Simple Steps to Learn a Language Before You Leave

One of the most frequent questions we get asked is, “Do I need to speak a foreign language to study abroad?” Students are typically very relieved to find that the answer is no!

While knowing the native language of the country you’re studying in is helpful, it is not required. Many of our program options in non-English speaking countries have a variety of courses offered in English. Having said that, the best way to learn a language is to be immersed in it!

If you are studying in a country where you don’t speak the language, you may want to brush up on local phrases before leaving the United States, so you don’t feel completely out of place when you arrive in your host country.  Some suggestions to get you started learning are:

  • Duolingo. I have so many friends who swear by this fun, interactive app when learning new languages!
  • Focus on the most important phrases. Chances are, you will have to ask where the bathroom is, and you will have to say thank you. Starting with the basics is less intimidating than trying to grasp full conversation pieces. Plus, it’s the polite thing to do!
  • Take a class. If you have time in your schedule and plan in advance, you can try to take a class in the language at Towson before you leave!
    • Find a tutor. Similarly, if the language you’re learning is taught at Towson, there may even be a tutor just for that language on campus.
  • Talk with a native speaker. Ask if any of your friends know someone who speaks the language, and connect with them.
  • Immerse yourself in popular culture and media in the language you want to learn. Listen to music, watch movies, and (if you can) read short articles in the language to get acquainted with it! Even if you don’t know what you’re hearing or seeing at first, you will eventually pick up on words and themes, and become familiarized with the culture.
  • Make flashcards. I know—as students, we dread making more flashcards than necessary, but they’re a great way to memorize different words and phrases!
  • Practice every day! The most important part of language-learning is memory. If you practice the phrases you want to learn and expand on it often, the phrases will become drilled in your memory before you go!

It is also important to note that studying abroad in an English-speaking country is still studying abroad. You will get a valuable cultural experience no matter where you go, because foreign English-speakers still have many different views and cultures that we don’t in our little corner of the world.

Other English-speaking countries also have different slang words and phrases for things, so it’ll feel like you’re learning a new language either way. In England, it took me weeks to figure out what the common words “ta,” “quid,” or “hob” were, or that when someone said they were “pissed,” they did not mean they were mad about something (in fact, they meant something very different!).

No matter where you go abroad, you will experience a different culture, and that’s what’s important! Don’t worry too much about the language barrier, but prepare before you go so you don’t feel totally lost.

As always, if you have any questions, you can visit our office in the Psychology Building, rm. 408. We are also available by phone at (410) 704-2451, and email at

Finding Balance in France

This post is the fourth installment in a semester-long series of posts from Towson senior Allie Woodfin. Allie is studying this Fall 2014 semester at the University of Avignon. You can also follow along on her tumblr at:

Confession time: I had an unfair expectation for myself when I came to France. I’ve studied French since I was 11, majored in it in Towson’s remarkable French department, and am lucky to have an aptitude for the language as well as a deep interest in it. That being said, I had an “all or nothing” attitude about it when I came. For several reasons, that did not last very long.

First reason: while I’m the only U.S. American on exchange at the University of Avignon this semester, many other students speak English. Rather than isolating myself from them, I’ve decided to pick my battles and agree to speak English with some of them when we occasionally cross paths.

Second reason: many people don’t speak much English, and are very excited to learn that I’m American. My last name is British in origin, and I still have a noticeable American accent. So, people sometimes try to start conversations in English or throw out a word or two. At first, I took that really personally—I assumed that they thought I spoke poorly. However, I have learned that many of them are just deeply curious. (Aren’t I the same way?) Many adults I’ve spoken to were dissatisfied with their English education in lycée, and are looking to practice.

Third reason: being willing to speak English some of the time allows me to teach while being taught. I became an English teaching assistant at a private high school, and have had a unique opportunity to talk about American culture, learn the ins and outs of the French education system, and even help students proofread letters to American penpals. Someone also recently suggested that I post an ad on LeBonCoin (French Craigslist, basically) for private lessons. I have 5 clients and am making 15 euros an hour to help people. It has been more gratifying than I ever could have imagined.

Additionally, I’m taking a translation course, in which I and the other students work hard to learn each other’s mother tongue. If there’s a course in which the “playing field” is pretty level, that would have to be it.

As long as these paragraphs were, English makes up very little of what I’m speaking here. I roll out of bed, rub the sleep from my eyes, and speak French with my host family at breakfast; listen to French podcasts on my 20-minute walk to the university; listen to an average of 4 hours of French lectures a day; ask other students questions about the library; speak French at dinner; and do my homework in French.

