Why do you want to study abroad for a year? Why do you want to go to a country where you barely speak the language? Why take courses with native speakers? These are the questions that people often asked me when I told them about my study abroad plans for the following year. The answer to all these questions was the same, I wanted to learn both the culture and the language of Peru. No deeper meanings or hidden agendas, it was that simple or so it seemed. To really achieve what this it took a lot of hard work, many mistakes and a bunch of help from anyone who would give me it.
Before studying abroad my life was pretty simple, I was sophomore communications major that grew up in Arlington massachusetts just two hours away from the university. I started taking spanish courses my freshman year at the university and struggled in every single spanish class to squeak out a B and if I was lucky a B+. Needles to say language classes were never my strong suit, but even with this weakness I was drawn to the idea of putting myself in a new environment and testing what I could do. So with this goal in mind I set out for Lima Peru, with a heart full of hope and no idea what I was getting myself into. Now reflecting on my past nine months here in Peru I have developed some helpful tips for anyone who is trying to do what I have decided to do.
The first thing is you have to commit and really put yourself out there. It can be a scary thing to feel like you're wandering around without a map but in reality this is how you begin to learn. When I arrived in Lima I decided that no matter what, I was going to stay in South America for a year. I considered no other option but to stay the course even during the hardest times. It was inevitable that I was going to face trials and failures but being committed to the mission helped motivate me to overcome these challenges.
Secondly avoid the exchange student group and branch out to the natives. It is so easy to get roped in with the other foreigners that speak english and have the same cultural values. Avoid this at all costs! Although it can be fun to hang out with them, you are missing out on the local culture and stay in your own little bubble. The longer you spend in the bubble the harder it is to escape. Instead make an effort to establish a group of friends from the host country. I often felt the pull of this exchange group, but I persisted to develop the relationships with my Peruvian friends. It may take a little longer and feel less natural, but as the relationships grow you will begin to see the value of the work.
Thirdly and the most important for your language development, you have to speak. This was the hardest step for me by far. I started to meet people in groups and would hang out with them but rarely spoke. To improve your language skills, talking with natives is the best way to do so. Start off with simple statements and questions that you have planned. Slowly but surely you will build up a comfortability with your audience and will feel more adventurous in the things you try to say. Don't be afraid to sound stupid! With every mistake you make you're taking a step in the right direction. Before you know it you will be having full conversations, making jokes and even telling stories to a group of native speaks.
Next it is important that you get involved in an activity or a community. Find something you enjoy doing at home and try to do it there in the host country. For example soccer has always been a big part of my life and lucky for me it is a huge part of the culture her in South America. I was able to use soccer to build relationships with people and even ended playing in a tournament with a group of my friends. These kind of authentic experiences cannot be replaced by anything. If you like chess join the chess club at the university or if you're an actor become a part of the theatre. This way you will able to incorporate yourself in a community and quickly develop relationships with the people involved.
Try new things that you have never done before. Eat new foods that you never thought you would eat. Study abroad is about exploration and learning not only about the culture but also about yourself. Your might end up liking that local dish that you thought you would hate or even find a new hobby. What is important is that you're exposing yourself to new experiences that will better form your understanding of the culture and the people in it.
Finally it is essential that you ask for help. Asking for help is never a bad thing, especially when you are in a new culture and language. It can be as simple as directions or a more complex problem like a project. What is important is that you ask for the help when you need it because sometimes asking a question can save you a lot of pain and frustration. There are always people willing to help you during your time abroad and want to see you flourish but if they don't know your needs they can't help you.
Studying abroad has been a pleasure because have been able to integrate myself into the Peruvian culture. I have friendships here that will be continued long after my time abroad ends and I went from a basic level of Spanish to an advanced understanding of the language. These things were only achieved because of how I stepped outside of my comfort zone and integrated myself into the culture.