10 Tips for Working Abroad in a Foreign Language

Sure, I had studied abroad in Spanish-speaking countries and even had an internship in Guatemala during college, so my company was probably convinced I had the requisite background for this assignment. But this was the real deal. This was the world beyond the classroom. This was where everything I had ever learned in safe environments of graded papers and memorization-based exams was put to the test.

Through raw experience, I figured out the best ways to prepare myself for battle in my new linguistic environment.

However, things got much easier, not slowly but surely, but by leaps and bounds. Every single meeting triggered memories of conjugations I should be using and all the right forms of the subjunctive came racing back. I learned new words not one-by-one, but in huge clusters, universes of thought in the foreign tongue becoming easily digestible after only a week or two. Through raw experience, I figured out the best ways to prepare myself for battle in my new linguistic environment.

So, whether interning, volunteering, or relocating to work overseas, you may also find yourself in the intimidating territory of applying language skills you’ve gained in the classroom or study abroad in a real-world setting. Here are my top, tried-and-tested tips for anyone working in his or her non-native language.

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1. Prepare, but don’t memorize

I learned this the hard way. Do NOT memorize! If you have to give a presentation, focus on internalizing the information, because you will get nervous and you will forget what you’re saying if you bank on rote memorization.

Instead, read widely and deeply on your given topic. Build your knowledge naturally so you can speak to it naturally when the time comes. Common themes and ideas will emerge the more you read (in both languages) and focus on developing a deep understanding of your material. Extract 3 main anchors of thought from your research and keep those as your guideposts for the presentation.

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2. Lean on your mother tongue

When developing a presentation of any kind, focus on making sense in your mother tongue. Regardless of the language of delivery, the most important objective of communication of any kind is being clearly understood — and you do this best in your native language.

Next, practice impromptu translations of the most important ideas in your structural lay-out. Rehearse, but don’t write down any translations. If you get stuck trying to express an idea, look up the one or two key words that unblock the flow.

3. Use the words you know

Especially at first, keep it simple. Rather than stumble over a complicated word or sophisticated grammar structures, gain fluency by relying on the vocabulary you’ve already mastered.

For example, I had trouble saying “desarrollar” (to develop) in Spanish for a long time, so I chose to say “crecer” (to grow) instead. My audience got my point and I sounded smarter by presenting my thoughts fluidly rather than pumping the brakes over one particular tongue twister. I also had trouble with the subjunctive tense, so when I was in doubt, I stuck to present tense until I picked up the right verb forms from listening to native speakers.

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4. Practice common daily scenarios with a native speaker

Fluency comes from moving your mouth and saying everything out loud to someone who can understand and correct you.

Take note of what phrases and vocabulary they use and practice applying those, too. Remember: Fluency comes from moving your mouth and saying everything out loud to someone who can understand and correct you. Practicing actually speaking is essential.

5. Keep a language notebook on you at all times

Buy a small Moleskin and keep it in your pocket or purse. Every time you can’t think of a word, stumble on pronunciation, get a correction, or hear a native speaker use new vocabulary, write it down! Focus on writing down entire phrases from your environment because studying phrases vs. words will help build fluency faster. Review your notebook every night and vow to apply 5 noted lessons the next day.

6. Don’t get hung up on the grammar…or your accent

You will probably always make slight grammar mistakes and have an accent as a non-native speaker. Embrace it, because it is part of your identity as a foreign speaker of the language. While I always strive for the best pronunciation I am capable of, I am aware that I will always sound a bit, well, foreign. The most important thing is to understand and to be understood, and to use your skills as the medium for exchanging ideas and experiences with other speakers of that language.

7. Don’t lose your personality

8. And don’t let paralysis take over!

Even if you’re scared, even if you hear yourself making mistakes, and even if you’re sitting next to another foreigner who speaks ten times better than you do, never. stop. speaking! The only way to get better is to keep trying, keep making mistakes, and keep having a good attitude about the learning curve that’s ahead of you.

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9. Perfect your body language

If your spoken language isn’t perfect, at least focus on presenting yourself with confident, kind, and open body language that helps convey the right message. Make eye contact with your audience (even if you’re messing up!), use gentle gestures that underline what you’re saying, and SMILE!

10. Be able to laugh at your mistakes

Being a non-native speaker, you have a lifetime of mistake-making ahead of you, so get used to it sooner rather than later. It’s not unheard of that I even completely invent a word in Spanish when sitting with the CEO of a major Paraguayan company. I know I’ve done it when a sudden hint of a smile creeps across his lips and his eyes twinkle, breaking the seriousness of our discussion on his bank’s debt-equity ratio.

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