What you actually learn when you study abroad

Fall is always a fairly hectic time of year for anyone still in school. Whether you’re starting university or college for the first time, starting at a new school, or just starting a new year (and have obviously redefined your whole wardrobe and ergo persona as a result), it’s exciting and a little bit scary each time it rolls around.

Since it’s the start of the academic year around most of the world, anyone starting any kind of study abroad program will leave either over the summer or at the latest, September, and would be in the thick of their time away right now. There are a million pages online showing gifs of Emma Stone drinking wine and girls taking selfies in front of the Eiffel Tower, telling you how you’ll get the travel bug and you’ll miss food from home and how living in a country improves your grasp of the language so much. Everyone will tell you before you leave how you’re going to have the best experience of your life, and everyone coming back from their time abroad will lecture you on how everyone should have to do it and you should make the most of every minute.

And they’re right! I’m not going to bemoan what truly is an incredible experience, and which, thanks to educational links and funding and people wanting native English-speaking interns, is more and more accessible to young people.

I am, however, going to be a little bit more open about it, and how it can feel at first. That way, I hope that if you’re on your year or semester abroad and aren’t having the absolute best most amazing time of your life just yet, you’ll know that it’s totally OK and normal.

You will miss the most bizarre things

This one shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Some people miss certain types of food; some people will cry out that they miss their cat more than their parents. You might miss the weather. Even if you move from Seattle to Spain, it’s amazing how homely rain can be. I missed the architecture. I love the architecture of where I am, it’s really interesting and beautiful, but I still think about buildings at home and how totally different they are, and it makes me a bit homesick sometimes.

Learning a language is not something that instantly happens when you move

I always assumed that immersing myself in a country that spoke the language I was learning would be a guaranteed way to become fluent instantly. Surely if you’re surrounded by it for a year, you’d have to walk around with your ears switched off not to become fluent?!

Not necessarily. You still have to focus and pay attention just as much as you did in class, though you learn about a million times quicker, which helps. I also found the best thing to do was to ask native speakers to correct me if I made mistakes. I still feel embarrassed and a bit gutted when they do correct me, but I know that it is helping in the long run!

The language you learned in school is almost no use

Obviously this isn’t too much of a surprise, because textbook languages aren’t what is generally spoken in real life. You don’t study slang or incorrect grammar or intonation, but even worse is the standard topics of conversation. I learned how to talk about the environment and nuclear energy and drug addiction, then came abroad and had to work out how to open a bank account and pay the gas bill. It’s a totally different style of language, and this is the only way to learn it; but you will be totally in the deep end!

Culture shock is a very real thing

I kind of assumed that as I wasn’t going anywhere outrageously different, the people and the culture would be the same. I don’t know what I thought of as “culture,” but I was definitely wrong, and you will be faced with so many tiny things that stand out as different every day. Whether it’s how people act on the bus, the basic foodstuffs that are (or aren’t!) in the supermarket, or the hours people keep, e.g. shops closing early or not being open on the weekend, or people starting their nights out a lot later. It takes a long time to get used to them, and just when you think you’re settled, you get thrown all over again.

People aren’t always overwhelmingly grateful that you’re learning their language

This is a bit pessimistic. I was always told to at least make an effort, and not be the stereotypical English-speaker who hasn’t learned anything. And it’s true: people do like that I’m not that, and that I am trying, especially in shops and bars. But I also have been repeatedly asked why I decided to learn another language. Everyone speaks English, I could be spending my time gaining another skill, so why would I bother?! It can be a bit demotivating to be told you’re wasting your time, especially when everyone around you just wants to practice their English with you but speak in their own language to their friends. This leads onto the next point.

Not understanding what’s going on is tough

Depending on where you are, people probably speak their own language pretty damn quickly. It can take a long time to even be able to understand everything that’s going on, and no matter how much people will make an effort to include you and speak slowly and repeat things in English, when they go back to passing comments or bits of conversation with friends in their own language, you might be totally lost again. And that’s really difficult, to feel like you can’t quite get in there with a group of people because you can’t fully join in with their language and conversation.

At first, it will be incredibly, incredibly lonely

This is the part where I think a year abroad isn’t for everyone. I moved to another country alone, where I didn’t know anyone. I had an internship lined up and had to find somewhere to live, and then I spent my first weekend at home on my own because I knew no one. It’s not like when you move to university or college and everyone is in the same boat and going out together; it’s not like starting at a new school where people know how to react to you and you can find the people you’re like. In a new country with a new culture, it really does take a lot of time to find your place. I can say now, I have a few really great groups of friends, but at first I had no one, and it always takes a while to build up those relationships. That period was a time when I really had to push myself and not get too down.

As I’ve said, all of these things are totally normal and most of them will pass. Especially the loneliness, and to an extent, eventually, the language barrier. But it’s worth remembering, when you’re feeling exhausted at the end of the week and you’re struggling to understand the conversation in the bar and you don’t even know why you’re trying to learn this language, that I promise you, it is totally worth it, and you will look back on it as one of the best years of your life.

Sally Williamson is a Manchester girl lost somewhere in Luxembourg, stretching being a student out for as long as possible. She loves food, football, and films, and will have a passionate debate about anything from foundation to feminism, tweeting every step of the way at @salllyyy.

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