Ah, studying a new language abroad. Isn’t that the dream?
It does have its challenges, but luckily you can get by with a little help from your (new) friends!
You get to meet new people, see marvelous sights and taste exotic dishes, all the while immersing yourself in the language that you love. However, the first thing on the list—meeting new people—might just prove to be the most important aspect of your time abroad.
This post will be about one thing and one thing only: giving you a warmer, friendlier perspective that’ll pave the way for you to learn a language abroad as quickly and as enjoyably as possible.
So whether you’re at the airport waiting to board your plane or just in the initial stages of planning that year abroad, read on and get excited.
The Buddy System: The Friendliest Way to Learn a Language Abroad
You’re probably already super psyched about learning a language abroad. Perhaps it was a big decision, but you knew you just had to hop on a plane and get yourself to Spain, Germany, France, China, Japan or whatever country it is you’ve got your heart set on. You can already see, hear and smell everything!
One problem. You don’t know anyone from Adam in that country. Everyone’s just another strange face. Nobody knows you or what you’re going through. How do you deal? How are you supposed to effectively learn the language when you don’t even have anybody to talk to?
You just need to do one thing. And you need to do this day in and day out when you’re abroad. Befriend the locals.
Don’t go all introvert when you’re abroad. Well, maybe you can afford to be a loner at night, when you’re in bed and reflecting on the awesome things that happened during the day, but generally speaking, put yourself out there. That’s the very essence of going abroad. You’re putting yourself out there in the world, so don’t spend that precious time inside a private hostel room. Don’t just go abroad to watch movies, listen to radio programs and songs. Do that and then some!
Admittedly, living abroad to learn the language can be a nerve-wracking experience. But with a few friends by your side, the whole thing can be one long celebration. That being said, making friends shouldn’t entail nesting in English-speaking enclaves and knocking back a few Guinness with expats (though you’re welcome to indulge in this every once in a while, too). Making friends should involve really immersing yourself in local culture.
So the first step, and really, the only step, is to befriend the locals—get the ball rolling by talking to them in English if needed, and then you can start effectively building your whole language experience from there. Sounds easy and logical enough, right?
But how are you exactly going to do that? When the rubber meets the road, how do you deal?
How? I’m glad you asked. Here are six tried and tested ways to break the ice and make friends with native speakers.
6 Ways to Learn Languages Abroad by Making Friends
1. Offer something
They say if you want to have a friend, be a friend. Offering something—food’s always a winner—to a complete stranger can be a good opener. It instantly drops any wary person’s defenses and can be the beginning of a wonderful conversation.
You can offer anything, really (chances are it’ll be politely refused anyway). The most epic of friendships can start with the offer of gum. It’s what people do once the ice has been broken that determines if they become friends.
So always have something to give and keep it in your bag or pocket. You never know when a nice opportunity will come your way.
Let’s say you’re walking around the park taking in the sights. You’ve been at it for an hour and you’re ready to take a breather. There’s a bench nearby with a man sitting on it. What could you do? Well, you could approach the bench. Smile. Sit. Take out the sandwich you packed earlier. Take a few bites, and comment to the person beside you, “Sir? Would you like some sandwich? I’ve got another one here.”
Your offer will probably be politely refused, but that’s really not the point. Don’t take the refusal personally. That simple line is an ice breaker. Now you’ve potentially opened up a conversation with a complete stranger, and that stranger knows you’re a relatively friendly and generous fellow.
You can take the conversation anywhere you want, but remember, unless you’ve chanced upon a local as garrulous as Richard Simmons, you’ll probably be the one talking for a few minutes. The other person would just probably smile, nod along and politely give you a little of their time. The hope is that, in the next few minutes, they’ll really warm up and start contributing significantly to the conversation.
Do this often and you’ll definitely make friends along the way.
