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16 Tips for Learning a Foreign Language While Teaching English Abroad
Written by: Matt Birgy
Last Updated: January 19, 2021
Nothing says you know your way around a foreign country better than actually speaking the language. While this may not be our primary goal in living or teaching English abroad, it’s a fantastic exercise that invariably challenges your mind in new ways, your humility in others, and brings about insights into the culture of a nation’s people. Making the effort is worth it! Locals will notice and appreciate that you have made yourself a guest in their country (not the other way around, the golden rule in travel etiquette). Besides, when you are living in a foreign country and immersed in their language nearly 24 hours a day - this provides you a true opportunity to learn and master that language. Embrace the opportunity.
From Baby Talk to Seasoned Pro: Here are Some Tips for Learning a Foreign Language While Teaching Abroad.
1. Keep a Journal
Write what you hear! Everything you hear or understand, anything that really connects with you (new vocabulary, phrases, an expression that stood out)…write them down in a journal! The physical act of writing will help you retain what you have learned. Revisit your notes every week/month to keep them fresh. You'll be surprised how quickly you fill your notebook if you do this every day.
2. Learn to Laugh at Yourself & Don't be Afraid to Make Mistakes
You’re going to make mistakes. Sometimes painfully embarrassing ones. Laugh at yourself, embrace the process and give yourself credit for making an effort! It takes determination to learn a foreign language and keeping a positive attitude will curb the inevitable frustration that comes from time to time.
3. Speaking with "Hands and Feet"
You’ll be gesturing your way through life for a while. That’s OK. But don’t be content just to get your point across! Ask them “how do you say that in ______” (the first practical question you should master saying) and they’ll give you the answer on the spot.
Pro Tip: This is one example of a technique foreign language teachers use elicit the meaning of a word or concept. Drawing the language out of the student is a key to immersion teaching.
4. Verbs > Nouns
Objectively speaking, in many languages a complete sentence needs a verb, and verb only. Referring to things/nouns in your immediate physical surrounding as ‘this’ or ‘that’ while gesturing about only gets the point across if folks know what (insert that verb here!) in the heck you want with it.
Verbs = power. This is where you should target your initial vocabulary efforts.
5. Questions > Answers
Want to really take your Passive Vocabulary (words you understand) and make it Active (words you actually use)? Native speakers naturally use a wider vocabulary than you will speaking a second language, which is great exposure. So ask them question and shut-up! Seriously!
Native speakers introduce (passive) vocabulary into the conversation, and with new words in play you’re more likely to attempt them yourself on the spot, rebutting their commentary. They stretch vocabularies farther than you can push them on your own, and that’s how you get better.
6. Keep it Age Appropriate
If you’re struggling with dense political journalism or literature, it might be time to pump the breaks. So ask yourself this: Can I read an entire paragraph, page or chapter without getting out the dictionary? If you just answered ‘No’ to this question and are constantly stopping to look up new words this is your next step:
Look into youth literature or even kids’ books/programs. The straight-forward, simple sentence structures that you’re seeing over and over again are tangible for your own speech. It’s more likely you can infer the meaning of new vocabularies without looking them up on the spot. Sometimes it pays to keep it Elementary.
7. Frequency & Repetition vs Overexposure
Like that book? Read it again! Read each chapter twice before moving on. Go for “the gist” the first time around without pausing, then take your time and analyze interesting phrases and new vocabulary the next time around.
The same goes for movies. Watch a scene and try to get the gist with the dialogue. Next time, try rewinding back to the phrases you didn’t quite catch and listen until you’ve made out the particular expression/cadence/accent.
You’ll learn the most through high frequency and repetition. Re-watching a short scene from one movie 10 times over will be more beneficial than watching the entire film once, feeling overwhelmed. The same goes for a good chapter in a book.
8. Don't Believe the Dream
Ever heard that “you know you’re fluent when you dream in a foreign language”? Maybe it’s just me, but my first dreams in a “foreign language” were beyond disorienting. Everyone was talking over me, I couldn’t keep up or respond to anything; I was barely treading water. While this isn’t really a tip, if it happens to you, just know that there’s someone out there who feels you.
