How to Learn a Foreign Language While Teaching Abroad

So, you want to learn a foreign language while teaching abroad? It’s not going to be easy, but if you’re willing to try new things, make a few mistakes, and be proactive, you have a good chance of making a lot of progress! I studied Spanish in college as my minor, but I forgot a lot of vocabulary and grammar over the years before I left for Ecuador. When my host mom asked me my age, I accidentally said that I was 26 years old instead of 16 years old! I’ve come a long way though (according to my host family and fellow friends).

Learning a foreign language abroad is a great way to make new friends, open up future career opportunities, and understand the culture in ways you never thought possible. It’s always beneficial for your brain, so you can’t go wrong there. Also, yeah, it’s a bit harder to learn a language if you’re older, but it’s doable! Stop making excuses and you’ll start seeing results with some discipline, dedication, and determination.

Learning a language while teaching abroad

A language exchange club meeting I attended in Quito.

I’ve broken down how to learn a foreign language while teaching abroad into three main steps: 

FIRST STEP: Be realistic about your goals. 
If you’re teaching English in a country that predominantly speaks English, you probably won’t make a lot of headway with a foreign language. However, if you are learning Russian in Russia, German in Germany, Spanish in Ecuador, etc., you’ll have much better chances because you’re immersed in a country full of native speakers.

Also, if you’re only teaching abroad for a few weeks or months, then you’re probably not going to become fluent in that language. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment but believe that with discipline, you can achieve your goals! I knew that I was only going to be in Ecuador for 10 months, and I had learned Spanish before in college. My goal was to become conversationally fluent, which was attainable and I succeeded.

Bull's-eye

SECOND STEP: Decide what you want to focus on and how you will do it. 
Do you want to get better at listening, speaking, writing, and/or reading? What about vocabulary, grammar, or pronunciation? Don’t forget about slang and idioms!

Here are 10 ideas for language learning abroad:
1. Live with a host family that doesn’t speak your native language.
2. Find language exchange clubs online and regularly attend the meetings.
3. Join sports teams, practice yoga, volunteer, attend social events, take cooking or dancing classes, etc. in the target language.
4. Take lessons at a language school.
5. Practice individually with other relatives of the host family, friends, and English teachers from the area — You can practice in English with them for an hour and the native language for another hour. Be disciplined about it!
6. Immerse yourself in the media: Watch shows, read books/magazines/news, read menus/advertisements, and listen to music in the target language.
7. Practice writing at least 100 words every day in the target language and ask someone is a native speaker of your target language/bilingual to edit your work.
8.  Carry around a dictionary, and DO NOT STOP LOOKING UP WORDS! Vocabulary is key!
9. Try conversing with people in restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores, etc. in the target language. 
10. Study a bit of grammar every day with an app or by reading a textbook or language blogs. 

Calendar

THIRD STEP: Use a calendar to block off times for your language learning. 
I highly recommend using a calendar via a gmail account that syncs with your phone. You should practice the language every day for at least 2 hours! Maybe you attend language exchange clubs two days a week, you practice with other people in the community a couple days a week, you read and write every day, and you take classes once a week. Honestly, it’s up to you based on what’s available in the area and your teaching schedule.

The three steps I’ve mentioned for how to learn a language while teaching abroad are based on my own experiences in Ecuador. Just remember, some things will work for you and others won’t. You’ll definitely trip up along the way, but as you continue practicing, your confidence will continue to grow. Life truly begins outside of your comfort zone, and you’ll have some amazing experiences if you get out of yours while learning a language abroad!

Any other ideas for learning a language while teaching abroad? I’d love to hear from you below!

Thanks for reading!

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3 thoughts on “How to Learn a Foreign Language While Teaching Abroad

  1. meeyey says:

    Hi Sydney, thanks for this post.
    I just moved to Belgium to settle down with my husband and I’ve been delaying when to start learning Dutch. We live in the city center and everyone seems to be fine speaking with me in English so it doesn’t motivate me that much to start immediately. I also feel too embarassed to mispronounce words and make mistakes. Oh well. I guess I just have to do it!
    Wishing you great success with your career teaching abroad.

    • sydneyethompson says:

      I’m glad you liked it! That’s amazing that you live in Belgium and that your year of yeses brought you to where you are now. I definitely recommend taking Dutch lessons at a school to help you get started! Oh, I finished teaching ESL in Quito in August and now I’m living back in Colorado and trying to figure out what to do next in my life. Hopefully it’s in communications!

      • meeyey says:

        I just ordered a copy of Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. Hopefully this will be a good primer for me before I dive in to my formal lessons! I’m excited and thank you for the encouragement. Wishing you the best in your search for your next passion project. Communications is a promising field, I’m sure you’ll do great!

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