When I was in college in the 1990s, study abroad was still a fairly marginal activity — about as common as majoring in classics.
A few spent a semester in Rome or Paris, but for most of us, the world outside the U.S. seemed far away indeed.
How times have changed. In the short span since the Internet made the world smaller, so to speak, firsthand contact with foreign countries has become something routine, rather than the once-in-a-lifetime “grand tour” it was for my parents’ generation — or even the once-around-Europe backpacking expedition it was for mine. When I taught college students a few years ago, I was astonished at how casually they trotted off to Guatemala, Tel Aviv or Hong Kong.
This is wonderful news — both for Americans’ knowledge of their increasingly interconnected world, and for the understanding that student-ambassadors promote with their mere presence. And despite the growing ubiquity of English, study abroad remains the single best way to master a foreign tongue.
These days, Skype and smart phones keep family in close touch (no more of those Sunday phone calls home). There are fewer variables inherent in the experience, but careful planning can still make the difference between a fun change of scene and a life-and-career-enhancing experience.
Here are some things to keep in mind when considering study abroad — whether in college or not.
♦ If you are studying a language, make a point of putting whatever you’ve learned that day into practice outside the classroom. This was my strategy for learning Spanish in Spain: whatever verb construction we’d drilled that morning, I’d find a way to use it in conversation that afternoon. I’d chat with the baker in the conditional tense, or use the subjunctive on my roommates. Being an active, rather than passive language learner cements knowledge faster.
♦ Strongly consider a homestay over dorms or apartments. Attending class and meeting people for drinks is a superficial experience of a place; living in a local home, hearing your hosts fret over water bills or prepare for holidays, dunks you right into their reality. A family is often multigenerational, meaning there will usually be somebody (maybe everybody) who doesn’t speak English, forcing you to communicate in the foreign tongue. Unless you live with local roommates, it’s also the only way to learn everyday vocabulary: light bulb, parking ticket, etc.
♦ Make a huge effort not to socialize exclusively with other Americans or English-speakers. This is the hardest advice to follow: in a new land, it’s natural to seek the comfort of friends from your own turf. But too many students come back with only sloppy mastery of the language, and they miss the opportunity for intercultural perspective. Push yourself to socialize out of your linguistic and cultural comfort zone. As I always tell students, you have the rest of your life to speak English to Americans.
♦ Notice what locals do, and challenge yourself to live their way temporarily. Wait until 10 for dinner in Morocco and see how it changes the rhythm of your day. Take the riposo in Italy instead of cursing closed-up shops. Switch your breakfast cereal for fish soup in Japan. You may not enjoy the change, but more often than not, participation rather than observation reveals the logic behind the customs. (After a few very late nights with Spaniards, I fully understood the siesta.)
♦ Choose your destination with an eye toward personal and professional ambition. While Americans tend to see study abroad as a cultural experience, their European counterparts view it as a way to enhance their resumes, and there’s no reason why it can’t do both. Lots of people advise looking beyond the traditional stalwarts of Britain, France and Spain for more exotic, less-developed countries. A year in Indonesia or Belize is going to yield an entirely different experience — and skill set — than a year in Paris or Berlin. Think about what your priority is: Mastering a language? (Some take far longer than others.) In Vienna, a music or art student can become immersed in nearly-free operas and museums; in Central America, every American is an English tutor waiting to happen; in Stockholm, you can do a high-tech internship with one of the many startups. All of these opportunities can enhance your future back home.
♦ Remember, it’s never too late to study abroad. Having lacked the time during college, I arranged my own three-month language study in Italy the following year; I did two summers in Spain later in my 20s. Both times, I was surrounded not only by 20-year-olds, but also by Europeans and Asians in their 30s, 40s and 50s who were indulging their intellectual curiosity and having a fabulous time.