You’ve found the perfect English programme abroad for your degree, got accepted, and just started this exciting adventure. But then you got off the plane into a foreign country it hit you — they don’t speak your language. You’re completely out of your comfort zone and you have no idea how to overcome the language barrier.
If this feels familiar, don’t worry. Language barriers exist even for people who speak the same language. Speaking, studying, and living in another language is difficult. But it is likely that people will admire you rather than judge you or laugh at your mistakes. “People are patient, people aren’t judging you,” says Steve Kaufmann, a Canadian polyglot who speaks 20 languages.
The types of language barriers you’re likely to face
In the American sitcom Modern Family, Sofia Vergara’s character Gloria Pritchett is a Colombian living in the USA. In Season 6 Episode 7, Gloria is frustrated with the language barriers she’s been experiencing and she says, “Do you know how frustrating it is to have to translate everything in my head before I say it? Do you even know how smart I am in Spanish?”
Many international students would relate to Gloria. It is indeed very tiring to think in a different language all the time. According to a 2020 study, language barriers affect the well-being of international students, be it in their academic life or social life.
So let’s take these types of challenges one by one, and look at some example language barrier problems and their solutions.
Academic language barriers
Academic language barriers include difficulties in understanding lectures, writing essays, and sitting exams. This is one of the reasons why many universities require proof of language proficiency, such as IELTS or TOEFL.
Most undergraduate programs require an IELTS score of 6.0-7.0 whereas the minimum score for foundation degrees is usually 4.5-5.5. These admission requirements are there for a reason — your university wants to make sure that you’re ready for the course. This way, you’ll experience as few academic language barriers as possible.
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If you haven’t met the admission requirements of your dream course yet, you can consider applying for a foundation programme that will equip you with academic English skills, study skills, and cultural knowledge.
Social language barriers
Another type of language barrier occurs in social life. In a non-English speaking country, you will encounter people that don’t speak English at all. Although you will be studying in English, it is inevitable that local students will speak their native language. Even in an English-speaking country, such as the United Kingdom, you might experience social language barriers due to cultural differences or local dialects.
Whether you’re looking to improve your English or the native language of the country you’re in, the best way to overcome the language barriers of communication is to keep on practicing. Don’t forget that everyone has an accent and that everyone makes mistakes.
Many international students hold themselves back in their social life because they think their language skills are not enough. For example, let’s say that you’re studying in a country where you don’t speak the local language. Some local students from your university are going out for coffee. They asked you too, but they’re all native speakers and you’re afraid to feel excluded. What should you do?
Well, if they asked you to join them, it’s likely that they all speak English and they will talk to you in English. If you’re learning the local language, this might be a good opportunity to improve your language skills. If they end up speaking in their native language all the time and you feel left out, you can ask them to switch to English and they will understand.
Some tips on how to overcome language barriers
1. Improve your language skills.
Well, this one is obvious. But also within your grasp. Fortunately, nowadays there are many free or affordable ways of learning or improving your language skills. Starting from language applications on your phone to language classes provided by your university, or private tutors. A good tip is to start watching films, listening to songs, and reading in your target language will also speed up your learning. This is both good for your vocabulary and for understanding the local culture better.
2. Check out support groups for international students.
You are not the only international student around. Also, you are not the only one facing the challenge of language barriers. Besides your university, you might be able to find government-funded programmes, associations, or NGOs that help international students. For example, they might organise language and culture courses or special activities, such as a cooking class or a film night which can help you better integrate into the country.
3. Join societies, groups, and activities at your university.
University clubs are great places to meet people and stay connected to your hobbies. Do you play the guitar? Does your university have a band? Why not join the band then? Don’t forget — music and sports are universal! And doing a non-language-related activity can help you de-stress.
4. Make friends with both local and international students.
Local students help you discover the country’s culture and improve your language skills. Besides locals, it is also nice to make friends with fellow international students as they are in the same boat as you. By making friends with both, you’ll learn about so many new cultures.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Practice makes perfect. Try speaking in the target language as much as possible, without the fear of making mistakes. Although it’s not as easy as it sounds, it is true that we learn a language by using it. Consider asking lecturers, local friends, and international student associations if you need help with your language skills.
6. Communicate in other ways.
Start building up confidence and developing your social life by tackling other ways of communication besides plain words. Drawing, painting, music, or some acting classes are great ways to do this. You will see that you have it in you to compensate for the lack of words you temporarily face.
Language barrier or cultural diversity?
While learning a new language, make sure not to burn yourself out, and try picking up a relaxing hobby, such as sports or arts. Finding support from international student associations can also be a good idea. Once you give yourself a break, it will come much easier to study and speak in your target language.
Navigating in a different language is difficult but it helps you grow as a person and improve your communication skills. With different languages and cultures around you, you’re in a culturally diverse atmosphere, which is one of the best parts of studying abroad.