Rachel Furlow: Leave your language comfort zone when you study abroad

Most students have just finished unpacking their new rooms on campus. But there are some who are packing their bags for a different experience — their semester abroad.

About half of the undergraduate population at GW will study abroad at some point during their college careers. If you plan on being part of that percentage, you may very well begin that process this academic year.

When you choose a place in which to study abroad, there are many factors to consider. But arguably the most important decision is whether or not to spend your semester in a country where people speak English. As you weigh all of your study-abroad options this fall, consider all of the benefits that come with choosing a country where you don’t always know what everyone is saying.

For those who are nervous to live in a new country for the first time, or those who don’t have a specific regional concentration for their degree, English-speaking countries are a logical choice. For that reason, places like Ireland, Australia and the United Kingdom will probably always make appearances on lists of the most-popular study abroad destinations.

But, in a world where the ability to speak a foreign language is becoming more and more important, it might be more valuable to get some exposure to a non-English-speaking environment. Even if you have already studied a language, either for fun or for your major, there’s nothing quite like having to adjust to a language barrier while abroad.

When I moved to Spain for a year after high school, the most common phrase I used besides, “Lo siento, no hablo español,” was, “It’s unclear.” In fact, my American friend and I used that phrase so much that it became the unofficial motto of our exchange year.

Thankfully, my Spanish improved far beyond the beginner skills I had already gained in school. I was also lucky enough to live in Spain for more than a year, giving me plenty of time to get better.

But, in the beginning of the year, because neither of us spoke Spanish, everything from ordering food to reading bus schedules became just that — unclear. And yes, that made conversations and simple tasks ridiculously frustrating. But it also made every day an adventure.

If I had been able to speak English, I probably would have understood my host family when they said we were going to Portugal when I thought we were just going to lunch. If I had been able to speak English, my favorite dish wouldn’t be cocido because I loved it long before my Spanish was good enough to realize it was made of pigs’ ears.

If I had been studying in an English-speaking country, I wouldn’t have had countless, hilariously embarrassing adventures — adventures that I now wouldn’t trade for the world. Now, studying abroad in Jordan this academic year, I’ll experience a new language and hopefully new adventures, too.

If you choose to study in a place where you’ll be forced to learn a new language, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you pick it up. Plus, you’ll feel a huge sense of accomplishment once you finally conquer tasks that the language barrier once made impossible. The struggle is completely worth it.

Yes, I was lucky enough to have an experience in which I was very immersed in the culture, which made it much easier to learn the language quickly. But even during my time studying abroad with GW Madrid, with less immersion in a city where most people speak English, I still had the opportunity to engage with a foreign language.

Of course, cities like London, Dublin and Sydney are all beautiful places with incredible things to offer. But they’re missing one of the integral pieces of studying abroad: learning a new language — and looking like a fool while you do.

As you plan your study abroad experience, step outside your comfort zone, and allow yourself to be a little more unclear.

Rachel Furlow, a junior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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