The best tips for learning a language abroad

I was in my second year of Spanish when I proudly declared: “Mi ciudad es muy famoso para su sopa de polla”. The face of my teacher went bright red as she, a little embarrassed, explained me that the Spanish word for chicken is “pollo”, “polla” apparently means “penis”…I spent the rest of the evening trying to convince my fellow students that my city wasn’t producing any phallic-shaped soup whatsoever. It was also at this very moment that I realized that, if I wanted to learn Spanish properly, I’d have to go and learn it in Spain! I’d have to go for a full Spanish language immersion!

Interested in getting the most out of learning a language abroad? Here are a few tips:

1/ Choose a city with few students

In Spain, the city of Salamanca is THE place to learn Spanish. It’s home to a large number of language schools and the area is known to speak the “purest” form of Spanish. The problem with that is that, with a high number of foreign students, you’re more likely to hear, see and speak English rather than Spanish!

I chose the historical city of Cádiz because it’s not overrun by tourists, (most visitors are Spanish people from other regions in Spain) there are only 2 language schools and the gaditano accent is one of the toughest in the whole of Spain! I figured that, if I managed to understand the locals, I’d manage to understand everyone else in the country!
Oh and Cádiz has a beach, which might have slightly influenced my decision…

2/ Go for total immersion

Don’t limit yourself to the classes! Yes, you’ll learn the basics, but the real work starts afterwards. If you want to learn a language, you need to get out there and practise, it’s as simple as that!

I probably annoyed the hell out of the waiters in tapas bars trying out my new vocabulary. I went to see a local football game, watched Spanish soap opera’s and spent hours on the beach reading gossip magazines about celebrities I’d never heard of. Hell, I even had a go at flamenco dancing!
The real Spanish is taught out on the street, not within the 4 walls of the classroom!

3/ Take time

Unless you’re a genius, it’s very unlikely that you’ll learn a language in one week. So if you’re an absolute beginner, going on a language study for one week doesn’t really make sense; by the time you are able to grasp a few words, it’ll be time to go home… I already had some basic knowledge of Spanish when I started off and still decided to stay one month. It gave me time to adjust, time to practise and time to get to know the place. The longer you have, the better, it’ll make the whole experience much more worthwhile!

4/ Meet up with locals

Of course you’ll mostly hang out with your fellow students, there’s nothing wrong with that, but remember what you are there for! I went on a second language immersion in Madrid and I was the only student in the whole school between Christmas and New Year! If I wanted some kind of social contact, it would have to come from the locals! I enrolled in a few Meetup groups and got in contact with Chilean, Spanish and Argentinian people, all living in Madrid. We met up for a drink and some of us ended up spending New Year’s Eve together! Great fun and the best practice!!

5/ Don’t stop learning when you’re back home

You need to keep up your language skills, if not all your efforts will have been in vain. Back home, I continued watching Spanish movies, I listened to Spanish radio stations on the internet and practised with Spanish speakers whenever possible.

Looking back, going to Spain for a month was one of the best decisions ever! Not only do I know the difference between “pollo” and “polla” now, but it has convinced me that the only way to learn a language properly is to do it where the language is spoken!

Did you ever consider learning a language abroad? Which one would it be?

23 Replies to “The best tips for learning a language abroad”

  1. Penelope Smith

    This is some really good information about learning Spanish. I want to learn Spanish really well soon. It is good to know that going somewhere you have to interact with the local population will help you learn the language faster.

  2. Pingback: "You No Spanish" - My Journey of Learning a Language in a Foreign Country | Up Up and a Bear

  3. John

    I studied languages at university and so had a compulsory year abroad studying (the best year of my life) and I totally agree with you on point #1 – in my first semester in Russia, I was in Yaroslavl, a small city with few English speakers and then I moved to Saint Petersburg, the fourth largest city in Europe. Guess where I spoke the most Russian???

    I also thing a key part of language learning is to make mistakes. MILLIONS of mistakes. That’s how you learn. And question everything – see an advert on the bus you don’t understand? Go home and look it up. This vocabulary will stick with you even better if you are forced to go and “seek” it out 😀

    Of course, now my Russian is REALLY rusty… haha.

    • Els Post author

      I like the example of “seeing an advert and then looking it up”, I do that all the time too 🙂 It’s a great way to expand your vocabulary! Your stay in Yaroslavl must’ve been a great experience!

  4. Allison @ A Foodie in Europe

    If you can understand the different accents from Andalucia then you are golden for the rest of the country! I have friends from Almeria and when they come to visit me in Valencia my friends here have a hard time understanding them!

  5. Marie-Carmen

    I think it’s hard to resist the Andaluz culture isn’t it?
    A beautiful night life, people… Andalusia is where my family is from and I love the area.
    Hope you’ll get a chance to get back since you liked it so much!

  6. Chris

    I was thinking of doing something similar myself – I need the pressure of being immersed in foreign language speaking country in order to learn. What a great place to do it!

    How long do you think you would need to be immersed in a country in order to be fluent?

    • Els Post author

      It depends on how talented you are I guess 🙂 I would suggest to take some lessons at home first, so you don’t have to start from scratch. But it’s amazing how quickly you pick things up when you are really immersed and forced to speak the lingo. That’s why I’d suggest to take a place that isn’t too touristy yet! I started off with low intermediate level and ended with advanced level after one month…

  7. Michael Huxley

    How amazing to learn a language ‘in’ country like that. It is the best way to pick things up I think if you are constantly surrounded by it. I just wish I had the aptitude for languages, unfortunately nothing ever seems to stick with me! ;D

  8. Carmen @CarmensTravelTips

    There’s no better way to learn a language when to be forced to speak it. I took my daughter to the Canary Islands to visit family and she was forced to communicate with them in Spanish. It was a great experience for her. I’m glad that you enjoyed your time in Spain.

    • Els Post author

      I have quite a few Spanish speaking friends and often listen to a Spanish radio station so I do continue practising whenever I can! 🙂 + in November I’m going back to Cádiz!

  9. Richelle

    Learning the local language always opens up so many doors. I’ve been working on my Chinese for a few years and I love having conversations with locals. It really makes my experience so much more worthwhile.

  10. TammyOnTheMove

    You are brave to learn Spanish in Andalucia. I can`t understand a word of what they are saying usually. I have been learning Spanish in Bolivia and Peru over the past 5 months and I find the Spanish here is very clear. Good luck to you! : )

    • Els Post author

      Haha, true! It’s the most difficult accent in the whole of Spain! When I went to Madrid, I thought: mmm, these people actually pronounce all letters of a word! 🙂

  11. Tim

    I wish you all the very best in your desire to move, some day, to Spain. It is a gorgeous country and I can understand your desire. Good luck with your continued learning of the language.


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