My advice is, the more locals you involve, the better—like if you see two men sitting on a bench with a space between them, be the foreigner who squeezes between those two. Since more persons are involved, the conversation can have more possible pathways and you can volley topics around between them. This can really be fun because you can play with the conversational dynamics here. For example, if you ask what one person thinks about the country’s president, you can the inquire if the other guy agrees and you can even tease them a little about their differences in opinion.
Before long, it’s sunset and you don’t even notice it.
2. Ask for a favor
“The Damsel in Distress” technique can be used not only by ladies but by anyone who wants to tap into that human instinct of helping those in need. Asking for a favor (the simpler it is, the better) sparks an interaction that may not otherwise have happened.
I was traveling around Asia and was sitting waiting for my bus to leave. It was one of those long-haul runs that usually take 10-12 hours. I was seated next to a lady, a native speaker, minding her own business, when I suddenly had the brilliant idea of buying food and some reading material for the trip. So I asked her, “could you please save my seat?” The bus was filling up fast. She was clearly surprised, but then said, “sure.”
When I came back, I had a handful snacks, local delicacies and a newspaper. To show my gratitude for the favor, I immediately offered her food (technique #1), which she kindly refused.
But guess what, the ice was already broken and it was only a matter of time before we got into talking and getting to know each other. I got me a captive audience for 10-12 hours! I mean, she’s not going anywhere. I asked her about the places I could go visit once we got to the destination, I politely asked her about some news stories I’d read and I asked about her opinions on them.
I found a new friend, an insider on the culture I’m interested in and a native speaker who taught me how to haggle with intent. All that because I asked her to save my seat. I asked for a favor and I got so much more than I asked for.
3. Ask questions
Go ahead. Don’t be afraid. The locals don’t bite.
What sort of questions do you ask? Well, anything!
As a foreigner in a new land, asking questions is your divine right. Locals know this and they’re more than happy to oblige. As long as you’re polite, they’ll respond positively to any queries you may have.
Perhaps you’re having dinner at a local restaurant waiting for your order when you spot something interesting on the other table. Depending on the situation, it’s often perfectly okay to politely say, “Excuse me, sir, your food looks delicious. May I know what it is?”
Now, lasting friendships aren’t usually made with just one question. You can ask a stranger for directions to the nearest comfort room (as public toilets are called in some parts of the world) and be on your way. If you want to keep things going, then after you hit them with your first question, hit them with some more. Probe and discover as much as you can about the specific subject and beyond. Ask about the culture, ask about the person you’re talking to and ask them for their opinions on things. Ask where you can get the best soup in town. Ask how much the fare is for public transportation. Anything, really.
The name of the game is interest. You actually make other people feel good about themselves when you display interest in them and their culture. Sure, they’ll initially look frazzled when you unexpectedly open up a conversation. They’ll initially be thinking, “Why is this dude suddenly talking to me? My English is very limited.”
But know that in time, wariness can turn into warmth when you’ve shown genuine interest and you’re polite about the whole thing.
Don’t grill the poor guy, just telegraph your interest in a childlike way. Probe and probe some more. That’s why it’s important that you be aware of situations where you have a captive audience—like the bus example above, or locals passing time on public benches, or those lazying in cafés and restaurants. Be on the lookout for these situations. If you find yourself in a long queue for anything, try striking up a conversation with the person behind you.
Open your eyes. The person bound to teach you all the hilarious and nasty words in their language might just be standing behind you.
4. Say “Hi!”
Sometimes the quickest way is to just come out and say, “Hi!”
Say your name and extend a hearty handshake and you’ve got a potential friend made.
I’m not saying that you’ll be golden every time, sometimes you can try to make friends and quickly discover that the other person isn’t interested in socializing. Sometimes they’ll be so busy they really won’t have time. But you’ll never know that unless you take the shot. Hockey great Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.”
So do it! Flat out say “Hi!” You don’t need any reason save for the desire to make friends and meet new people.
