If you’re aiming to improve your foreign academic language proficiency, I’m going to assume you have your motivation handled. What you need most is a program that’s going to provide you with the opportunities to improve. Here are some of the best things to look for.
DEPTH OF SPECIFIC LANGUAGE COURSES
Small, skill-focused courses, such as “Academic Reading” are the mark of a program that will accelerate your language learning.
You’re not going to hit your goal with core language courses, alone. Look for courses that target a specific skill or type of resource. Quantity is good, too. The more courses you can take, the more constant exposure you’ll get to work toward your proficiency goals.
SKILL-SPECIFIC LANGUAGE COURSES
Use skill-specific courses, such as reading or writing, to focus on the area you most need to improve. If you want to be able to read primary sources, or even just the news, then target a reading course if you want to interview people in your new language, then listening and speaking are important.
In either case, focus your attention on academic language. Whenever you have the chance to choose a project or topic, make sure it’s in line with your goals.
RESOURCE-SPECIFIC LANGUAGE COURSES
If you’re working on your foreign academic language proficiency for grad school purposes, then you’ll need to learn to research in that language. Taking courses in reading or listening to specific source types can help.
In graduate school, I took both reading newspapers and translating historical Japanese. Since my program in Japanese studies covered both history and current affairs, both were useful to my research.
Maybe you want to read trade journals in your field of study, or research papers. Find the course that works for you. If that fails, see if the university will accommodate an independent study. It never hurts to ask.
RESEARCH ASSISTANT PLACEMENTS AVAILABLE
A research assistant position is an engaging way to develop academic language proficiency in context.
Becoming a research assistant is one of the best extra-curricular ways to improve your academic language proficiency. Instead of studying the language, you’ll be studying in the language. You’ll be reading real academic sources and discussing them with your advisor.
Even if your role is to research sources in your own language, you can still improve. Try to present your findings in the host language and discuss them with the professor. Pay attention to the words that he or she uses and try to work those into your own speech.
These opportunities may be rare and in high demand. If you wait, you’ll certainly miss out. So, start hunting for possibilities even before you arrive, if possible, and certainly no later than orientation.
LANGUAGE RESOURCE CENTER AND TUTORING
If your study abroad program has a language study resource center, plan to spend time there regularly focusing on the language skills you want to learn.
If you really want to improve academic language proficiency, classes and textbooks are not going to be enough. You need to push yourself to go beyond the requirements and syllabus. Studying abroad at a university with a language resource center will give you access to materials for self-directed, active learning.
Serious language students at my university constantly rave about our Language Development and Intercultural Studies Center. They watch Japanese movies and write their own subtitles. Or they translate music, or read current news sources.
Any student in an independent language study can be found several hours each week in the LDIC.
Tutoring is also an invaluable resource. Whether you use it to get through difficult material in your courses, or to push beyond coursework into your interest, one-on-one learning is customization for your goals.
For everything on this list, you need to take action to reap the benefits. While the university characteristics above are relatively rare, and require careful program selection, the next set of actions should be possible almost anywhere. Or at least, these should be your minimum requirements for finding a program!
TAKE A CONTENT COURSE IN THE HOST LANGUAGE
Choose a content course with a small class size to maximize interaction and academic language proficiency growth.
If you meet the language requirements to take a course taught in the host language, do it! A whole semester of academic reading, writing, and speaking will push you to take your language skills to the next level. Studying alongside native speakers gives you a chance to pick up new language, and ask for help as needed.
Stick to only one course at first, unless you’re really confident in your language ability. Reading and writing assignments are going to take 2-3 times as long in another language, so you don’t want to over-commit and spend your whole study abroad studying!
You may also want to make sure your GPA is safe in advance. Your language ability will likely affect your final grade. If your study abroad credits transfer back as “pass/fail,” then you should be fine.
LIVE WITH A LOCAL ROOMMATE
As I’ve stressed in several other articles, a local roommate is an invaluable resource. In this case, it’s someone you can ask for help when you come across challenges in your homework or research.
There is nothing more frustrating than coming up against a roadblock in your work and having to wait days for your next class to ask the teacher for help. If you have a local roommate who you can bounce questions off of, that problem is solved. He or she might even be willing to proof-read part of a homework assignment or critique a presentation.
Of course, you shouldn’t expect academic-level conversation every day. (That would be a pretty intense study abroad.) But every bit of interaction in your host language will help. Even social conversations can improve you ability to participate in class discussions later.
FIND A LANGUAGE CONVERSATION PARTNER
Language conversation partners are a great way to get consistent, one-on-one practice to improve your language skills.
You can find a conversation partner through an official program if your university offers one. Otherwise, you can reach out through social media groups, student clubs, or bulletin boards. If you search, you will find someone interested in your language who wants to do a language exchange.
Since there are only two of you, you can customize your conversations to each other’s needs. You can use it to help with conversation skills to speak up in class. You can also discuss your course material just to hear the words your partner uses and remember them for later. Like with your roommate, you can also ask your conversation partner to critique any class presentations in advance and help you sound more natural.