17 Tips to Accelerate the Language Learning Process When Living Abroad

Tim Schwartz

Tim Schwartz

Despite the fact that we use language in every moment of our conscious and unconscious lives, it is easy to forget how important a role language plays in our lives until we're faced with the challenge of communicating with people in a language other than our mother tongue. If you've ever lived abroad in a country where you don't speak the language then you can appreciate how key language is to not only achieving success, but just simply surviving.


Unlike children who benefit from leveraging both hemispheres of the brain when learning a language, adult learners of a second language are limited to the left, logical hemisphere. This means that adult learners need to play to their strengths when learning a new language and approach the process as rationally and strategically as possible. 
Here are 17 strategies that adult learners can deliberately employ to accelerate the language learning process when living abroad.
1. Memorize the expressions which empower you as a learner first.
These are the tools on your language learning tool belt that you’ll use every day. At the very least, you need to be able to ask what something means, how to say something and how to have something repeated. 
2. Talk to everyone.
Ask the clerk at the supermarket about their day, tell the barber your life story, ask people on the street for directions to places you already know how to get to. Everyone around you is a teacher. 
3. Create Opportunities to Practice.
Make note of the expressions people use in common situations and repeat them just as you heard them being used. Then, go out of your way to put yourself in those situations so you create opportunities to practice. The first step to getting people to engage with you in their language is making them believe you can actually speak their language. 
4. Be assertive with the locals.
Depending on the country you are living in, the locals may be just as excited about speaking your language as you are about speaking theirs. If you are not assertive in the interactions you have with them, they may switch to your language and you will lose out on opportunities to practice.
5. Chunk your language learning.
Memorizing structures, idioms, colloquialisms and expressions is a great way to develop proficiency quickly. It may even make you sound more proficient than you actually are which is a good thing as per tip number 4. Moreover, chunking allows you to acquire language in context that you can re-arrange, re-purpose and build on.


6. Knowing your goal will help you map your path. 
If you take time to define your goals then you can plan your study accordingly. Different goals will necessitate different courses of study. The path of a translator is not the same as someone who just wants to know enough language to travel around the country.
7. Listen to the people around you speaking and imitate them under your breath.
If you are lucky enough to be living in the country where the language you want to learn is spoken by everyone around you then everywhere you go is a classroom. 
8. Analyze basic sentence patterns. 
This skill requires great focus as you’ll need to not only hear and comprehend what is being said but you’ll also have to be thinking about how it is being said. Learning to recognize advanced grammatical structures like relative clauses in complex sentences is the first step to being able to produce them in speech. The application of relative clauses and complex sentences in daily conversation usually marks the turning point in one’s language study. 

Choosing one audio track and listening to it thirty times is much better for your proficiency than choosing thirty audio tracks and listening to them once.

9. Listen to the language as much as possible. 
Put the radio or TV on in the background whenever you’re at home. If you have a textbook that came with audio tracks then listen to them over and over again wherever you go. Choosing one audio track and listening to it thirty times is much better for your proficiency than choosing thirty audio tracks and listening to them once. If you listen to the same audio track over and over again then it will help you learn new vocabulary, imitate native pronunciation and mimic correct intonation. Look up new words every time you listen and by the thirtieth time you’ll know everything that is being said. 
10. Study something other than the language in the language.
Taking any kind of class such as dance, martial arts, or even painting will be twice as beneficial for you. Having to listen to a teacher explain concepts, methods, or techniques over and over again on a weekly basis will put you on the fast track to fluency. You get bonus points for any class that positions you to be mentoring new students as you learn yourself. Try and avoid classes offered specifically to tourists, though. 
11. Create a study schedule and stick to it. 
Discipline yourself so that no matter how busy your life gets you will always find time to continue your lessons. If you never seem to be able to make the time, then re-evaluate your goals. Get in the habit of studying a little every day rather than a long time once a week. There is no doubt that the benefits of everyday exposure far outweigh the advantages of intensive study once a week.
12. Read everything around you. 
Those serious about becoming fluent have no choice but to read as much and as often as they can. Most language teachers recommend reading things that interest you. Take notice of everything. There are an abundance of signs, advertisements, stickers, and posters waiting to be read.
13. Carry a vocabulary notebook everywhere and take all your notes by hand.
Moreover, divide your notebook into sections for all the major parts of speech plus a section for whole expressions or chunks and memorize everything in that book. 
 Resource: Get a free Vocabulary Notes Sheet now for jotting down unfamiliar words, expressions and phrases while on the go. Download
14. Hang with the locals.
Go to places that the locals like to go to and avoid typical tourist hangouts. Create contexts to talk to the staff or to other customers who look open to chatting with a non-local. Be weary of asking strangers language related questions, though. As a general rule, you should reserve grammar questions for your teacher or language exchange partner. There is no better way to wreck a blossoming friendship with someone then by constantly asking language questions.
15. Do a language exchange.
Choose someone who is about the same ability as yourself so it does not end up being a stilted teaching lesson and then use your partner effectively. Come prepared with grammar and vocabulary questions you can’t ask your friends as well as preparing a list of expressions and other things you want to learn how to say. Ask a lot of questions. It is easy to remember things that you wanted to know how to say in the first place. 

16. Get a good dictionary.
Be sure to carry your dictionary everywhere you go and don’t be shy about pulling it out in the middle of a conversation to look up a word you want to know how to say.
17. Live with a local.
If and when possible, seek to live with locals as roommates but be careful about asking too many language related questions as per tip number 13.

If you commit to applying these strategies on your language learning journey, you'll be rewarded with a number of social and emotional benefits. Aside from the obvious gains of developing a deeper cultural understanding and acquiring a new language, you may see improvements in your overall ability to remember and assess information, and to communicate more effectively in your native language. In addition, research has shown that adult learners of a second language can also benefit from a more rational approach to problem solving as well having less emotional bias in the new language.

Do you have your own tips on language learning you'd like to see on this list? Add them in the comments section below.

Tim Schwartz lived in Japan for 12 years and taught himself Japanese. He went on to get a master’s degree from Columbia University in teaching Japanese as a foreign language. He spent 12 years in the classroom teaching EFL (English as a foreign language) to both children and adult learners. The content for this article was based on an article that Tim had published in the August 2000 issue of the magazine Kansai Time Out. 

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Tim Schwartz

Tim Schwartz

Tim Schwartz is the Director of Innovation for Whitby School. He is always on the look out for opportunities with the potential to unleash creativity, transform teaching and learning, optimize school operations, improve organizational culture and streamline administrative processes. He likes exploring and challenging big ideas as well as implementing and evangelizing technological solutions. Tim enjoys presenting and writing about digital citizenship, technology, education, content marketing and the Maker Movement. He has high-standards because he knows that with the right inspiration and support, everyone can be better. And he wants you to know that he is not the droid you are looking for.