9. Talk to Yourself
You know those tricky “R’s” and difficult words to pronounce? They’re not going to come out right until you’ve had plenty of reps. Repeat these under your breath as you walk down the street or aloud as you sit in your apartment alone. Eventually, it comes out effortless and this will improve your confidence when in company.
10. Read Yourself to Sleep
Reading aloud is an exercise that will help you physically build muscle memory with a better accent, more consistently. Try it. You might be surprised at the fatigue you actual feel by speaking in a different way, with a new accent. It’s not unlike going for a run for the first time in a year, your legs turning to rubber and feeling shaky. When I first started speaking in a foreign language, I realized that after a 10 minute conversation, I sounded like I’d had far too much to drink. That’s not going to change until you get your sea legs underneath you.
Just as teachers set objectives for students and target a specific area for language improvement, focus singularly on the task of pronunciation and don’t worry about the actual point of a story or its theme. That is a separate exercise. Practiced like this several times a week for 10 minutes at a time.
11. Get TEFL Certified
No, seriously. Reading. Writing. Speaking. Listening. Grammar. Vocabulary. These are your cornerstones for language development and you will learn how to effectively teach them by getting TEFL certified. You’ll have a playbook of ideas and techniques you use to teach your students. You’ll also gain a better idea as to your personal strengths and weaknesses as a language learner (are you more of an auditory, photographic or kinesthetic learner?) How could this not help diversify your approach as you teach yourself?
Target small, individual objectives and practice them with intention.
12. We Really Only Listen Half the Time
Don't fret over not understanding every single syllable of every single word in every single sentence of every single dialogue. It wasn’t until I returned to the States and was hanging out with my closest friends that I realized; I don’t ‘understand’ half of what these dudes are saying! It blew my mind how lazy we both spoke and listened.
Keep this in mind:
- As native English speakers, we can infer what someone is saying without them even finishing the idea.
- As native English speakers, we know everyone can infer what we are going to say so we really only emphasize one or two important words in a sentence, and we just cram the less pertinent words into a sloppy mumble because we know it doesn’t change our ability to get our point across.
- In the spirit of laziness or efficiency, most of us talk like this. That’s what makes us authentic.
13. Keep Your Relationships in One Language
It can be straight up awkward to switch to the foreign language after you’ve developed a friendship with someone using English. In life and evolution, we usually take the path of least resistance. In this context, it means we’re likely to speak in the language that will help us communicate the easiest. That very well may be English, if you allow it to be.
Sometimes you have to be stubborn, let it be known that you only want to speak in their language and don’t cross the barrier because you feel the need to tell a story for story telling’s sake. If you don’t have it in the bank, don’t spend it.
Pro-Tip: Language exchanges, where two individuals meet up and spend half the time speaking English and half the time the foreign language, can be extremely useful for beginners. Consider that the exception.
14. Stop Translating
That dictionary you have that gives you’re the French/Korean equivalent for an English word; throw it away! Get a real foreign language dictionary. These are usually titled [French/Japanese/Spanish] “as a Foreign Language” and not only teach you a new word, but give you real context for using it, typical collocations or idioms to use, all while reinforcing (simpler) words you’ve already learned because they are geared for non-native speakers!
15. Down the Rabbit Hole
If the definition for a word you are studying involves another new word for you, well, look it up. If there’s a new word in that definition, look that up too. Sometimes you’ve got to go head first down the rabbit hole.
Pro Tip: Get an English as a Foreign Language dictionary as well. This will help you develop your “teacher voice”
16. Language Classes & Tutors Will be Cheaper
In most countries around the globe, you can take classes or get tutoring in the local language for much less than you can in your home country. While you may not have a ton of time or money to invest in language classes while teach abroad, just a couple of hours of instruction a week from a trained teacher who is a native speaker can go a long way in providing you with guidance, insights & tools to use in your language learning endeavors.
Matt Birgy is a member of the ITA Advising team, Matt has taught abroad in South Korea, studied in Germany, worked with adult ESL students in Chicago and visited over 20 countries worldwide. Between his teaching days in Korea and working as a senior advisor at ITA, Matt has more than 10 years of professional work experience in the field of TEFL and Teaching English Abroad.
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