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Should a Language Barrier Stop You from Studying Abroad?

EmployabilityUniversityYear Abroad

It's not just us that feel embarrassed in another country when we have no grasp over the language, right? Having just returned from her month abroad in China, Ashley Faith Fontaine, from the University of Reading runs through the pros and cons of studying abroad despite a language barrier...

Studying abroad. The one thing that makes the verb "study" sound aesthetically pleasing and, to some extent, fun. It is an opportunity to fly to another part of the world in order to gain some insight about the chosen country's culture and teaching style. However, for some, it is also the chance to learn a whole new language. If you are a student stuck at a crossroads about whether or not you should study in a country because of a language barrier, then you are in the right place. This summer, I chose to fly halfway across the world and study at Peking University (PKU) in Beijing, China for a month. With Mandarin being the East Asian country's traditional language, I know exactly how hard it can be to communicate in a place where they do not speak your "lingo". I was born in the UK, and, although a few of my family and friends speak French, I am one hundred percent monolingual. Before going on the study abroad programme, I had zero knowledge of Mandarin. But I wanted to journey off to this far-away land as a result of its culture, tourist attractions, and module choices that would be highly beneficial to my creative degree and beyond. Did I struggle at times as a result of the language barrier while out there? Yes, without a doubt. Would I go back and change my mind about studying abroad in a country with a language barrier? No, definitely not. With that being said, here are the disadvantages and advantages of going on a trip such as mine.


Let us firstly get down to the nitty gritty and think about why a language barrier may put you off from studying abroad in certain countries.

1. Yes, you will lose your way and get lost at least once

Remember, although you will be studying at the host university, you will also have plenty of time to gallivant around on the weekends, or even on the days you have no lectures. Getting lost in a new place is therefore inevitable. It happens to the best of us, even to those Duke of Edinburgh expeditioners, like myself. Google Maps can seem like your best friend in your own country, but it will be somewhat useless if you cannot read the signs because they are in a foreign language.

2. Communicating with the locals will be challenging 

You may find that even the simplest of things, like going to the shop and buying a chocolate bar, is a hurdle when you cannot speak the specific language. Money may also look different, and this will be something you will have to get used to.

3. Warning: you may consume some unintended food

Say goodbye to a fair few of your home comforts, because each country's cuisine, especially those who do not indulge in Western culture, differs. Even if a food item looks similar to what you think it is, it might not be, so a word of warning when choosing what to eat. This is also particularly important to those who suffer from food allergies or have special dietary needs. Once again, without knowledge of the language, it will be difficult to read signs in canteens and restaurants, and, most importantly, communicate your food preferences to the staff. One of my study abroad peers was a vegan, and accidentally ate meat in China because it looked like tofu, so you will need to be prepared for any mishaps!


Right. So, you must be wondering if there are any upsides to studying abroad in a country where you cannot speak the language, and despite the cons, you will be happy to know that the pros list is longer.

1. You will probably be taught in English

Your lectures are more than likely going to be taught in the widely-spoken language of English, so you will only encounter communication difficulties outside of the university. Double check this before you sign up to the programme, but in study abroad destinations, lecturers are conventionally instructed to teach modules in English, so do not stress! You will be able to engage in discussions and understand any assignments set.

2. It is possible to break down a language barrier, and when you do, you will feel triumphant

While studying abroad at the host country's university, you will be sharing this space with national, local students who speak the specific language. Engage with them so you can learn some basic, vital phrases. As part of my study abroad programme at PKU, there was a language café. This was where mainland Chinese students and English-speaking international students could exchange languages, allowing for a more relaxed approach to learning the "basics". From phrases such as "hello" and "thank you" to more significant words like "toilet" and "help" in case of emergencies, this service was very helpful. Another way to help break a language barrier is by downloading a language app. Who knows, you might just be a whizz at the language by the end?

3. Employers will salute you for taking on such a linguistically-challenging programme 

This experience will look great on your CV and could give you a real edge when applying for jobs. According to the Erasmus Student Network, 64% of employers value international experience, considering it significant for recruitment.

4. Think of all the long-lasting memories, international friends and laughs you will have

By the end of the trip, you will eventually look back and laugh at all the memorable mishaps you made. You will also have gained new friendships, as study abroad programmes attract a multitude of students across the world. Whether it is for a month, a term, or a year, if you get the chance to study abroad - go! (especially if it will be in a country where the language is unknown). Just make sure you get professional advice from study abroad staff about the country you intend to fly to.

About the author: Ashley Faith Fontaine is an English Literature and Film & Theatre undergraduate at the University of Reading. She has been a Junior Online News Writer for 'This Is Local London,' and as a Study Abroad Ambassador has created a blog for her university's 2017 Summer Scholarship to China.

ashley faith fontaine grb author

Ashley Faith Fontaine is an English Literature and Film & Theatre undergraduate at the University of Reading. She has been a Junior Online News Writer for 'This Is Local London,' and as a Study Abroad Ambassador has created a blog for her university's 2017 Summer Scholarship to China.

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