Many college students take a semester or a year to study in a foreign country, perfecting language skills and learning how to live in a new culture. Like many before me, I recently finished a five-month study abroad program in Montpellier, France, with 60 other American college juniors. Even after more than seven years of studying French in school, my language abilities improved rapidly in just one short semester. Studying a language in a foreign country provides opportunities to practice language skills on a daily basis outside as well as inside the classroom. By the time I left France, I was able to read, write, speak and understand the language with a proficiency that I never would have attained in advanced college-level French literature classes.
But studying abroad is no longer just an experience for college students. According to The New York Times, in the last five to ten years, on-location language immersion classes have become increasingly popular for students over the age of 50. Retirement allows the time needed to travel abroad and learn a new language, and because of this, many courses cater to older students. These courses are taught at a slower pace, since many older students have not been in a classroom setting for many years, and students are offered extra classes and private lessons to help strengthen confidence in learning abilities. To lessen the frustrations of this learning environment, older students are encouraged to focus on the entire experience of living and learning abroad and put less emphasis on learning precise grammar and pronunciation.
While it is helpful for some to have learning experiences focused on younger, college-age students, many participants prefer to be in classes with learners of all ages. Whatever the preference may be, students will often come away from a learning abroad experience feeling accomplished, and many will return because there is so much more to learn about other languages and cultures. Ellen Bialstok, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, says, “Scientific evidence shows that being bilingual is a particularly good exercise for the brain and an excellent way to build cognitive reserves.” Even though I may not have too many opportunities to practice my French after I graduate, it is good to know that someday I can return to a French-speaking country and once more put into practice everything I learned from living abroad.