As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, switching from one language to another feels a lot like baking in a sauna, diving into a cold lake, and scuttling back to the sauna. It’s a shock to your system, but you get used to it—right now, I’m typing this in English and listening to my host family banter in French. Getting over myself and  being judicious about speaking English in certain situations has given me a much richer and more connected experience than I would have otherwise had. Instead of burning the bridge between myself, my native language, and my place of birth; I’m learning how to build a bridge, and weave these two lives together.

Q&A Spotlight: Jamie Lee

Name: Jamie Lee
Major: Health Care Management
Destination: Italy, Spring 2014
Institution: Lorenzo de’Medici University, Tuscania

Q1: FOOD, your favorite subject & ours. Best dish? Worst dish? New recipe you picked up?

I studied abroad in a small town in Italy, so food was a HUGE part of my experience! One of my favorite dishes was a spicy pasta dish in a red sauce! Cayenne pepper is the best! As far as the worst dish… I would have to say fried calamari! That rubbery texture is a lot to take in! I I learned a lot about food, the most important being that it’s so easy to make a delicious dish! An easy recipe I learned was penne pasta tossed with olives and canned tuna! It’s so simple yet so delicious!

Q2: PLACES, talk about your favorite spot in your home away from home. Where? Why?

In the town I’m studying in (Tuscania, Italy), we have this great park! It overlooks the whole town and the typical Italian scenery they show in the movies!

Q3: TOP SECRET, did a local point you to a market, pub, or park you didn’t know about? Pass it on.

As I said, Tuscania is a very small town so there isn’t much that is kept secret! However, there is an outdoor fruit market that people don’t go to often, which I just don’t understand! They have so many fruits and veggies for SO CHEAP! My advice on food shopping would be to find that one place that people don’t often go to… It’s often the cheapest!

Q4: NOPE, are there things you don’t miss from your destination? What? Why?

I am currently home for the holidays, and I can honestly say there isn’t a thing I don’t miss! Everything about it I just love… The people, food, language! It’s my happy place!

Q5: YEP, you’re actually homesick for something from abroad. What? Why?

Being home for a month before I go abroad again, I’ve realized what I miss most is the people! Another piece of advice I can offer is to study in a small town if you can! You’ll see the same people over and over and build relationships with all of them! Whether it be the old man that owns the butcher shop down the street or the kid you see in the park every day!

Q6: SPEAKING OF, what new vocabulary have you added to your repertoire after study abroad?

Well, most of my new vocabulary is in Italian! One of the strangest things I learned is that Italians use the word “meow” to describe a cat sound, but they spell it “miao”!

Q7: SHOCKING, you could hardly believe your eyes when you saw … What? Why?

One thing that was very hard for me to get used to was male dominance. In many European countries, women are still the ones that cook, clean, and raise kids. Coming from America, that was very shocking. I was used to being told that I need to build a career and put that before any man. In Italy, it’s the opposite! Many of the women in Tuscania have never had a job in their lives.

Q8: WEEKENDS, full of travel. Where did you go? How did you choose? Was it difficult to plan?

Weekends seem to always be busy for students who are studying abroad. When you first get to your destination, you’ll want to travel right away and most likely you will every weekend. As wonderful as that is, write up a budget for yourself! It’s always more expensive than you thought it was. I went to Paris for five days one weekend, and I ended up spending about $450. I estimated I would spend no more that $200. As well, I traveled around England. I went to London and Liverpool. London was a bit overwhelming, but it is a must that everyone should see! Liverpool was wonderful! I’m a huge Beatles fan, so that was a dream come true! My first semester abroad I really wanted to get all the touristy places out of the way. This semester, I plan on going to more low-key places like Krakow, Poland and maybe Albania! Trips aren’t hard to plan, but you have to be on top of everything! Think of every possible scenerio, because chances are you’ll miss your plan, bus, or train at some point!

Q9: TOUGHEST DAY, everyone has one. What challenged you while you were abroad? Why?

I lived with a host family who (at the beginning) spoke close to no English, and I spoke NO Italian! I had many times in the beginning where each meal felt like a struggle because we couldn’t say anything to each other. Overall, staying with a host family was the best decision! I was able to learn twice as much Italian as my fellow students who lived in apartments. As well, I really got to absorb the culture! Despite the initial frustration, it was totally worth it!

Q10: PARTING WORDS. What would you say to students worried / concerned / afraid of studying abroad?

The number one thing I would say would be to face your fears and do it! This experience has – and continues – to change my life! All my best friends and boyfriend are living in Tuscania, and it will forever be apart of my life! It sounds cheesy, but you really learn so much about yourself!

