If I study abroad, do I really need to know the language?

I mean, just memorize a few key phrases (where is the bathroom? You call this food? Not in the face!) and keep a translator dictionary in my back pocket, and I should be fine.

That whole language barrier thing will sort itself out… what with the total immersion and all, right?

Depends on the broad I guess … I mean, on the country you’re going to.

It depends on where you go and what sort of program you’re in. It can also be dependent on the language of the host country - if the language spoken there is rarely taught in the US, it’s hard to make fluency a requirement of study.

I studied abroad at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which has a small school on campus for international students with classes taught in English. Unless we could demostrate Hebrew proficiency to a certain level, we had to go to ulpan, a Hebrew language immersion. I did mine at the University of Haifa for two months in the summer before school started. Five hours of Hebrew, five days a week. When regular school started, I had twelve hours of Hebrew a week, but my other classes were all in English. If you attained a certain level of Hebrew proficiency, you could take classes at the regular university (I achieved that level just when I was leaving, so I never actually took classes in Hebrew).

I had taken Hebrew for a year at my home university for a year, but it wasn’t much help. It’s not really a commonly taught language and plenty of my classmates didn’t even have the option of taking it at their home universities.

OTOH, plenty of programs do require at least two years of university study in the language spoken, so if you’re already in college, it might be too late. A friend of mine decided he wanted to go to Argentina midway through our freshman year. He’d never studied Spanish and the only way he could get in the required language study was to do a Spanish immersion over the summer. He ended up doing a year abroad in Australia (which he absolutely loved). So if you’re nervous about foreign languages, you might want to consider studying in an English-speaking country.

I highly recommend studying abroad. I loved it, and I learned so much. It was an incredibly eye-opening experience.

Depends on the country, but I’d say you need at least an intermediate level of language to realy get the best out of it. You can survive in Romance countries with ten useful words, but not so much other places. I had to learn French and Vlamms when I studied in Belgium, and I had a fun time doing it. Same with German when I was an exchange student there, Arabic in Lebanon and Gaelic in Ireland. Of course, I pick up languages the way Colin Farrell does groupies, so I’m not the best candidate, but you’ll like it better if ytou make the effort.

AFAIK, if you’re not a child and you have NO IDEA of the language’s basic structure or any vocabulary, the total immersion thing is going to take a little longer than you want. Meanwhile, what language is this? There’s a big difference between something latin-based (like french or italian) and something completely foreign like finnish or chinese. Also, whether you’re in a big city or not can have an impact- being in the country where no one speaks english and all you have is a pocket dictionary might be dangerous. Also, are you a part of a school or group-based exchange program, or is this on your own? IMHO, many school programs are designed so that your immediate needs/surroundings are english-based, and then you can journey into the “real world” for your immersion experience.

Are you talking about a program with classes in English? People who do that are relatively common here. Most of them are in a worse situation than you because English isn’t their first language.

There are also people who know very little German in nominally German programs (which often include classes in English.) Obviously that is a lot harder, especially if you don’t know the language at all. However even limited knowledge of a language from school will help a lot.

I think that you make a lot more friends if you make an honest attempt to learn and use even just a little bit of the language (beyond just phrases in a tourist guide.) You can even offer to tutor someone in English in exchange for some “real world” language lessons. You’d be so fortunate to be immersed not only in the language but in the culture as well, where you can pick up much more than just vocabulary. You’ll learn to speak with your hands (and other body language), to add more to the words you use and the way you say them.

And when you get back to the states, imagine the impression you’d make on people from the country you studied in, when they hear you speak in their native language–even if you can only speak just a little bit.

You’ve got a golden opportunity to learn more about a language than any school
can teach you here!

Like others have said, it really just depends on what kind of program you’re going on. If you go to China on a program where you live and study with other English-speaking students, and go on day trips around the country, you won’t need to know much Chinese. If you go to Spain and you’re the only Anglophone in a Spanish-language class, yeah, you’re going to need to know Spanish. Well, you’re going to need Spanish to pass, at any rate – you’ll be able to travel around Spain with just English and a few essential Spanish phrases.

Lots of programs are somewhere in the middle, and you’ll have a choice about whether or not to hang out with other English-speakers, or really get into the local community.

Learning a language as an adult is a wonderful adventure. Learning a foreign language is a great intellectual exercise. Bill Murry after finishing Ghost Busters took a couple of years off to learn French.

Learning the language opens up a million doors. Try it, you may very well find you have a talent.

Why the heck not?

:smiley: :smiley:
Excellent. I’m going to use that the next time someone asks if I’ve studied abroad.

HallGirl 2 spent her junior year of high school in Istanbul, and she didn’t speak a lick of Turkish when she went there.

She spoke it when she returned 10 months later.

Yeah, I was thinking something like Japan or Turkey. Neither language is offered at my school. I am leaning more towards Japan, and we are affiliated with a couple of schools there, so several other people have been there before. ISU owns a couple of buildings in Rome, which they use for a mini design college. Every year they send a couple of faculty members there to teach the classes in English. So it’s a pretty popular choice among the design majors, but I just had to be different.

