Interacting with locals, both in language learning and in getting a feel for the culture of your host country, is rather important. It’s also often a challenge. This is also where there’s a huge difference in your immediate chances of success based on program-type and courses offered. The first rule of study abroad is not to expect one experience to be like your next, but moving from an exchange to a more structured program left me somewhat disappointed. On exchange, classes with host country students are offered, the choices are pretty abundant, and I made a point to take at least one. There’s much more integration with students who go to your university or, at the least, other international students. Though, it definitely helped that I already spoke the language, I was expecting something similar this time. In Thailand, the language barrier was much harder and courses were only offered through the program. There were no courses with Thai students and even our dorm experience was pretty insulated. As someone who is a bit shy and highly introverted, not having those same options made making Thai friends a much more daunting task. Looking back, I would have taken less courses and made more of an effort to go to events on campus and connect with the few Thai students we were able to meet.
While my exposure to students was limited, by picking up an internship I was able to interact with Thai staff at the university and gain professional experience. My internship was in the faculty of Political Science and Public Administration was one of the highlights of my study abroad experience, but like everything was filled with pros and cons. On the one hand, there was only so much work for me to do because of the language barrier. This also made it harder to know all of the Thai staff in the office. The people I spoke to were mainly those who reached out to me and who were able to communicate, even if haltingly, in English. There were quite a few people I wished I’d had more confidence and had tried harder to reach.
On the other hand, having free time meant more time for individual meetings with staff. I spent 30-40 minutes talking with more advanced English speakers one-on-one every day. I got to know about their position and the inner workings of the faculty as well as about the people themselves. Talking for that long was challenging at first, but it got easier as time went on. Beyond that different members invited me to try Thai foods, restaurants, and learn vocabulary that I might not have otherwise. On top of those meetings , I sat in on English for the Workplace sessions for more beginning/intermediate learners. I was able to create content for one session and then see how it could be improved upon and explained for a seminar/learning environment. These activities and conversations have helped me to better communicate effectively with English learners in small, but important ways and made me more aware of how I speak. As time went on, people got more comfortable talking to me and approaching me. I appreciated all of their efforts and loved being able to see each person’s English improve and watch them gain more confidence.