Pre-Departure Activities

Below are a variety of resources to help you with your study abroad experience.

Taken from: Paige, Michael R., Cohen Andrew D., Kappler, Barbara., Chi, Julie C., Lassegard, James P. Maximizing Study Abroad, A students’ Guide to Strategies for Language and Culture Learning and Use. 2006. Second Edition. University of Minnesota. Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition.

To me, the number one project for pre-departure would be EXPOSE YOURSELF TO THE LANGUAGE (which I did not do enough)! Rent movies. Go to conversation groups. Figure out how to get a host country radio station over the Internet. Order books on tape in the target language through interlibrary loan (or better: ask your language teachers. They probably have stuff.) I’m sort of ranting because the one aspect of my German that is the most frustrating is the inability to understand speech.

~Molly Zahn, Germany

In getting ready to go to Malaysia, I had great plans to study the language before leaving. But working to pay for the trip and studying for the heavy course load I had were all that I could manage! Before leaving, I did review some basic grammar and pronunciation. People had told me that I would be able to get by with English. They were right; I could get by with English. But even better than getting by, I was also able to learn some Bahasa Malaysian and some Cantonese from friends I met in-country. Being open to the language and the basics that I reviewed before departing made a big difference.

~Barbara Kappler, Malaysia

Improving your listening skills doesn’t have to wait until you are in your host country. Try some of these ideas to get started:

  1. Listen to the radio from your host country over the Internet. You can find good sites simply by launching a browser and searching for keywords such as “international radio” or the language you are interested in and the word “radio.”
  2. Form a group to watch foreign films (ones that are not dubbed into English) in the target language. Listen to the movies while taking into account the strategies suggested in this section.
  3. Find CDs of songs recorded in the target language and try to understand them not only for their words, but also for their meaning. Being familiar with popular music and musicians from the country also gives you something to talk about with new friends.
  4. If possible, go to a local market where customers speak your target language and eavesdrop on conversations about the prices of meat or the quality of the produce. Listen to the grocer give directions to someone about where to find a particular item in the store.

It can be difficult to gauge your skills in some of these areas while still in the U.S. For example, I had NO IDEA how bad my comprehension of conversational-speed German between Germans was until I got here—I had simply never been exposed to it before because of course, my teachers and classmates at my university didn’t talk like that. However, if you begin to recognize your strengths and weaknesses before you go, you can focus on improving your skills. This will make your life drastically easier when you get there!

~Molly Zahn, Germany

Make a list of the words you expect to use often. Make flash cards or write them in your journal so you can review them every day.

Purchase sets of ready-made flashcards available at student bookstores and online (just search for the language you want and “flash cards”). Often the ready –made sets of cards include extra information about the words, such as the forms for the verbs in different tenses.

Spend time with native speakers and have them provide you with crucial vocabulary you might not know. You will need to tell the native speaker what situation you need vocabulary for, such as calling a museum to get information about hours. Then he or she will be able to walk you through a mock conversation.

Make a commitment to learn 10 new words a day.

Discover materials that you can read online. Look for newspapers, magazines, articles about your hobbies, etc., in your target language.

Think of yourself as a natural topic of conversation and learn how to talk about you. People in your host country may be quite curious about you, or the conversation may turn to you simply as a cultural expression of politeness. Either way, it will be helpful, especially when you first arrive, to know some statements prepared about yourself.

Potential conversation topics may include:

  • Your basic activities in the host country: What are you doing there? Studying economics at the local university? Researching the traditional fiber arts of the area? Learn the correct words and phrases needed to describe these activities.

  • Your living situation in the host country: What city or region are you in? Do you have a host family? Are you sharing an apartment with other students? Are you living in a dormitory?

  • Your length of stay in the host country: When did you arrive? How long will you stay? Will you travel? What do you hope to see or do?

  • Your life in the U.S.: Where are you from? Are you a student? Do you work full time? What do you do for recreation or fun at home?

  • Your family: Where is your family? Do you have brothers and sisters? Are you married? Do you have children?

Want to impress your fellow travelers with your language skills?

