As a student of Spanish and German, half-year internships in each respective country formed a fundamental “sandwich year” of my studies and a great opportunity to improve my proficiency in each language.
Working for an English-speaking team of an international organization located in a city where English is so widely (and so enthusiastically) spoken, I was shocked at how little German I was speaking.
Excluding grocery shopping, ordering fast-food, or dealing with my landlord, days could go by without a speaking a single word of German.
My fellow course mates in Munich, Paris, and Barcelona were experiencing the same issue. In spite of good intentions, it was just far too easy for us to fall into the “English-speaking trap”, particularly when spending time with fellow international students whose lingua-franca was also English.
I realized that if I wanted to improve my German as much as possible during my study abroad year, I would have to find new and inventive ways to practice German around my work routine. Some worked better than others – maybe they will work for you, too!
1. Read the tabloids
Teachers always say that reading is the best way to build vocab. But what you read is also an important question to address.
Intense journalism covering complex political and economic topics can be very taxing for a B1-level speaker, but the simpler newspapers reporting general news stories in more accessible language are far easier to understand.
The “Berliner Kurier” became my go-to Zeitung. Each week I would buy an arbitrary issue and read whenever I had a spare moment, sharpening my comprehension of the language spoken by people I would meet in the street.
2. Keep a vocabulary journal
While reading, I would underscore unfamiliar vocabulary with a pen. This probably looked a bit weird to people who saw me doing it (one bemused woman next to me on a tram asked me what I was doing, before laughing at my explanation), but it served an excellent purpose.
One of the final things I would do before going to sleep would be to jot down all the words I had underscored that day into a small notebook before translating them. The practice of returning to and translating unknown words firmly anchors their meanings in your memory – and takes up very little time.
3. Switch up your environment
We all create lists of “must-do activities” during our study abroad experiences. In Germany, one of mine was a Bundesliga day. Yet I was quite unprepared for how educational my trips to watch football in the Olympiastadion would prove to be.
To my surprise (and delight), I serendipitously discovered an environment where I could indulge myself in conversation with as many Germans as I could manage. It is after all a crowd of predominantly local people talking and singing in their native language!
As a consequence, I returned again and again and again. So pick an existing hobby you have and simply keep doing it in your host country. Dance classes, volunteering, art exhibitions, sports events – anything!
4. Listen to the radio
It sounds obvious, but utilize the media as much as you can. If you don’t read, then watch or listen; there are thousands of great podcasts and vlogs in different languages out there, each dedicated to a different subject or domain.
The medium I choose to keep my language up to scratch (even to this day) is the radio. Avoid the pop-music heavy channels and you can find some fantastic programming.
Dispersed between local music (sung in your target language) are news bulletins, talk shows, and fast-paced advertisements that fit as much information as possible into a short amount of time. It is the ultimate acid test; if you can understand radio advertisements in a foreign language, you know your understanding must be pretty good!
5. Have 10 conversations per day
But there really is no substitute for actual conversation with a native speaker. So I began to undertake a small challenge every day; converse with 10 different people in German. It didn’t matter with whom, about what or for how long. I just took advantage of every opportunity and I forced myself to converse with the baker, the retail assistant, the man checking tickets on the metro, the people promoting charities in the street….
Interestingly, this tip is shared with participants in confidence-building courses. And when you think about it, isn’t growing the confidence to speak spontaneously a big part of learning a foreign language? So get out there, make mistakes, learn from them, watch your fluency grow and enjoy every second of your study abroad experience!