Learning a Foreign Language While Working Abroad

Many people who decide to volunteer abroad actually do it to learn a new language. In an increasingly global community, a working knowledge of a foreign language can strengthen a resume, and open up a world of both professional and personal opportunities. Language learning abroad is becoming so popular that many volunteer placements agencies include language classes and/or tutoring as part of the experience.

There are thousands of languages spoken around the world (the most widely spoken language, by number of native speakers, is Mandarin Chinese), and even within each country there can be dozens of languages spoken.

There are some languages that are enjoy more widespread usage, like Spanish, French and Arabic, but the most important thing to do when learning a new language for a volunteer abroad experience is to learn the specifics of the language spoken in your new community – including dialect, colloquialisms, and other details that might help you get a leg-up on learning.

Latin American Languages

While more than 30 ancient and local dialects are spoken in the seven countries of Latin America, the predominant language is Spanish, with Portuguese being the official language Brazil.

Did you Know? Many African countries (much like the United States) don’t actually have official, national languages.

Spanish and Portuguese share many similarities with English, but those looking for a volunteering experience in the region with little of no Spanish or Portuguese ability will find initial communication with their host organization and locals difficult at first. Ideally, a volunteer will take a beginner’s course (at a local college or learning annex) before their arrival. This will make the transition into the work that much smoother, and will allow you to more quickly get to work.

While there are many people in Latin America (particularly Belize and Guyana, where English in the national language, and Panama, where the canal has greatly increased exposure to English) with a good command of English, in more remote areas working knowledge of Spanish or Portuguese will be invaluable.

Other languages include Dutch, the official language of Suriname, and French, the official language to French Guiana.

African Languages

French and English are probably the most valuable languages to know for overseas volunteers in Africa. However, there are thousands of local and tribal dialects in the region, and they their usage may not be widespread enough in your home country for you to learn them in advance. If you are working in a remote area that speaks a tribal language or dialect, lean on your fellow volunteers and support staff to help.

Middle Eastern Languages

Arabic, Turkish and Persian are the languages most widely used in the Middle East. Arabic is the official language in all Arabic countries – which makes sense since Arab countries are defined by the fact that they speak Arabic! Persian is the second most popular language, and is spoken primarily in Iran. Similarly Turkish is primarily spoken in Turkey. Hebrew, Kurdish and Armenian are also popular languages in the Middle East.

Asian Languages

The most widely spoken languages on the Asian continent are Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Japanese, and Korean. Asian languages are notoriously trickier for native English and romance language speakers to learn on their own, so expect a significant learning curve. However, in less industrialized parts of the region you will be less likely to have access to English-speakers, and you will appear more culturally-sensitive if you have working knowledge of the language before you arrive for your volunteer job.

Did you Know? The six official languages of the United Nations are English, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Spanish (Castilian), French, and Arabic.

Tips for Learning Languages

There are a few tips that you can use to make the transition into living in a foreign country and learning a new language a little easier:

  • Learn as much as you can before you leave! Take a class, find a language buddy, or use an online or audio resource like Rosetta Stone. While many overseas volunteers have been very successful at learning language quickly once they have started working, you will undoubtedly feel more comfortable if you are familiar with some of the basic terms (verb tenses, directions, food names, household items). You can even ask your volunteer supervisor or former volunteer for a list of words and phrases that were the most helpful to them, and make a point to learn them before you leave. A little goes a long way when learning a new language!
  • Use what you know! The biggest mistake that many people make when volunteering abroad in a new language is being afraid to use even the limited vocabulary that they have at their disposal. Even when you are with friends that speak your native language, make a point to communicate in your new language for practice. Some people learn visually, so one trick is to label some of the items in your home with words in the new language – this helps you associate the thing with the word, rather than constantly relying on translations in your head.
  • Find a language partner. If you find yourself struggling to keep up with conversations either socially or in your volunteer placement, find someone new to chat with. This can be someone you find online (of course, use all of the online dating tricks when meeting someone for the first time – meet in a public place, find out as much about them as possible in advance, tell a friend that you are meeting them, etc.) or someone you know through a professional or social network. The point of a language partner, or language pair, is to trade off speaking in each of your native language. The language partner will be more likely to correct you, and will be patient if you are initially stumbling over your words.
  • Set milestones. Instead of expecting to be fluent in your first week, set some smaller milestones for yourself like ordering in a restaurant, taking a taxi by yourself (or at least doing all the talking), or having a 5 minutes conversation with someone who doesn’t speak your native language. If you set goals, you are more likely to recognize the small improvements that come with learning a new language.

Quick Summary:

  • Some widely-spoken languages (Spanish, French, Arabic, and English) will not only incredibly valuable on your trip, but previous knowledge of them will make you a more competitive volunteer applicant.
  • Learn as much as you can about the language spoken – including details about dialect and colloquialisms – before you arrive.
  • Everyone learns at his/her own pace. As you are learning a new language, don’t measure your progress against others, but set milestones for yourself instead.


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