Journeys Magazine

Why you should embrace the language barrier on exchange

If you enjoy feeling like an idiot, you should throw yourself into a foreign language when you go on exchange. Oh, and you might learn a thing or two about yourself while you’re at it, says Gina Baldassarre.

It was after a misunderstanding with a French shopkeeper involving the use of a regional slang word for plastic bag that I thought it was time to stop keeping track of my language fails on my year on exchange. The French, I decided, would just have to deal with another foreigner making a mess of their language.

However, it seems most Australian students heading on exchange don’t want to have to deal with the dreaded language barrier at all. Though the number of outbound students keeps rising, with the latest figures of student mobility from UNESCO showing that over 11,000 Aussie students set off on exchange or study abroad programs last year, over 8000 of those students went to one of either the United States, the United Kingdom, or New Zealand (that’s the one I really don’t get).

Admittedly, the college dorm or student town concept means life as a university student in the US and the UK might be somewhat different to student life in Australia, but if you’re going to bother spending tens of thousands of dollars to study on the other side of the world, why not go for broke and pick a country where they don’t speak English as a main language? Maybe I’m just biased given the year in France, but there’s nothing quite like throwing yourself into a completely foreign country.

There are many benefits: not only do you get to immerse yourself in a vastly different culture, but you get to learn another language too. In a time when university graduates need all the skills they can get to set themselves apart from the horde in the job market, being fluent in another language is a particularly handy skill to be able to put down on the résumé and talk up in a job interview. Given our proximity to the Asian market, Australian students would do well to get a handle on an Asian language, while learning Spanish may be useful if you want to work in America one day.

Not fussed about job prospects? What about the fact that learning another language and putting it into practice every day gives you valuable life skills? It’s true that students will gain life skills no matter where they go on exchange – seemingly simple tasks like buying a new SIM card, opening a bank account, and enrolling in host university classes can make students feel like toddlers learning to walk again thanks to unfamiliar rules and regulations. Even in English, dealing with administration systems you’re not familiar with can be extremely frustrating, to the point where you’re convinced the lady at the bank is talking in Swahili even though you’re definitely in London speaking English. Conquering these systems in a new language? You just slayed a dragon.

Dragon slaying abilities aside, learning a new language can also help you grow as a person, literally – did you know Swedish scientists found that learning a new language can increase the size of your brain? Putting it into practice among native speakers in an unfamiliar environment can also open up a different side of your personality. In the kind words of a Czech proverb, “Learn a new language and get a new soul.” To put it bluntly, it’s probably because you’ll feel like an idiot most, if not all, of the time.

On the bright side – and I think this is what the Czechs meant – you get better at really listening to people and thinking before you speak. I’m a native English speaker, fluent in Italian, and can hold a conversation or two in French, and I’m a different person in each language. For example, I’m much more polite in French and Italian, for the simple fact that I’m convinced that foreign swear words sound unnatural coming out of my mouth. I had to keep a lot of anger inside in France last year – there is no bigger dragon than French administration – but my inability to react to certain situations as I would have if I had been in an English-speaking environment meant I was forced to observe and try to understand the culture, and why I wanted to react to it the way I did.

Exchange is probably going to be the best semester or year of your life no matter where you go, but if you really want to discover a new side of yourself during your time on exchange, throwing yourself into a new language is the best way to do it.

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