Sunday, May 14, 2006

Studying abroad

Studying abroad: what to expect and what to do when you get it


Robert L. Fielding

Studying abroad is one of the most exciting things you can do as a young person embarking on life.  The skills you will acquire whilst living and working overseas will undoubtedly last you a lifetime.  These skills can be divided into several categories;

  • Life skills
Of course, traveling is supposed to broaden the mind – if you let it.  There is a great temptation – more than a temptation – almost a need, for young people living in a foreign country to search out, find, and associate with other young people from their own country.  The advantages of finding a friend who speaks your own tongue are numerous.  First of all, you don’t have to try very hard to make yourself understood.  The stress as well as the energy needed to speak a foreign language all the time is underestimated.  Constantly struggling to make oneself understood requires huge amounts of energy and resilience.  It follows that situations in which this struggle is not necessary are eagerly sought out by students having difficulty communicating even their most basic needs and feelings to sometimes unsympathetic ears.

Finding people who speak your own language is universally pleasing, even if it turns out that you have little in common with such people.  Finding such people and making friends with them is a bonding experience; people learn to appreciate company and to become more sociable as a result of making acquaintances overseas.

There is a down-side to all this though, and it is this; if you never mix with the local population, it is improbable that you will ever have your mind broadened, or learn about other people and the cultures they are a part of.  It’s a good point and one that should be thought of before excluding non-native speakers of your own language from the group.
  • Interpersonal skills
The advantages of being alone are few, but one of them is the greater need to form social skills that enable you to meet people, interact with them, and possibly end up becoming firm friends with them.  Of course, you can’t possibly be personal friends with everyone you meet, but you can be friendly.  

The ability to be genial, amicable, friendly, and sympathetic is a great one and one that is learnt in environments in which there is a felt need to communicate and reach out.  It is probably true to say that most people will speak if they are spoken to, but it is probably equally true that most people have plenty to do besides speaking to someone who may not always fully understand them.

However, this is not to suggest that people are usually unfriendly and uncommunicative; they are not.  Nevertheless, a smiling face is more welcome than an outwardly serious one.  Most people react favourably to someone with a friendly disposition than to someone who doesn’t seem very friendly at first.

Getting through life overseas can be made so much easier if words are accompanied by smiles, and students living in foreign countries should try to communicate in this way, while also using a certain amount of common sense where other people are concerned.

As Max Ehrman, the author of the wonderful poem, Desiderata, says, ‘The world is full of trickery but…’

Living in a foreign country has often been likened to living anonymously – to being a perpetual stranger in a strange land.  This aspect of living abroad must sound quite daunting to someone used to being recognized by everyone he or she meets in the course of a normal day’s coming and going. However, if viewed as an opportunity to find out who you really are and what you have the potential to become, this aspect of life overseas can become the most rewarding.

  • Intrapersonal skills
The ability to know ourselves, what we feel, what we need to survive, and who we really is a greatly underestimated one.  Few attain that knowledge, completely, at any rate, but perhaps there are some things in human nature that are either best left unknown or are virtually impossible to discern.  Still, self-knowledge is a valuable possession and one that each of us could usefully improve on.

  • Academic skills
Last but not least, are those academic skills you went over to England to acquire and become expert in.  After all, most people studying abroad are doing so because of the expertise they can avail themselves of, that and the superior facilities in the learning environment of their chosen destination.

First and foremost among these skills is the ability to use the language used as the medium of instruction.  This is generally English, and for a very good reason.  The English language has become the ‘lingua franca’ of the world, whether it be English for Business or English for Sport – English is arguably the most important, most widely spoken language in the world today.  It is why you have traveled to Manchester, Vancouver, Sydney or Singapore; it is the international language.

Of course, you will not have flown half way across the world just to become fluent in English.  You will probably have your eye on a course of study that will further your intended career in some way.  You may, for example, have arrived in England to begin courses in Biology, Electric Engineering or Anthropology.  You may have come to England to learn enough about the tourist industry to enable you to run a hotel back in your own country.

Whatever reasons you may have for going abroad, it is important to remember your goals and your reasons for wanting to study English, or study in English.  There is a saying in England, ‘All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.’  In order to get the most out of your visit to another country, it is best to balance your time and how you spend it; work hard and play hard, but don’t play too hard.  


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