Hello and welcome to a foreign country whose language you have been learning for anything between two and nine years.
You have hopefully found a place to stay, made WhatsApp work on your phone and have plastered photos of your family/friends/hamster across your walls, just in case you forget what they look like. This is after having figured out whether you have the correct clothing choices for the weather and decided whether or not those neon legwarmers that were oh-so-important for Jesters are going to help you learn French/Spanish/Chinese (insert language of choice here. Also, the answer is no in case anyone was wondering). The question is: what can you really expect to experience on your year abroad? *
Week One: Obliviousness. You’ve just arrived, and after the initial stresses of actually getting there you’re so proud of yourself for surviving, nothing else matters. This may be different for those who have moved abroad on their own prior to the year abroad, but we’re not talking about you so pipe down. You meet some new people, test the water with speaking the ‘new’ language and occasionally make some mistakes (I can’t be the only one to ask for a SIM card for my ‘mobylette’ (moped) instead of ‘portable’ (phone) can I? In my defense, I panicked…) While food shopping takes three times longer because you actually have to read the ingredients to see what you’re getting, at least you’re successfully feeding yourself. The fact that you are constantly exhausted means you need to schedule in some naps, or ‘siestas’ as your new Spanish friends like to call them.
Week Two: Frustration. You’ve had your induction into your place of work/university, and people are starting to expect things from you. While you were so proud of yourself for actually understanding what they were saying when they explained what you should be doing, you now have to start talking to people, asking questions (using correctly the formal/informal manner for most languages so that you don’t make an idiot of yourself or offend anyone) and achieving things. This is difficult in most places that aren’t England – their banking systems are different, phone contracts more expensive, WiFi less easy to come by. You persevere though…you’re on a mission here and you don’t want to fail.
Week Three: Partly cloudy, chance of success. At least one of the aforementioned things has started to fall into place; you either have a bank account, WiFi or a phone contract, but sometimes one is dependant on the other so they can’t all happen at once (and also, that would just make things too simple, wouldn’t it?). You’re starting to feel that sense of achievement, despite the fact that you don’t actually have a completed university/teaching timetable or work hasn’t quite figured out exactly what to do with you. You’ve made new friends, you’re speaking the language and you’re finding your way around – you may even have used the bus/tram/train by this point and survived the strange customs of the country – for example in France, you have to stamp your ticket to make it valid, and forgetting to do so makes you liable for a fine.
Week Four: You can do this! You’re speaking the language; you’re debating politics and religion and singing all the Disney songs in different languages to make comparisons. You’ve translated or interpreted something in at least one situation for someone else which makes you feel like you know and understand life. You’ve been to the cinema, possibly even the theatre and you’ve discovered the great bars/pubs and clubs of the area. You’ve rationalised that spending more on either alcohol or food is fine because of your increased maintenance loan and you’re happy not to diet because the food is just so good. You realise that you can make it through this year and that the lack of Marmite is not going to kill you.
Week Five: You don’t know any of the languages. The feelings of elation transform into a realisation that you don’t know how to speak your first language, never mind your second (or third, or fourth…). You start stealing sentence structures from your second language which make your first sound ridiculous, the work load is increasing and all your friends at home are posting pictures of everyone together on nights out, with the gap where your head (and the rest of your body, preferably) should be. You’ve probably missed quite a few 21st birthdays by this point, and you’ve started missing home. You are, however, determined to see it through without breaking down, if only you could remember what an adverb is or how a preposition works.
Week Six: You just want to go home. The children you’re teaching are driving you up the wall, you’re already sitting exams or work is expecting a lot from you. The homesickness is hitting you hard and people from home are rallying together to Skype or Facebook you into happiness because they know they can’t give you that hug that you really need. The best thing is, for most of you, it’s possible to go home soon or to travel and see a bit more of the country you’re in, which makes the problem go away. For those of you who can’t do this, there is no need to worry: it gets better. Someone says something, or another thing falls into place or you get that care package from your friend/parent/hamster that just makes life that much better.
#My Advice. To make the transition easier, here are a couple of tips: stick photos of your loved ones on your walls, open the dreaded bank account as soon as possible and sort out a phone so that even if you are without Skype, you can communicate with people. Everyone always says this but it’s true: talk to people! Go and help out at clubs where they teach people to speak English because they’ll appreciate a native speaker and you’ll make new friends. Join sports or music societies or take up an evening class, and most importantly follow this rule: say yes to everything as long as it isn’t illegal and doesn’t endanger your life in any way. The work will be tough and although you know that your language isn’t perfect yet, it will improve dramatically, all while proving your independence and generally gaining life experience. Vive la Year Abroad!
* Terms and Conditions apply, subject to personality types and ability to wear neon legwarmers.