The Truth About Learning a Language Abroad

Nick Callahan ’18 graduated from Elizabethtown College with a major in Economics and a minor in German. He studied abroad in Marburg, Germany for the 2016-2017 academic year. Before going abroad, Nick knew minimal German and had the experience of learning a new language abroad.

Growing up, Nick’s parents traveled often and he spent time living in various locations around the world. He grew up bilingual, close to his family in both California and Denmark. He spent high school in Bangkok, Thailand, a period he describes as a four-year vacation. Nick regrets never learning more than a basic level of Thai.

Nick knew he wanted to study abroad and chose Marburg, Germany because of a rave review a friend had given him. Since he had previously lived in Madrid, his mother lamented about why he had not chosen to go to Spain. He overlooked her remarks and continued his journey anyway. He made it a goal to learn the German language, especially after the amount of effort he had put in to convincing a German professor to sign off on the program, as Nick had taken no German up to this point.

For Nick, Marburg’s pre-semester Vienna, Austria portion was a self-reflective time. He eventually met with other students, locals, and travelers, allowing him to feel a sense of comfort.

Arriving in Germany, he again felt alone. He was the only BCA student living in the Schloss Castle, so all he heard in his housing was German. Because the castle is student-governed, Nick would glaze over during the weekly meetings and was extremely nervous when he had to introduce himself in Germany to 35 native speakers.

He decided the best way to improve his language skills was to put himself in one-on-one situations. He introduced himself to everyone in the house individually. Talking in groups was too difficult, but with just one person it was easier to follow along.  Some individuals were patient with him while others refused to slow their pace or lower their vocabulary. This period was extremely challenging, but showed a growth of Nick’s social skills.

Through moments of frustration, Nick continued to improve and decided to stay for the year to continue improving. There were moments when it felt his efforts had paid off. For example, after arriving at a class at the wrong time, Nick realized he and another student were the only people there. They ended up getting coffee together and he realized later they had only spoken in Germany. He later ended up playing beach volleyball with her.

His experience ended when he drove to Bavaria with a friend, Xaver. Xaver’s family lived near Munich and he had invited friends to go tubing with him and visit Koeningsee. In Bavaria, Nick was forced to connect with the local dialect.

Nick’s advice to anyone going aboard is to push yourself to learn the language. Although it can be hard at times, languages learners must push themselves to get past that point and their language experience will become an important aspect of time abroad.

*Click on the hyperlinks above to learn more about the Marburg, Germany program and to read Nick’s original blog published by BCA Study Abroad on August 14, 2017.

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