Preparing for your year abroad or wondering how to get the most out of your exchange? Here are ten pieces of advice that I have learned as an american post-graduate Rotary Youth Exchange student living in Brazil.
1) Practice the language
You have probably already heard this a million times, and with good reason. You are going to want to arrive in your host country knowing at least the basics. Between schoolwork and balancing a social life, it can be difficult setting aside the time to study. But it is definitely worth the time and effort to arrive already having a strong foundation of the language. You will get the most out of your exchange in a shorter time frame. This will facilitate your ability to connect with your host family and speed up the process of making friends.
As a rule of thumb, it takes about 3 months to get the basics down. You will be able to communicate and carry simple conversations. Around your 6 month mark, you will be understanding mostly everything and your speaking skills would have improved significantly. As the months continue, you will already have a solid foundation of the vocabulary and can focus more time on correcting your speech and mastering grammatical nuances. Your progression with learning the language depends greatly on two things. The first being the level of difficulty compared to your native language and the second being the time that you spend practicing. Remember that your full-time job is to learn the language.
Tips for Learning the Language
The reason a lot of exchange students arrive in their host countries without a strong foundation of the language, or at least speaking for myself, is because they do not know how to learn a second language. This makes all of the difference. I studied a mini phrasebook and took lessons on Rosetta Stone, but unfortunately, many teaching methods today are outdated. I made a whole blog post about what helped me reaching fluency in Portuguese. You can check that out by clicking here: 16 Tips for Learning a Foreign Language.
You need to start with learning the most important phrases. Knowing how to ask where the bathroom is will help you much more than being able to explain a family tree. Below I included a link to Charlles Nune’s Portuguese Phrasebook. Regardless of the language you are learning, this is a great resource if you are not sure where to start. I recommend focusing more on learning the greetings, useful expressions, language help, introductions, meeting people, saying goodbye, question words, time expressions, and what I found most useful ― learning the most common verbs.
You will find a lot of great resources available online for free. A great tip is always to include the word “pdf” in your searches. The Routledge Taylor & Francis Group offers great practical guides in a variety of different languages. I will include a few quick pdf links below, although you can find more languages available with a simple google search. Their Portuguese grammar guide is by far one of the best resources I have found.
Be Cautious of Speaking in your Native Language
This is fine at first when you are adjusting and need someone to explain things, but do not let this continue for your entire exchange. There will come a time when you have to tell people to stop speaking to you in English and you will need to abandon your mother language.
Understand that you and your host family may have a different expectation of the exchange program. My goal was to completely immerse myself into the language. I was very head strong on only speaking Portuguese. My family, to my negligence, would have liked to practice more English with me. I was not prepared for this situation. I recommend having this conversation with your family when you first arrive. Maybe you can have one day a week where you guys practice English together. Ask them what are their expectations of the program. Explain that you can help them with English but that it is also important for you to master your target language. Find a good balance.
Another great tip. I asked my friends and family to always speak to me in Portuguese first. If I didn’t understand, I asked them to try and explain without giving me the English translation. When you are first learning, it will be difficult to find the words that you need. Try anyway!
If all else fails, just remember to smile!
2) Say Yes to Every Opportunity to Meet New People
Be Jim Carrey from the “Yes Man”. You are going to be in a new country where you do not know anyone. Put yourself in uncomfortable situations. This is your year and it is what you make of it. Nobody knows the person that you were back home. Think of the person you want to be and be that person. Do not be afraid to introduce yourself to new people. A great catchphrase is “Hey! I am an exchange student here and I am trying to meet new people. What is your name?“. Ask a ton of questions and be open to sharing about yourself. Make it your goal to introduce yourself to everyone in your classroom. When someone invites you somewhere, actually go and be enthusiastic about it. You will be in situations where you only know a few familiar faces.
I remember when I was back home and someone had invited me to their graduation party. None of my other friends were going, and so I decided it was best to stay home. You cannot do that on exchange. You will be living in a country where, at least at first, you will not know anyone. If you use this mentality of sticking to familiar faces and being afraid to go somewhere alone, you are never going to leave your house. Even if someone invites you somewhere that sounds boring, go anyway.
