The Study Abroad Mindset
In my last post, I discussed some tangible tips that I hope will help students planning on going abroad. This time around, I want to write about something that I consider even more important: the proper mindset to have a great experience while studying in another country. These tips will help the student who wants to see many places during her trip while getting to know her host city well; who wants an authentic cultural experience; who hopes to learn the language well; and who hopes to have many new experiences. As I’m sure most people fall into one or all of these categories, this list should contain something for everyone.
1. When learning language, you must set aside ego and perfectionism
This is the most important part of language learning. It’s more important than grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc. When we learn our first language, a big part of the reason we learn it so well and so fast is because at our young age, we aren’t ashamed to make mistakes. We stumble through sentences, mispronounce words, and butcher grammar, but it doesn’t matter. This is much more difficult with a second language because we already speak a first language fluently and it’s embarrassing to sound like a three-year-old again. We want to be able to communicate our thoughts and dominate the language, but we can’t yet. It’s also more difficult because as we grow older, we become more self-conscious and develop an ego that gets in the way of allowing ourselves to fail.
When you go abroad, let go of this perfectionist approach to language learning, as it will only block your progress and leave you frustrated. Embrace the opportunity to learn and the challenges that come with it. Make thousands of mistakes and sound like a child, because that is the only way you will improve.
2. Seek to meet new people and learn about them and through them
If there’s one thing that I can guarantee about a study abroad trip, it’s that you will meet a ton of new people. This usually includes other Americans and foreigners in addition to the natives of your host country. Please take advantage of the incredible diversity and collection of interesting people you will come across. Tell yourself you’re going to aim to meet someone new each day, whether that’s at your university, on the metro, or through a language exchange event. And seek to learn about these people, because chances are many of them come from very different walks of life than you, and they will open your eyes and your mind.
In the heading of this section, when I said to learn “through” people, I was specifically referring to natives, and I mean to learn about their country by talking with them. You will learn a lot about beliefs, customs, norms, and even swear words, through them (honestly, one of my favorite things was learning colloquial sayings and swear words while talking with Spanish people). This is one of the most fun parts of living abroad, and most of this you can’t learn inside of a classroom. Getting close to the native people opens up so many doors and leave you with lifelong friends.
3. Try to break your routine when you can and do new things
After a few weeks of living in Madrid, I established a routine and living became easier and more automatic. This is a very natural thing and quite necessary if you want to get comfortable in a completely new city. Not having to worry daily about where you’re going to get groceries, how you’re going to get to class, and how much money you should be spending, ends up saving a ton of energy and makes for a much more enjoyable experience. However, this routine also presents a problem: you’ve got a limited amount of time in this new place, and you most likely want to see and try as many new things as possible while you can. My solution to this was breaking my routine.
A routine breaker could be as simple as taking a different route to class or eating at a new restaurant, but it serves a couple importance purposes. First, it gets you in a new environment and around new people, which is the whole point of studying abroad. And second, adventure breeds more adventure. Trying new things will give you more confidence to do so again and again, which will ultimately enhance your trip. The key to breaking your routine is being conscious of it and deliberate about it. You can’t assume that you will naturally burst out of your comfort zone just because you’re in a new country. We’re creatures of habit and once a routine is formed, it becomes automatic and difficult to break. Therefore, be aware of this tendency and do your best to shake things up!
Note: When I talk about routine breaking, I’m referring to your time in your host city. When traveling, you won’t really have much of a routine since you’re constantly on the go, and due to the fact that you only have a few days in a given place is enough motivation to see all there is to see. At “home” it’s much easier to fall back onto habits because you’ve got much more time there and there are commitments that structure your time, such as class.