Right now I am on track to graduate on time, but in all honesty, my first priority will be to experience the culture, rather than just fulfilling credit requirements. So I am prepared to stay an extra semester here if that’s what it comes down to. I’d rather just take a calligraphy class, maybe some drawing, definitely some history, and the language class, and not get in over my head; rather than, say, fulfill my 300 level biology requirements. (I study scientific illustration)

Something that is worth consideration is that college is pretty expensive- not only do you have to pay living expenses, but you have to pay tuition. If going abroad is going to set you back a semester, you may be better off saving the money you’d be spending on the extra tuition and spending it on a nice long vacation after you graduate. Or, if you are interested in spending time in Japan, it’s pretty easy to get a job teaching English there and actually make money.

Studying abroad can be an amazing life changing experience, but it can also be the worst of both worlds- bullshit classes that you really have no reason to go to (college is very different in other countries, and half the time you can’t get credit for the classes), the inability to really see much of the country except what you can squeeze in on weekends, and a pre-built social group which means you’ll spend most your time with a bunch of other foreign exchange students instead of really getting immersed in to the culture.

Of course, everyone is different. YMMV.

ok, Japanese is a really difficult language, also adding to it that you’re not going to be able to look up most (if any) of their words in a dictionary, b/c you’re unfamilar with their alphabet. Also, the rural Japanese villages aren’t going to speak english- I remember going to a noodle place and having to cluck (bawk bawk bawk) to get across that I wanted soup with chicken in it and not beef or fish! I went about a year ago and, even after taking a semester of it, I couldn’t even figure out a bus schedule. You should try to get a basic idea of the language if you really want to go and spend time there learning it, but if you wanted to hang out in metro Tokyo the whole time, you shouldn’t sweat it.

wolf, you really ough to go to your school’s education abroad program office. If you have specific ideas in mind, they can help you make decisions.

FWIW, I entered college scheduled to graduate one quarter early. After studying abroad, I graduated…one quarter early. If you plan carefully, there’s no reason you can’t graduate on time.

There’s a reason Italian is so popular, it’s about the easiest of the major languages to learn. Japanese, on the other hand, is about the hardest. For a start there are three separate alphabets.

You don’t say how long you’re going to be there, but if it’s less than about 2 years, or you are not staying with someone you know already, I’d choose somewhere else.

You won’t need to know any Japanese if you come here, but the more you know the better.

Living in a foreign country can be a life-altering experience. Or, a chance to party hardy, depending on you. I’d recommend it.

The world is full of people who live in countries where they do not speak the language.

You (probably) won’t die if you don’t know the language.

I moved to Germany having had one year of German…and it had been a few years since that course.

I moved to a working-class section of Berlin where few people spoke even a few words of English. I think my low point was when a German said something to his dog, the dog got up, went and got its leash and came back to the owner’s chair. I thought, “great. The damned dog understands German better than I do.”

Trust me, when you are stuck in a position like that, you learn very quickly. My local bar, my local supermarket, the local butcher and everyone else I came in contact with helped me learn. Pretty soon, I became the local “Ami” - Berlin slang for American, not always with nice connotations.

At any rate, all of those people insisted I spoke German, they were all very helpful and I made some wonderful blunders that I bet are still being repeated and laughed about to this day.

It took me about 3 months until I pretty much understood what they were saying, and it took about 6 months until I could make myself pretty much understood. The worst part was that three months in between. I felt like a fool…I knew what they were saying but couldn’t respond. People would smile and talk to me like I was a rather tall and hairy 3 year old…“You want eat?” “You go bed?”

There I was, college educated and people were talking to me like my parents were first cousins.

Then it all started to click, my vocabulary improved and suddenly I was having adult conversations.

I wouldn’t miss the experience for anything.

Another lesson you will learn is that the next time someone asks you something in broken English, you will become a gymnast as you bend over backwards to help them.

I think you would be foolish to pass up an opportunity to learn a language in its natural setting. I took Spanish in high school and French in university, very much as sidebar courses (I’m an engineer who went into medicine). I still use both EVERY DAY – never would have thought it – in small-town Canada. And while I am no longer fluent, it helps me a great deal. You never know, and learning another language is fun and opens up a lot of doors.

Haha I was about to ask this question myself!


I took 3 years of Spanish in high school. I re-took three quarters of Spanish in college (which is equivalent to 3 years in high school) to freshen up my Spanish. That was 2 years ago. I think if I studied my Spanish book, I could get back to speed, but I don’t know if I’m ready to study abroad in Argentina. The classes will be offered in English, and we’re staying in the dorms in an Argentinian university, so we won’t be with a host family. Am I ready for this? I’ve never been to South America so I have no idea how much in over my head I am.


And learning Japanese is hard if you’re not in the right mindset. If you’re receptive and you pick up on things quickly, then I think you’re fine. I’ve had friends who were in the JET (I have no idea what that stands for) program that studied abroad and some even taught English to elementary school children. They didn’t speak Japanese fluently, but once they were immersed in the culture, they picked up on things pretty quickly. It’s all about how well you adapt to your environment.