Language Adjustment

In many ways ACA students must be able, in a way, to accept being children again because at the beginning of their year abroad their language ability will not be much more advanced than that of children in elementary school. This can be a very frustrating experience. Timid people will have a very difficult time. Students must expect that they will make embarrassing mistakes in class and on and off campus. To be successful, however, students must take the risk of embarrassment and grasp the moment. The other alternative is to withdraw into an American enclave, speak English and be full of regrets at the end of the year because “I still can’t speak the language well.”

During the first three months of international study, students often believe they are understanding less rather than more of what they hear. The reason this happens is that they are changing their language learning and processing. Instead of translating material which they may have done when they learned language basics in North America, they are beginning to think and process information completely in the new language. This new process builds a whole set of new synapses in the brain and develops a new part of the brain. This allows students to think completely in the new language.

When this takes a while to happen, students should not be discouraged and think it was a mistake to join Adventist Colleges Abroad. Instead they should recognize what is happening and determine to persevere and try, try again. Strong perseverance will make the difference. By the end of the first three months students will be able to understand almost everything that is said to them by people in the host country if they take advantage of every opportunity to hear, read, write and speak the language. By the time the second three-months cycle abroad is past, students should be very fluent and able to say almost anything they could possibly want to say. As a result, the last three months in the program will be very positive and the highlight of the year—so much so that students wish that the time would extend itself and that it would not be necessary to go home.

Students should be aware that a “blues” period may occur, particularly during the first three months abroad. The low point usually comes about six weeks to two months into the program (early November to Thanksgiving). If it occurs, students should take heart and try to shake the blues by thinking positively and recognizing they are making progress and become assimilated into the new culture of their host campus and country. A reason for true celebration that will soon occur and signal advancement and movement beyond causes for “depression” will be the first dream in the new language.

As the year progresses, spoken English will be less and less tolerated on each campus. Teachers and school administrators will increase efforts to ensure that the host country language is the language of communication. (No English may be spoken between 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m.) This goal, of course, can only be realized if students individually take the initiative, place restrictions on themselves, and read, speak, and write only in the host language. There will be times, of course, when it is absolutely necessary to communicate in English, particularly with persons from abroad, but those students who make the most progress will be very circumspect in the use of their native language.

For students on language immersion programs one of the major adjustments will be the adjustment to an “adolescent” type life. It’s very frustrating to discover that children on the street can speak the language better than you can, and it does make people feel dumb or stupid to not be able to say what they want when they want to, and have people laugh at them when they try to talk. But by and large, students will find that people will be positive and try to help them out. It is difficult for people who have weak self images to feel good in an international study experience. Students are infantilized by their lack of language skills and may get what they consider “negative” messages. It is important to find a “support group” for encouragement—a group of people or a person specifically who will bring messages of encouragement. Such help along with good self messages can promote positive feelings and a sense of still being in charge of one’s self.