Do you have visions of saying just the right thing when you meet your host family? or do you just want to know if you can hold up your end in a basic conversation?

Before you depart for your host country, you’ll want to brush up on your vocabulary so that when you arrive you won’t be groping around for important words. Here are a few things you can do before you go:

Note: Depending on what country you are staying in, be prepared for some “unusual” questions about yourself (unusual in that they may not be considered polite topics of conversation in the U.S.). For example, one study abroad student was asked on several occasions how much she weighed while she was in her host country. Other students have noticed being surprised when asked how much they paid for something or how much money they earned. They may be some other topics that you prepare for before you go with a little research on the host country or with the help of a host country native.

You may think that it is best to wait until you are safely ensconced in your new environment to worry about really trying to speak the target language. Guess what? It may be less stressful if you start beforehand to “break the language barrier.”

Some of you may be lucky enough to be at schools where there are programs designed to help you meet international or local students who speak the language you are learning. Or it may be that you live in an area that has a community of people who are native speakers of your target language. In either case, you have a great opportunity to spend some time before you leave speaking the l language with native speakers. Here are some useful suggestions from students who themselves have prepared to study abroad:

  • Spend a day with a native speaker or group of speakers of the target language
  • Have regular meeting with a conversational partner over coffee
  • Practice the language over the phone if you cannot meet in person
  • Offer a language exchange with international students on your campus—the internationals practice their native language with you in exchange for your help in improving their conversational skills in English
  • Speak with friends and fellow students who are studying the target language, ideally those who are a bit more advanced than you and possible with experience in having used that language abroad.

If you don't know groups of students who speak the language you are trying to learn, try some of these strategies:

  • Contact your school’s study abroad office, language departments, or local community groups that are involved with international activities to locate native speakers of the language you are learning.
  • If you are enrolled in a language class, you could ask if your instructor knows of opportunities outside of class to practice your new language
  • At the least, you’ll want to speak up in class as much as possible!

The more time that you can spend practicing speaking, the better. Whenever and however you can, try to find opportunities to surround yourself with the target language. When you do this, you are allowing yourself to open up to the new language and lessen the “language shock” you may experience when you are in another country. If you don’t have any of these opportunities available to you before departure, read on and discover strategies you can use once you have arrived in your host country.

Being able to understand the text in another language helped me feel self-sufficient. It allows a freedom from dependency on others.

~Jon DeVries, world Traveler

Like an awakening, there’s a point when you realize you’re relying more on instinct than a dictionary to breeze through your French novel. Even if fleeting, at that moment I’ve felt like a cultural insider…as if I might have been born in the wrong place.

~Kristin Mishra, France

If I can read a local newspaper in a place that I travel, it’s empowering, exciting. Feels like another window opens on a different world.

~Steve Theobald, world traveler

Like to read poetry? Science fiction? Cookbooks? Whatever you like to read in English is the best thing to read in your target language before study abroad. Why? Because you’ll have the motivation to read it! Here are a few tips for finding resources in your target language:

  • Ask your language teachers.
  • Check your university or local library’s collection for subscriptions to international and national newspapers.
  • Search the Internet using your host country’s name as your keyword.
  • Check out online bookstores to find foreign books.
  • Talk to local native speakers for their suggestions.
  • Ask fellow students, local native speakers, or your language teacher if you can borrow materials.
  • Choose a dictionary that’s best for you to aid in your reading practice.

Before you head off to a new world of writing in a second language, you might find it useful to get in a little practice. Who are the first people that you will meet in the new country? Who will you need to interact with the most when you first arrive? Most often, these people are your host family members, a supervisor, or a landlord. What will you say to them when you first meet them? What do you most want to tell them about yourself?

Since you may be very nervous, and a little tongue-tied, you might find it helpful to write a letter of introduction. This way you have the opportunity to tell them exactly what you want to say without leaving out one detail, and you also will be able to use the language correctly. If you are not sure how formal or informal to be in your letter, it may be best to err on the side of more formal. In general, the U.S. has a relaxed writing style (calling people by their first names, using contractions, following casual rules of grammar). In some languages, writing too informally may send a signal that you are not respectful of the recipient’s status, age, etc.