Q&A Spotlight: Allison Brown

Name: Allison Brown
Major: International Business Administration, Spring 2012
Hometown: Baltimore, Maryland
Destination: Rouen, France Fall 2010
Institution: NEOMA Business School

Allison is a recent TU alumna who studied in France and returned to live in Paris one year ago. This is her story!

Q. When you first chose your program, what motivated you to choose that program?

I knew from Freshman year that I wanted to study abroad but I was never too invested in any particular country. I didn’t speak a language other than English and I had never really been outside of the US before, so I was very open to the advice of the Study Abroad Office. My four years at Towson were financed 100% by academic scholarships, so the only criteria I was looking for in a program was that it was a TU exchange, that my credits would bring me a semester closer to graduating (i.e. studying abroad would not put me a semester behind in credits), and I liked the idea of going to Western Europe to have the proximity of lots of other countries to travel to. After I expressed my criteria to a study abroad advisor they recommended the TU Exchange with Rouen Business School (RBS) in France, which would allow me to take business courses and earn credit towards my major. Without hesitation I closed my eyes, crossed my fingers, and applied for the program.

Q. What was the hardest part about studying abroad?

I think the hardest part about studying abroad is the adjustment to an accelerated life learning curve. Prior to going abroad, everything I had learned and known had come from Baltimore. I had chosen a university that was only a 10 minute drive from where I grew up, and while I feel as though I was still privileged to have an exceptional education both in and out of school, the depth of the world really hit me when I stepped foot in France. It was a big adjustment to go from a comfortably monotonous routine to being challenged on a minute by minute basis. Just going to the grocery store to pick up a loaf of bread could be both mentally exhausting but also exponentially educational. Being in a country where you don’t speak the language isn’t just an opportunity to learn a new language, it is also the greatest opportunity one could have to learn more about themselves and about humanity in general. I quickly learned that language is merely a secondary form of communication to the simple capability that every human is endowed with to understand their fellow man, no matter where they come from or what language they speak.

Q. Now that you’ve had some time to reflect on your experience, and move on from TU, are you able to utilize your experience?

My experience has had an influence on every day of  my life since returning to the US. I have opened myself in ways I never knew were possible and my perspective on everything in life, both personal and professional has been broadened and embellished. In addition to my general perspective, studying abroad has had a significant impact on my personal and professional life because it was during my time abroad that I met my husband. My husband, who is a native Parisian and who was also a student at RBS, and I continued to date when I returned to TU. After he spent more than a year in the US, we made the decision to get married and to move to Paris. I made the move to Paris in January 2013 and have been happily living here with my husband and our new puppy for a little over a year now. Living abroad has provided an amazing professional opportunity to work for a French research organization that was looking for an account manager to handle their American accounts. It is hard to imagine finding this type of opportunity in my native country. It is such a rewarding experience to apply the business skills that I learned at TU to help a foreign company connect with my fellow Americans. I am happy to say that I am still continually challenged on a daily basis here, even now that I speak French and have learned a lot about the country and the culture since my first arrival in 2010.

Q. You may miss something from your time abroad. What?

While I have been fortunate enough to continue my experience abroad, I still miss the special experience of studying abroad. Being a student abroad creates an environment in which you can test your limits and when making mistakes can actually be more rewarding than doing what is “right”. My experience at RBS was really a time to learn and to grow as an individual.

Q. If you were to do to it all over again, what would you change?

The one thing I would change about my experience abroad would be to have made a greater effort to learn the local language. Because I had only intended to be abroad for a semester, I was very content at the time to learn a minimal amount of French to get by on a daily basis (pretty much to know how to ask where the bathroom was and how to order a beer). After having a second chance to return to France, I realize now how important a language is to a country, it is something in which I wish I had seen more cultural merit.

Q. If a student asked you about where you studied, what would you recommend to them?

I can’t speak for other countries, but after having lived in both Rouen, Paris, and having traveled through most parts of France, I highly recommend studying abroad outside of Paris. Firstly, on a practical level, Paris is extremely financially limiting. Secondly, I have many friends who loved their study abroad experience in Paris, but in the end they never had the opportunity to meet any French people or to share in any real cultural experiences. Studying abroad in a smaller city is a great way to be forced closer to the culture and to the people, you can’t easily find other Americans with whom to isolate yourself.

Q. Do you have any advice for future student?

Don’t take even one second for granted during your time abroad! Be yourself, be someone new, or be someone who you’ve always wanted to be. Try new things and try old things in new ways with new people. There is a rare chance that you will ever have the opportunity again to live somewhere where where no one knows you but everyone wants to get to know you. Find your own unique way to take everything in and give yourself back.

 Merci, Allison!