I was invited to write this article by the Modern Languages department at Chester, and to be honest, I had no idea where to begin! The brief was crystal clear, yet at the same time extremely confusing; write about whatever you want. I quickly realised that trying to sum up a year of my life spent abroad was not going to be an easy task. So I thought to myself, what would be the best thing to write about? What could I possibly share that wouldn’t take me another year to put together? As I thought more and more about my experiences abroad, I realised that my year had been such an amazing opportunity on so many different levels. Whilst I feel I achieved a lot, learnt a lot and travelled a lot, I also feel that for me, some of the best experiences were the mundane, everyday experiences of simply living in a foreign country. Therefore instead of offering a blow-by-blow account of my time abroad, I thought I’d offer some thoughts on how to make the most of being away, wherever it may be, and whatever it may be doing.
Just before diving into my thoughts on making the most of being abroad, here’s a brief summary of my own time away for a little context:
I spent my year abroad in Vigo, the largest city in the autonomous region of Galicia, Spain. I was working as a British Council English Language Assistant and was responsible for preparing and teaching my own classes to adult learners in a state-funded language school (Escuela Oficial de Idiomas). Over the course of the year, I met people not only from Galicia, but also other parts of Spain and from all over the world. I am still in touch with those people now and have a place I can call home all over the globe. I also travelled extensively throughout Galicia and Spain, visiting many beautiful places and making memories that will last a lifetime.
The following thoughts are based upon my own experience, and I speak only from that. I hope to offer some insightful, realistic and practical advice to those of you who are about to embark on this amazing journey or are at this point considering a year abroad in the future:
- It’s your year abroad and nobody else’s so don’t let other people’s opinions and judgments dictate how you live it. By all means listen to what everyone has to say, but weigh it all up and make the decision yourself about anything regarding what you do during your time away.
- Related to that, don’t compare your experience to other people’s. It’s very easy to be drawn into thinking your year is better or worse than everyone else’s, however everybody’s experience will be unique. Focus on your time and what you want to achieve, and whilst it’s great to be in touch with others in the same position, don’t get bogged down on comparing yourself as this will only detract from the whole experience.
- Be realistic with your language expectations. You’re going to be living in the country for a year so don’t expect to come back fluent. Unless you’re already near fluency, this simply will not happen. The important thing is to improve and keep improving. If you feel you’re not progressing, stop. Re-evaluate. Change something. Try something new. Persist. Persevere. But never stop trying!
- Be proactive with your language learning. Just because your living in the country does not mean your language skills will improve automatically. You have to find every opportunity possible to use the language. Get creative and think outside the box on how to do this. Hate being approached by salespeople and charity workers in the street? Me too, but it’s a great chance to practise; embrace it! It’s your year abroad; anything really does go!
- In a broader context, remember that language learning is a lengthy process and your year abroad is just one part of this process. No doubt you will have been learning the language for some time before your year abroad and you will continue to learn it when you return home. Whilst the time abroad will be a massive part of this process, don’t forget that there are so many other strands to improving and maintaining your skills. Have a plan to keep up your language level when you get home to really capitalise on your year abroad.
- Don’t worry about only making friends and connections with nationals of the country you’re in. Whilst there is often an unspoken pressure to only to meet people from your host country, as an international student or worker, especially a native English speaker, you will come into contact with people from all over the globe. Embrace this and don’t ignore people simply because they’re not a native speaker of your target language. Your time abroad is a fantastic opportunity to create a world-wide network of friends and contacts. Don’t exclude them because you think you should only be speaking to native speakers of your target language.
- Similarly, don’t be afraid to speak in English. It’s such a valuable asset to speak English as your mother tongue, and this simple fact in itself will connect you to many people. As long as you are using the target language as much as possible, don’t feel guilty for conversing in English from time to time. You can always insist that you’d like to practise your foreign language too if it becomes a problem. Most people simply aren’t aware that you want to improve it in a serious manner, but if you’re upfront and polite about it, it shouldn’t be a problem.
- For those of you who are considering any sort of move abroad in the future, use the year abroad as a chance to experiment and get things wrong. You know you’ll be returning home at some point to finish your studies, so while you have no real commitments in terms of work or studies in the host country, try things out! Use it as an opportunity to research all those things you would like to know about for if you were to ever move there again. Not sure of something? Give it a go! If it doesn’t work out, so what? You’ll be leaving relatively soon so you won’t have to live with the decision for long and next time you will know how to do things differently.
- Don’t forget about the summer holidays either side of the academic year! Make the most of the time you have and look for any other opportunities in country related to whatever you’re interested in. You can effectively extend your year abroad by several weeks or even months if you’re organised and with a little forward thinking.
- Enjoy it! As cliché as it sounds, do try to enjoy every single moment! There will certainly be moments when you hate it, and so obviously this is much easier said than done. That’s normal. However rather than dwelling on the negative, instead focus on the positive of every situation. There will always be one, even if it’s not that obvious at the time!
The year abroad is an amazing opportunity. Just how positive an experience you make it largely depends on you and your attitude towards it. You truly do get out of it what you put into it. Embrace every opportunity you possibly can and keep an open mind. If you go into the year abroad with no expectations, you will adapt much more quickly and as a result come out with a much more positive experience.
There is one final thing I want to mention: Galicia! For those of you going to Spain, I would seriously urge you to consider this region as an option. It is one of the least requested destinations in Spain but has a wealth of experiences to offer. You will truly see a different side to the country and, if you so desire it, will easily become immersed in the Galician way of life. There is a certain mystery shrouding Galicia, and you are only able to begin to understand it when you are there. Between the stunning scenery, friendly people and amazing food (and drink!), there is so much waiting to be discovered and enjoyed. Galicia, and the north of Spain in general, are often seen as inferior destinations when compared to the major cities or southern and Mediterranean regions of Spain. It’s certainly true that the north is very different, and this will obviously influence your experience to some extent – don’t expect to be lying on a beach in Galicia in December, for example. However, it is merely that; different. The quality of your experience depends mainly on you and what you want to get out of it, so do give some serious thought to the lesser known areas of Spain. And if you do go to Galicia, when you leave, you will truly know the meaning of morriña.
Feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss more about living and working abroad or have any questions more specifically about Galicia or Spain. I’ll be more than happy to chat and help in any way possible. I can be reached at email@example.com