You’re already abroad, so you might as well open up. Don’t clam up and be overly self-conscious. Unless you open up, your learning the language will never really hit its stride. If you look at some of the most effective language learners and polyglots, they’re not necessarily the most garrulous or outgoing types, but they’re the most open. They feel the same nervousness and apprehension that you might when considering approaching and making a friend out of thin air, but they do it anyway.
Remember that you, the language learner, must always make the first move. In many (most) places, locals don’t ordinarily walk up to foreigners to chat, especially in places with conservative cultures. They may stare, but talking to you would be a different proposition altogether. So you have to make the first move.
It’s not that they’re rude or that they don’t find you interesting. They might not want to bother you, or maybe they’re shy. Besides, they might be busy. They could very well be running some errands, preparing to have a few friends over for dinner. And guess what, you’ll never find out if you could have been invited for that dinner unless you come right out and say, “Hi!”.
5. Frequent the same places
The conventional wisdom is that you need to hit different spots in any region, country, city or town in order to really get a broader sampling of a culture and to meet different people from different walks of life. So while abroad, maybe you can go to all the different corners of the city you’re living in, be involved in a wide variety of groups and organizations and heap up many different experiences for yourself.
Yes, do that, that’s sound advice. It’ll give you the big picture of the culture as well as a taste of its many different flavors. But you also need to counterbalance that by going to the same places as many times as possible, too. The first strategy casts a wide net, with this second one you’re going deep.
And you don’t even have to go very far. Start with the immediate area where you live. Is there a nearby park you can frequent? Or a convenience store you can patronize? (If you can, try buying your food stock or supplies from the same store, snacks from the same stall and medicine from the same pharmacy.)
Let the locals know your routine and let them expect you to be at the same place at a specific time.
Hit the same spot over and over and something very magical happens. Instead of observing the passing scene, which is what usually happens to traveling language learners, you become part of it. Keep showing up at the same place and you’ll soon become a fixture of the place. When people get to see you often, you become part of their community.
Be one of the regular guys in a café, for example. If you frequent the same café, you’ll quickly be on a first name basis with the staff (they might even let you behind the counter!). By frequenting the same place, you’re giving yourself multiple chances to meet locals who are also patrons of that place. The lady you often see buying her pork ribs might one day invite you to her kitchen and show off a recipe you can bring back home to your friends and family. The waiters and staff of the place, who know who’s who in the community, could introduce you to the best plumber in town.
Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s #6.
6. Ask for introductions
So you have one local friend already?
Great! With one single friend, you have everything needed to create a whole network of locals who, in their own specific and special ways, can help your language journey.
That one friend of yours surely has a few friends and acquaintances of their own. Their circle could include the guys they grew up with or the folks they went to school with once and who are now doctors, businessmen or maybe even language teachers.
You have to go out of your comfort zone and flatly request an introduction. This makes your job of making friends so much easier because the other person’s credibility rubs off on you and you instantly gain the acceptance of the group. They may not know you from Adam, but by virtue of being introduced by a trusted friend, you make it so much easier on yourself. And guess what, you’ve just increased your acquaintances several fold.
Plop yourself into their group. Join their activities and show up in places they meet. Branch out and soon enough, you’ll find yourself in a middle of a social web that gives you the maximum number and variety of genuine experiences to really learn a language abroad.
Suddenly you’ll find yourself in a group of guys who bike on Sundays to gaze at the marvelous view of the countryside. Or perhaps you get ringside seats to how native speakers wield their language by witnessing them tease and give each other a hard time during a Saturday night beer session.
So, there you go. Six techniques you can use each day you’re abroad. Get in there. Be eager and excited to make friends. Travel. Talk to complete strangers, offer them something, ask your questions. Then ask some more. Immerse. Get off your couch on a cold evening and have coffee with a native speaker.
If you do that, you’ll find yourself richly rewarded. One day, you’ll hear yourself slowly gaining fluency in the local language. You’ll not only have added a new tongue to your communicative repertoire, you’ll have gained precious friendships and a bag full of memories that’ll last a lifetime. With pictures to boot!
Good luck and have fun! Safe travels.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.