If you’re visiting a country where your target language is spoken, you can finally unlock that armory of hard-earned vocabulary and grammar you’ve worked so hard to build up! However, those of us who have traveled abroad during one- or two-week vacations know all too well how easy it is to have virtually no contact to locals while playing tourist. Past the brief, daily exchanges of “I would like a coffee, please” and “thank you”, awkward small talk on public transportation may be the only other outlet to flex your language muscles as you dart around to famous sites and shopping streets.
Start your affordable language immersion trip by skipping the fancy hotels and English-infested tourist sites. Instead, opt for opportunities that will keep you grounded in one place longer to develop real relationships with locals. While intensive language schools abroad are effective, they’re not always budget-friendly and often result in a large portion of the day being spent in a classroom.
To squeeze the most language learning out of your travels abroad, dive straight into the heart of a community and follow these cheap (or free) ways to immerse yourself in a language abroad.
Full Immersion Language Learning Opportunities
Traveling abroad for a language immersion experience doesn’t mean you have to quit your job, ask for an overseas transfer, or still be a student to study abroad. There are many opportunities floating around geared toward the culturally curious of all ages and walks of life, who just have a few weeks out of the year to wander abroad.
Here are a few ideas to get you thinking about how you’ll spend that next vacation around the world learning a language for (almost or completely) free:
What better way to live like a local than to live with a local? Many homestays ask for help around a family-owned business, small farm, or with childcare in exchange for delicious home-cooked meals, free accommodations, and an unlimited language resource (your host). The duration of your stay is completely up to you, so you could even squeeze in a homestay during your next vacation time. Your host family can also lead to a lifelong connection to keep those language skills growing remotely. Some awesome homestay ideas include GoCambio, WWOOF, Workaway, and a wide variety of organizations to work as an au pair.
2. Volunteer Abroad
Combine meaningful community work with a chance to develop your language skills by volunteering abroad in cities or remote villages. Interact with locals of all socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnic groups, while learning about unique linguistic and cultural variations not found in your textbooks back home. From health clinics to orphanages, there are tons of volunteer placements available to suit your interests that won’t break the bank. Another great perk of volunteering abroad is the host of professional and personal development opportunities that you can apply to your work or hobbies upon returning back home.
3. Teach English Abroad
Any language enthusiast with an appreciation for irregular verb conjugations and grammar patterns will encounter linguistic bliss teaching English abroad. While there are many short-term volunteer placements available, there are also tons of government and private organizations facilitating longer teaching contracts for those looking to take a year off for what’s essentially a paid language exchange with students and colleagues.
Southeast and East Asia in particular have risen in popularity in recent years as hot English teaching destinations, but you can find positions all around the world depending on your cultural and language interests. Although most teaching positions generally require applicants to possess a bachelor’s degree in any given field, many won’t expect you to have prior teaching experience nor a specialized teaching certificate. Spend your free time from the classroom wisely by hanging with your students or colleagues and learn a language for free!
Other Strategies for Effectively Surrounding Yourself in the Target Language
Simply being in a different country surrounded by a language won’t guarantee any degree of language acquisition unless you’re actively interacting with it. Maximize your time abroad by getting involved in opportunities you don’t have back home.
Here are a few cheap and easy ways to exercise your language skills when you’re working, studying, volunteering, or traveling abroad:
1. Tandem partners
In-person language exchange partners are a perfect solution to build speaking confidence and make new friends if you’re living abroad for longer than a brief stopover. As a supplement to your online italki partners, in-person tandems can introduce you to favorite local hangouts events, and customs in your area.
Check out university social media pages for posts about tandem partners, where language students are eager to practice with native speakers (also a great way to learn a language for free!). Even putting up announcements on community billboards or asking around can secure a few leads. As an English speaker in a non-English speaking country, your native language is a hot commodity and it won’t be hard to find zealous English learners wanting to chat with you.
2. Community Involvement
Get a good look into local issues and humanitarian efforts through community involvement that won’t cost you a peso, euro, or yen. Frequenting the same places on a consistent basis builds relationships with likeminded people, and depending on the organization’s purpose, exposes you to their time tested useful technical vocabulary and terms. Theater clubs, animal shelters, senior homes, and neighborhood get-togethers will help you feel like an integrated part of your adopted community, while bringing you one step closer to fluency.
3. Dirt cheap and free media
Whether you’re abroad for a week or a whole year, media in your target language is everywhere and it's just begging for you to pick it up and give it a once (or twice… or thrice) over. A local man’s trash is a language learner’s treasure. Television programs, radio broadcasts, regional Netflix, and free newspapers and magazines are rich in written, spoken, and colloquial versions of a language so you’ll receive well-rounded exposure.
Although you can order foreign language books online or find them in the rare bookstore back home, they’re oftentimes pricey and limited. Discount or second-hand bookstores, flea markets, and giveaways at libraries are all jackpot resources abroad that can get you good reads in any language to bring home. Just remember to leave plenty of space in your suitcase!
There you have it! Our go-to list for how to learn a language for free
Freshly graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in tourism management, Raquel spent the last few years trekking through Peru and Argentina, farming in Japan, teaching at a summer camp in South Korea, and exploring her parents’ heritage in Mexico, Spain, and Germany. Now during her fifth time in Germany, Raquel’s teaching English through the Fulbright program for the next year before pursuing a career in international education. She’s also virtually working as a junior editor at GoAbroad hoping to spread the international love.