3) Get involved
In contrast to the United States, many other countries do not offer high school clubs and sports. While my school did not have any clubs, they did have a soccer and volleyball team that held practices twice a week. Try and see what you can find within your community. If you are living in South America, do yourself a favor and join a dance academy. It is a great way to learn more about the culture and to make new friends. Take surfing classes if you are living near the beach. Join a local swim team. Find some people to go running with. It doesn’t even have to be something related to athletics. Get involved with a church near your house. Find ways to meet people outside of school. Taking advantage of these opportunities and make the best of your exchange year!
4) Represent your country
It is important to note that whatever you do, you will be representing your country. You are an ambassador. Do not argue with other people or make rude statements about others. Avoid conflicts between your group of friends and do not shut anyone out. Always be open and friendly with anyone that is talking to you. Be respectful of their culture and open to trying new things (with limits, of course). You will be their image of the country you are representing. Make sure it is a good one.
5) Contact your host family before you arrive
If you have the opportunity, get in touch with your host family before your departure date. Ask them to send you pictures of their home, the city you will be living, and your family members. Plan what items you will need to bring. Ask them what the temperature is like and what type of clothing you will need. Do they have any pets? What do they like to do in their free time? What are their jobs? What are the times and hours that you will have school? Do they speak English? Ask them any questions you may have, but do not worry too much. You will figure out a lot of things once you get there.
I recommend that you bring a small gift for your family and a mini photo album. This is a great ice breaker for your first night and will allow you to share more about yourself with your host family.
6) Bring extra phone chargers
Apple products are ridiculously more expensive in Brazil. I found the same $20 apple phone charger I bought at home in a store here for $60. The charger I brought with me, inevitably broke. I would suggest, depending on what country you are going to and where you are coming from, to bring at least two back up chargers.
You can also talk with your host family to compare prices of other items. I was surprised to find that while I could buy a notebook back home for around $3, a good quality one in Brazil can cost upwards to $16. Luckily, I had brought two with me and my host brother was kind enough to give me one of his.
7) Leave space in your suitcase
I was not this smart. You are instinctively going to want to bring with you as much as you can possibly fit in your luggage. But it is important to remember that you will be returning home in another nine to twelve months. Leave some space for all of the souvenirs and presents you want to take back with you.
8) Avoid using your cell phone too much
One of the biggest mistakes an exchange student can make is spending too much time on their phone. Especially if someone is speaking to you. This also applies for host families. Don’t touch your phone at the lunch table and avoid using it in social settings. It is great for taking and sharing pictures, not texting your friends and family back home.
Limit your video chats. My Rotary club had recommended avoiding contact with anyone back home for your first month, so that you truly assimilate into your host country. I did not follow this, but just to give you an idea how serious it is to make sure that you are truly present where you are at. I usually videoed back home around 1-2 times a week. Definitely do not forget to send to your parents once you arrive in your new country. Let them know that you made it there safely. Send them tons of pictures!
9) Speak loudly
This especially applies if your name is hard to pronounce. Speak loudly so that other people are able to understand you. You will appreciate the same. Do not feel intimidated. Some cultures speak louder than others, but as a general rule, practice projecting your voice. You will be better understood.
10) Befriend the other exchange students that you meet
More likely than not, there will be another exchange student located in your district — whether that be through Rotary, AFS, Viamundo, or another exchange program. Plan to go out together as a group! Go to the movies, explore your city, grab some sushi, invite them over to your house and listen to music together. It doesn’t always happen like this, but in most cases, these people will become your best friends. Take advantage of this amazing opportunity to meet like-minded individuals from other parts of the world.
Be sure not to neglect the native friends that you made in your host country. I usually try to prioritize them over my exchange friends, of whom are understanding and respectful of this. Each of you will be living your own exchange. It is important that you assimilate into country by making friends with the natives and being a part of your host family.
There is a closed facebook group chat with over 18,000 exchange students. The memes are all so relatable. It is a great outlet to connect with other exchange students and to share about your experience. You can find the group by searching “Worldwide Exchange Students”.