How to overcome the language barrier
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Year abroad prep: How to overcome the language barrier

There is no doubt that if you plan to spend some time abroad, whether that’s an entire year, a few months or even just a holiday, you might be a little nervous about how to behave – especially if you’re visiting a country where you don’t speak the language. After all, it is a nerve-wracking thought to not know whether you’ll be able to order lunch in a café, set up a bank account, or deal with any other challenges that may come your way.

Fortunately, there’s a few things you can do to improve your language skills and reduce some of that pre-departure anxiety.

If you’re not a fan of hitting the books then the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself through books and local TV shows

The first and most important part of learning a language is practice. Whether you’ve been learning the language for years, or you’re only just starting out, language classes can help you improve a lot in very little time. Here at Warwick, both the Language Centre and a number of societies offer regular classes to help you prepare for your time abroad. The society World@Warwick also organizes a language café in the Terrace Bar every fortnight. At this event, you can talk to native speakers and other language learners to develop your conversational fluency.

However, if you’re not a fan of hitting the books then the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself through books and local TV shows. Buying books in the language you are learning or watching local shows through Netflix or national TV will familiarise you with the language as it is spoken between native speakers, including colloquialisms and dialect. Additionally, lots of streaming platforms come with subtitles, allowing you to read as you go along. A shout-out to all Spanish students: check out the RTVE website, which allows you to watch and stream loads of Spanish TV shows for free. One of my favourite shows from RTVE is ‘La Otra Mirada’, which discusses the ever-present issues of rape, gender discrimination and racism from the perspective of a girl’s school in Seville in the 1920s.

The next go-to place would have to be the internet – use online resources to boost your vocabulary. Duolingo, Memrise and Babbel are well-known for their language learning resources. The website ver-taal.com is a lesser-known underdog, but it has lots of resources for everyone learning Spanish, French, Dutch or Hungarian, including a vocabulary trainer that allows you to learn words by theme. For instance, in the French section “la maison”, you would learn the different parts of a house, as well as the rooms, furniture and appliances within it. The site also includes fragments of national TV, advertisements and songs.

Remember to use non-verbal cues – if all else fails, a mix of a few words, gestures and sounds can get you a long way in communicating what you want

If you’re a little old fashioned then try buying a phrase book. If you’re travelling soon, and you don’t have time to implement the tips above, buy a phrase book with English translations and pronunciation advice – it can be your life saver. It will help you survive most day-to-day situations. And don’t forget to learn phrases such as “I don’t understand” and “Can you repeat this?” right away; they’ll come in handy if you ever forget your phrase book, and will help native speakers realise that they need to be patient with you and speak in a simpler way.

Finally, remember to use non-verbal cues – if all else fails, a mix of a few words, gestures and sounds can get you a long way in communicating what you want. This requires a bit of creativity on your part, but can really help you get your point across. For instance, on an exchange programme to Spain, I needed to weigh my suitcase before returning home. As I didn’t know how to ask my guest family for scales in Spanish, I lifted the suitcase and asked “Cuánto es?” or “How much is it?”. After a bit of thought and offering a measuring tape, my host did indeed bring a scale. Whilst this is a pretty silly example, it shows how effective non-verbal cues can be if everything else doesn’t work out.

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