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Study Abroad and Language Learning

By Stacie Nevadomski Berdan | Published: August 1, 2017

English is an official language in more than 60 countries, with nearly 400 million native speakers. As the most widely learned second language in the world, it dominates the global marketplace. Learning any other language—and studying abroad to achieve proficiency—might seem a bit of a fool’s errand. After all, so many around the world are learning the world’s lingua franca to the point that secondary speakers vastly outnumber natives. Many Americans wonder: what’s the use of learning to speak anything other than English?

To get ahead in the global marketplace—and keep pace with it—that’s why.

The author's daughters pose at the San Fermin festival in Spain.
The author’s daughters at the San Fermín Festival in
Spain, where they studied abroad after two summers
at El Lago del Bosque. 

Broadly speaking, the U.S. doesn’t have a culture that embraces or encourages world language learning, nor one that emphasizes the importance of developing a global mindset in our young people. Despite the increasing global competition for jobs, American graduates lack the international experience, language capabilities and inter-cultural communication skills necessary to excel in the global economy. According to the Institute of International Education, of the 2.6 million American students who graduate with baccalaureate or associates degrees every year, only 313,000 studied abroad—roughly 10 percent—in 2014–15. This translates into a real opportunity for students pondering a program overseas. Study abroad offers the opportunity for students to stand out and to further the language skills necessary in today’s competitive job market.

So what’s a student to do? Whether students are just starting out or have studied a language for years, they should search out programs in an immersive or semi-immersive environment, and keep an open mind about the many destinations of a chosen language.  For example, French could be learned in Switzerland, Belgium or Senegal; Spanish, in Spain and Mexico, but also Argentina, Peru or Costa Rica.

Study abroad experiences in another language allow students to build a foundation of skills for work in all sectors of the economy. Employers recognize that study abroad is one of the most effective means for students to get out of their comfort zones to deeply experience another culture, environment and education system and to improvise and build resilience.

For the most successful language-learning experience, students should have structures and learning objectives. Language learning is a lot of fun, but it’s also hard work, and requires discipline. What are your goals: to move around town independently? To have an unstructured, five-minute conversation? To chat about local sports, bargain or order in a restaurant? Read the local newspaper? Honestly mapping out what you want to achieve will help determine the most appropriate structure before and during the study abroad experience.

Here are some preparation tips beyond finding a local language class or immersion program:

Concordia Language Villages French Credit Abroad
students prepare wild-gathered food at an educational
farm in Belgium during the summer of 2017.
  • Join a language learning group. Informal meet-ups, many of which are free, meet in parks, cafés, community centers and faith-based facilities, and have the sole purpose of boosting language skills. You might be able to pick up some customs and slang of the place where you’re going.

  • Hire a private tutor or use self-study enrichment materials. One-on-one tutoring can be expensive but amazingly effective, and many students have used Live Mocha, Hello-Hello and and other free online learning tools to get a feel for the language.
  • Practice phrases. For beginners, memorize a few cultural phrases like what’s said after a sneeze or how to excuse oneself from the dinner table. For intermediates, practice asking questions and possible answers, such as with directions or ordering off a menu. For advanced speakers, prep answers to more in-depth conversation topics, like why your family moved from one city to another, or what you’d like to do for a career.
  • Listen to foreign-language radio stations or watch a country’s local news online. Before too long you’ll start to be able to pick out words and phrases, and you’ll familiarize yourself with pronunciation, intonation and even body language. YouTube often has subtitling available, which will help you identify local idioms.

The experience of studying abroad is important and will give you a leg up in the global marketplace. But the combination of studying abroad and language immersion is even better. You’ll return with a better understanding of another culture, the ability to see the world through more than just an American lens, and newly-developed language skills—a winning combination of skills for any career.

About the Author


Stacie Nevadomski Berdan is a seasoned global executive and the mother of twins who spent two summers as villagers at El Lago del Bosque. She is the author of six books on the intersection of globalization and careers, including “A Student Guide to Study Abroad” (IIE 2013) and award-winning “Raising Global Children” (ACTFL 2013).

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