4 fun ways to get out of your comfort zone abroad
India MacKenzie is a French and Spanish student at the University of York and has just completed her year abroad, which she spent studying in Aix en Provence and Madrid. This is her guide to stepping out of your comfort zone!
Living in a capital city like Madrid, putting my language skills to use was always going to be slightly more difficult for me than for my fellow classmates who are studying in smaller places like Santiago de Compostela, where there are much fewer tourists; hence much less English is spoken. Madrid is a huge, amazingly diverse melting pot overflowing with countless different cultures and languages – technically a great thing. HOWEVER, this means that the lingua franca is more often than not English, which is not ideal for the plethora of foreign students coming to this beautiful country to learn one of its languages.
One of the Brazilian girls who I was living with in Madrid came to Spain with limited knowledge of both English and Spanish. When her semester was over, she left with near perfect English – a result of living with nearly all Anglophones, yet her Spanish had barely improved… This seems impossible considering she was living and studying in Spain’s capital for such a long time, but this is actually amazingly frequent amongst foreign students, and an all too common occurrence.
Six months ago, I came to Spain thinking I was nearly fluent and ready to breeze my way through my time in Madrid. Coincidentally, I was quickly brought back down to earth with a thud and the sound of checkout lady cackling in deep Spanish tones, hysterical at my multiple attempts at a conversation.
I quickly learnt that it really is all too easy to be discouraged when learning abroad, but the main thing is persistence, and getting out of your comfort zone. “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” is actually a very true statement when you have very little time in your chosen country, and want to improve and experience as much as possible. Here are 4 ways to get out of yours!
1. Travel (alone)!
And really, with the dirt-cheap train and bus tickets in Spain, I have no excuse not to. There is literally an endless list of benefits to travelling: you get to see more of the country you are passionate about, you experience different cultures, languages and people, your spoken language will improve tenfold, and the fact that you are travelling alone will mean you take in so much more of your surroundings.
I travelled to Valencia after the first month of my studying in Madrid and I can easily say that I learnt more in those 5 days, than I had so far. Why? Because I was alone, and forced to speak Spanish. With no internet and absolutely zero map-reading skills, I had to repeatedly ask people for directions, I made friends in hostels and only communicated with them in Spanish, and I even eavesdropped on conversations on public transport (all in the name of language improvement of course), when normally I would have been chatting away to friends in my native tongue. Whilst initially, travelling alone can seem quite daunting, it is honestly a great experience and is often a lot more fun. Take the plunge and you will see the improvements immediately.
2. Take non-Erasmus classes
This may seem like a simple suggestion but it is far too often ignored. Many of the UK’s partner universities have Erasmus classes which are specifically designed for international students. The desire to take all Erasmus classes is huge, as you get to stay with your friends, and learn in an environment that is specifically designed for you. However if you push yourself out of your comfort zone and take more, in my case, Spanish classes for Spanish students, you are so much more exposed to ‘real-life’ fast Spanish, and your ears adapt amazingly quickly! Taking these classes also means that you have a chance to speak to and make Spanish friends – which is a huge plus on both the work and the social side.
3. Take a dance/cooking/sport class
One of my favourite things during my time in Madrid was taking a weekly Salsa class. At first I was mortified at the idea of showing the world my dance moves. I know I give a great rendition of Beyoncé’s Single Ladies but that is in the privacy of my own shower… However, after being dragged along on my first week by an overeager housemate, I realised that nearly everybody was just as bad as I was and those who were actually reasonably decent were so friendly and helpful… and to my surprise, the girl with two left feet actually began to love it. Taking a class like this is a not only a great language improver but also a huge confidence booster and a great way to meet people!
4. Go out with your foreign friends and just meet people!
Accept any and every invitation to go out with your native friends. The Spanish friends I’ve made, and even their own friends are the most welcoming people ever and are so kind in helping me with my Spanish, which definitely errs more on the side of slightly incomprehensible after a few glasses of sangria.
The more people you meet, the easier it is to meet more, and literally everywhere you go, you will find people who are willing to practice Spanish/French/German with you, in exchange for some English conversation lessons. Over my 6 months I had 3 different exchange partners – one who I met whilst having a manicure (she overheard me speaking English and asked to practice with me), one in a take- away pizza restaurant at 4am, and the other through my university’s tandem conversation programme. People are desperate to learn English so help them, just make sure you get something out of it too!
There are unlimited possibilities out there waiting for you when travelling abroad, just make sure you experience as many as you can – don’t be afraid to jump in head first!