So you want to learn a new language—by dropping yourself in a foreign country without knowing a single word. It’s feasible! From someone who is currently experiencing this phenomenon on a semester abroad in Meknes, Morocco, here are five pieces of advice I have for anyone else embarking on this linguistic adventure.
1. Take a language course in your destination country.
Ideally, find one that oscillates between elementary grammar—ground-up language learning—and the conversational, throw-you-in-there type learning. You’ll find both aspects essential as they will help you to start speaking right away but also to grasp the language structure, which will just enable you to learn faster.
2. Get a translator app, but don’t become dependent.
The reality is, you’re not even going to try speaking the translated words because you can’t pronounce them; you’ll end up just having them read your message, which means that you’re not learning any new words in the process. While Google Translate is helpful, try to use it as a last resort rather than a go-to.
3. Write down new words, and put them somewhere you can see them.
When I got to Morocco, before even unpacking my suitcase, I was writing words down on index cards and taping them to my closet door. It might be unusual décor, but it is infinitely helpful, since any time I open my closet I’m staring at “mafhamtsh” and scanning my brain for what it means. If I can’t remember, I flip over the flashcard to see the English definition on the other side. It works. I’ve already “graduated” more than a dozen flashcards from the closet door because I looked at them so many times that I memorized the words.
4. Try to find a travel companion who has studied the language.
Especially after finding out my host mom spoke zero English, I was grateful to have a roommate with 2 years of collegiate-level Arabic under her belt. Savannah saved my butt when I needed unexpected help—like the time I found a pigeon in the shower. A study buddy can also help people who don’t share a language to exchange and learn more abstract words. It is easy for me to point at the bread and say, “Kaifa kul?” (what is this?), but more difficult to charade my way through “Do we have celery?”. Remember though: a translator friend should function as training wheels to be shed later on, not a crutch you use to avoid learning the language yourself.
5. Give yourself grace—i.e., undeserved credit.
You will stumble over conversations with locals, but remember that you are here to learn and knew this was going to happen. You are making progress—slowly and surely. For now, embrace your toddler-like communication skills, laugh at yourself, and keep moving. You’re on the greatest adventure of your life; if you keep it up, you’ll one day find yourself experiencing the priceless treasure of knowing another culture and language besides your own.