- Resist the crutch of familiarity: During my first trip to the U.S. as an Indian student, I quickly found myself seeking out Indian roommates, walking back from school with Indian classmates and speaking my native language. I realized soon thereafter that my feeling “at home” was simply a symptom of a failure to step outside my cocoon to immerse myself in a new people, culture and language. Over the next few months, I attended language coffee chats, signed up with a local host family, and even took my first line dancing class. By consciously stepping outside my comfort zone, I learnt infinitely more about the local customs and culture than I would have sitting in front of a computer, Googling and watching videos on “American small talk”.
- Be an ambassador for your culture: Remember that your “hosts” might be just as inquisitive and anxious about your culture and language as you are about theirs. What can you do to meet them half way across the cultural and language divide? Have you considered cooking your favorite local dish from back home and inviting people over for dinner? Or teaching others common phrases in your language for when they visit your country? Break down walls around you to celebrate what makes you unique, and you’ll find others doing the same.
- Have a local “go-to” friend: Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself in situations where cultural or language differences present a barrier to critical conversations or amazing learning experiences (you can read about my stories here). Make sure you have a multilingual friend on speed-dial, who understands local nuances and can help you communicate. There are human-powered translation apps such as VerbalizeIt, that can help you travel with the confidence that language and cultural support is just a phone call away.
A study abroad experience offers the unique opportunity experience and adapt to communication and culture in a foreign setting. Arm yourself with the right mindset and tools before you travel, and you will come out with a whole new perspective on the world and your place within it!
Kunal Sarda is a graduate of Virginia Tech, Wharton Business School and the co-founder of VerbalizeIt, a human-powered translation company that helps travelers and businesses break through language barriers.