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Grad School Abroad

Tips for language learning while in grad school abroad.

March 2, 2015

Hanna Peacock is a PhD student in Cardiovascular Sciences at KU Leuven. You can find her on Twitter @hannapeacock or at her website.

Moving abroad for grad school is a great opportunity to learn a new language. For some programs, in order to be able to communicate with your colleagues, you’ll need to have a good grasp of the language when you arrive. In many other programs the working language is English, even if that is not the main spoken language in the region. I recently moved to Flanders, the northern part of Belgium, for my doctorate. While my program is in English, learning Flemish (Dutch) has still been quite useful and fun. I’m far from fluent, but people keep assuring me that if I stick with it, I’ll get better.

Here are a few things I’ve found useful in my first few months of language learning.

Build a Vocabulary Before You Go

Knowing some language basics before you arrive in a new region can make the transition much less intimidating. When I arrived in Belgium, I was too shy to speak any Dutch beyond “dank u” (thank you). However, having a small vocabulary meant that I could read some signs, and, if absolutely necessary, string together a few words with some miming to communicate what I needed. I used Babbel ($6.95-$12.95/month) to learn some Dutch before coming to Belgium. Babbel teaches vocabulary with flashcards, and also has a decent grammar component. Another popular, and free, program is Duolingo, which is centered around using games to learn a language.

Take Lessons

You may be able to get free or discounted language classes through your university. Taking evening language lessons may seem like spending your free time going to school, but that hasn’t been my experience. Though I have to concentrate to form grammatically correct sentences, and remember the words for things, it’s a completely different sort of thinking than when I’m at work. Besides learning the language, I’ve found Dutch class to be a great way to learn about the culture of the region I’m in. Since the class is geared to foreigners, many of the readings and videos are about history, culture, and cuisine in the region. Language classes are also a great place to make friends with other newcomers.

Speak in Shops

Using your shaky new language skills out in public can be terrifying. I’ve had a few different experiences speaking in Flemish in shops. Most often people are very patient as I clumsily try to explain what I need. They will answer in Flemish, and only switch to English if I look confused. Other times, people will answer me in rapid Flemish. At this point, I usually panic and speak English. Occasionally, people will immediately answer me in English. You never know how it’s going to go until you try. If it goes well, it’s a great feeling of accomplishment, and if it goes poorly, it’s only two minutes.

Find a Hobby

While you will learn grammar and vocabulary in language classes, you may not really use the language until you are immersed in it. Participating in a hobby in your new language can give you a chance to practice, broaden your vocabulary, and, again, help you make new friends. Taking some sort of class can be particularly fun and challenging. Not only are you focusing on improving a skill, you also have to try to quickly figure out what the instructor is telling you to do.

Watch TV

I’ve mainly been watching TV in English with Dutch subtitles, but I’ve picked up a lot of new phrases just from that. Better still is watching shows or movies in your new language, if they’re available. File this under “productive procrastination.”

Extra Tip: Dual-language Spellcheck

On a Mac you can add a second language, so that you can have spellchecking for both English and your new language. Go to System Preferences > Language & Region and add a preferred language.

On an iOS device, if you have keyboard for your new language, you activate autocorrect in that language when the keyboard is selected. Go to Settings > General > Keyboard > Keyboards and add a new keyboard in that language. When typing, press on the globe button to change the language of the keyboard and activate autocorrect.

Here’s how to do this on a Windows computer.

Good luck with your language learning!

What ways have you found to make learning a new language easier?

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Veyis Polat and used under a Creative Commons license.]



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