not every foreigner is as serious about learning the language as you are!

So you need to make a strong decision up front…

Here’s what you should do if you want to improve in your target language as fast as possible:

  • You don’t have to be an asshole with other foreigners, but you must choose to make friends with native speakers instead.
  • And you’ll want to make it clear to native speakers: I’ll speak English (or any other language that isn’t the one you’re learning) only as a last resort

Two simple things…but they can make all the difference between a fluency boosting language trip and a useless one.

Phase 3: When You’re Back Home

Now you’re back home you’re probably left with one of the following three scenarios:

  1. You want to go back to the country, soon or someday, and master the language even more 
  2. You’d like to learn another language and travel to other locations
  3. You feel like giving up on language learning altogether

Let’s look at these scenarios in a little more detail.

Scenario 1: You want to go back to the country and master the language even more

This is the ideal scenario for various reasons.

Your trip was a success, probably 😉

  • If you went long enough, you’re now a high intermediate or maybe even better.
  • You motivation to improve in your new language is probably at an all-time high, not only because you just came home from your trip but also because you’re thinking about the next one already.
  • You have some clear ideas of where your weaknesses in your new language lay.

Here’s what you should do if you’re in this scenario:

  • Your number one job when you get back home is to continue with your language learning activities as soon as possible. The longer you wait the harder it will be to pick it up again. Before you know it, you’ll have all but forgotten about language learning.
  • Change your learning strategy. Now it’s time to do even more with real-life sources. Examples: Listening to radio and watching TV in your target language, Language Exchanges, Skype calls with new friends you’ve made during the trip, and learning through videos with FluentU.
  • Work on your weaknesses. As I said above, you should now have clear ideas of the weaknesses you have in your new language. Work on them.

Scenario 2: You’d like to learn another language and travel to other locations

Maybe the trip’s destination wasn’t quite what you’re looking for.

Or maybe you’ve just caught the travel bug. 

Here’s what you should do if you’re in this scenario:

  • Don’t give up on your new language entirely. Maybe you’re not interested in increasing your fluency anymore, but it would be a shame to forget about the language completely. You don’t have to make that much effort to maintain what you’ve learned.  Being multilingual is a valuable skill, and you might need this language in one of your future travels. Just block out a couple of hours every week for maintenance. Go over your old materials or use real life sources.
  • If you already have an idea of where you want to go on your next trip, go through the steps in this article to make it happen.

Scenario 3: You feel like giving up on language learning altogether

In this scenario you’re disappointed… 

Maybe you haven’t improved in your target language as much you’d hoped, or the trip wasn’t what you expected of it, leaving you without any motivation to continue.

Here’s what you should do if you’re in this scenario:

  • Realize that you’ve done too much work to give up on it now. If you throw in the towel, most of the work will have been for nothing.
  • Know that learning a new language comes in cycles. There will always be days, or even weeks, when you feel you haven’t learned much…followed by days or weeks in which you feel you’re close to fluency. It’s all about perception.
  • Delay your decision. When you’re in a somewhat depressed mood, it’s never a good time to make a decision. So don’t do that yet. Let it all sink in for a little while. If after a few weeks you feel the same, go ahead and spend your time on other activities. Just don’t make a decision when your head is still spinning from the trip.

A new Language is one of the Greatest Things You can Learn

It’s like a key to another culture, a different world altogether in some cases. 

But you must open the door. 

If you don’t learn a language to experience the people and the culture, you keep safe behind the door.

By going to the country where they speak your new language, you throw the door wide open.

The only job left would be to make the trip a success.

I hope the information in this article will help you do just that!

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Comments

  1. G’Day Noel, (Good Day in Australian Accent), I guess I am following a similar path to you to acquire full fluency in the language of my choice. (French). I start just over two years ago to re-learn my French. I took French in school but was like most students not that good at speaking the language. Then 25 years ago I had a number of tourist trips to Europe, hence I took many one hour a week French lessons. (Before Internet). I was good enough in French to make my way in France, order food, accommodation, train tickets etc but still did not speak the language in any way fluently.
    Now with the Internet it is great, we can talk to any person in any language via a number of online video and audio platforms. I registered on a Language Exchange website and spoke to a number of people on a regular basis up to three times a week. Over the course of a year or so one of my Language Exchange partners became my Romantic Exchange Partner. I have made two trips to France from Australia in the last three / four months and my lovely lady from France had been out to visit me in Australia. We speak on the Internet for one hour per day. Needless to say, my French has vastly improved and is improving every day. I am also improving her English. I, of course, also use textbooks, YouTube, and other sources for improving my language learning.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      That’s great to hear, Paul.

      Yes, the internet has brought us unprecedented possibilities when it comes to language learning. This is truly a great era for language learners.

      Thanks for sharing!

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