Help me plan a trip to maximize language learning
October 6, 2014 5:33 AM   Subscribe

I have the opportunity to go abroad for an extended period time. My goal and purpose would be to strengthen my skills in a foreign language. How can I structure this trip so that this happens?

I will be graduating a semester early next year and I would like to go to Portugal to improve my language skills. I have grown up hearing Portuguese so I can speak it conversationally, and I understand more than I can speak, but I have little command of the grammar and a lot to learn.

I considered doing a study abroad program because I liked that it was structured (and the courses were interesting), but I can't justify spending an additional $15k after I've already completed college...

I would have off from mid-December through July, so I have a good amount of time to spend there. What are some activities I can do to ensure that I am getting a full experience (as I might with a study abroad program)? I have looked into language schools, but I can't tell if they're legit. I've gotten a Portuguese-speaking family member to call some, but the schools would not answer.

I don't want to backpack around Europe, as many solo travelers do, though I'm certainly not opposed to visiting other countries -- I just want to focus my time on this country and its language.

Also, I will be a solo female, so I am concerned about safety.

Thank you!
posted by metacognition to Travel & Transportation around Portugal (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There are homestay programs that are not connected with any specific exchange/educational component (I came across this one on Google). Wwoofing for a while might be another activity to engage in as a way to create a context where you have extensive opportunities to practice your active language production skills.
posted by drlith at 6:15 AM on October 6, 2014

I have no experience with Portugal, but I have gone on trips with the goal of improving a language. I think you might want to avoid structured programs or even language schools to some extent because they will tend to have English speakers who will speak English with you. If I were you, I'd set up a homestay, take an hour or so each day of one-on-one classes at a language school to work on grammar, and spend the rest of your time with Portuguese speakers as much as possible-- join groups, maybe take a class in Portuguese, wwooof, volunteer with kids, work if you can, hang out with your host family. Try not to make friends who speak English, because that will sink your language goals.
posted by geegollygosh at 6:20 AM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

How about a work exchange for the beginning of your stay? I picture something like a hostel. They usually want people to work a few hours a day in exchange for room (and possibly board). This would allow you to settle in a bit, get to know people, network, and find a tandem partner (might be better for you than a language school because it sounds like you already have decent language skills). After a month or so you could move on to a shared flat with Portuguese students (build in language lessons!). If you plan to stay longer, I would look for some type of work/internship/volunteer position and also check out what the local unis have on offer - academic language is a whole 'nother thing compared to informal speech.
Having some type of certificate (of employment, an internship/ volunteer position or university course) could also be beneficial when you start job hunting.

What I have outlined would cost you little in money (compared to the 15K you mentioned) but would require more research and discipline on your part. It could be an awesome experience though. Check out for work exchange positions.

You don't mention your passport situation, if you are not an EU citizen, you can stay up to 90 days in Portugal (or any other EU country). Good luck!
posted by travelwithcats at 6:22 AM on October 6, 2014

You're a graduating student, maybe combine both things and volunteer at a conference in your profession in Portugal? I find that I get the most language practice when I am at conferences, meetings with professional colleagues and so on where people are very forgiving of my beginning Spanish but also encouraging. There's also the opportunity to sit and listen to papers or talks in a subject that you might know something about. As a bonus, there's usually socialising in the evening where you can practice more informally.
posted by wingless_angel at 6:42 AM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I understand more than I can speak

This is true for everyone in their native language.

Going abroad can be a great boon in acquiring a language. However, it can also encourage a lack of diligence because it can be tempting to think that being in-country will lead to effortless language acquisition by osmosis. (I have heard a number of people say that cannot speak another language because they never had an opportunity to live in that country)

My process is to find a good text (or two) and to follow it methodically regularly. Thirty minutes a day is a lot better than a three-hour marathon on Saturday afternoon. You have a great advantage in that you are not starting from scratch.

I agree with geegollygosh's advice. Make friends with locals rather than expats. A homestay would be great, although having done homestays, it is great if you have someplace else to be during at least a part of the day. Your passport and visa will determine to what extent (if any) you can work and how long you can stay.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:45 AM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Apologies to geegollygosh, but I couldn't disagree more. Nothing works better than an intensive structured course. And I mean intensive...5 to 9 hours/day at least 5 days a week for at least a month. You come in one end stuttering and out the other end talking. That works *much* better than homestay or other passive approaches. I've done it with Chinese, Spanish, French, and it works. Of course you want to find the best language school in Portugal to do that, but a bit of googling around should find it. You have to be prepared to work. But if you are, you'll learn much more in a month of highly-focused intense structured training than in a year of homestay.
posted by mono blanco at 8:00 AM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

To clarify, I meant a 'structured program' in the sense of a study abroad program where you're doing cultural and language things in a big group of English speakers. I don't think you should avoid language schools, but I do think you should avoid the social group that you will meet at language schools (I mean, don't drive yourself crazy in isolation, but be mindful of what language you're spending your time with).

I agree with mono blanco that if your one goal is to speak fluently, your best shot is locking yourself in a room all day with a teacher. (Fair warning: this is exhausting. I have done four hours a day and I mentally checked out after three. YMMV.)
posted by geegollygosh at 8:22 AM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Structured intensive course is really big.

And I agree with geegollygosh and Tanizaki. DO NOT hang out with expats. Do everything - and i mean - everything you can to hang out with locals and make local friends. That will make a huge difference in your language proficiency.
posted by waylaid at 8:41 AM on October 6, 2014

I have lived in Spain for 6 years now (i'm from the U.S.) . When I arrived, I spoke very little Spanish. In fact, nearly zero. Now, I would say I speak an advanced level of spanish, to the point where I do business in Spanish. I know you don't have 6 years but I can tell you from personal experience that the fastest way to learn is to give yourself no choice. In other words, immerse yourself in a situation where you *have to* speak. Don't fall back on your english in situations even when you know you can. This is extremely frustrating at first but you'll see that it is from pure necessity that you learn the fastest.

Another thing that really helped me is to go to places that do language exchange nights. Usually these are bars that host these types of events. Its not only a good way to meet people but a good way to improve because you can ask people to correct you whereas in normal everyday situations they probably will not. Also, everyone else is in the same situation so the environment is relaxed and the embarrassment factor goes away.
posted by postergeist at 10:04 AM on October 6, 2014

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