So you’re planning on studying or traveling in a foreign language-speaking country, and you’re excited to improve your language skills. After all, you reason, there’s no better way to master Spanish than to stick yourself in the middle of Madrid, right? Indeed — you learned your first language simply by being immersed in a culture of native speakers, so why should this time be any different?

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite the case: unless you’re an extremely precocious 3-year-old, chances are you’re too old to simply “pick up” a language the way you did when you were a toddler. As any adult studying a foreign language can attest to, it becomes markedly harder to learn a second language when you pass the age of nine or ten — even when you’re abroad and constantly surrounded by the target language. But don’t worry: there are several things you can do to maximize your time abroad and really improve your language skills. Follow these tips, and, with a little hard work, you’ll be speaking the language like a native in no time.

Image via Felipe Gabaldón / Wikipedia

1. Set aside your fears

As a language learner, it can be extremely daunting to talk to native speakers. You worry that they will laugh at your grammar mistakes, get frustrated with your slow rate of speech, or worst of all, not understand a word you say, and simply stare blankly at you. But if you want to really improve your language skills you’ll have to say goodbye to these fears. In fact, most native speakers will be impressed — and even gracious — that you’re making such an effort to communicate in their language. Mistakes are inevitable, but don’t let your fear prevent you from engaging with native speakers — it’s the best way to get better.

2. Immerse yourself in the culture

Language isn’t just about learning words and rules; it’s an entirely different way of viewing the world. Indeed, each language and dialect is shaped by social and cultural factors that offer a world of insight into the history and culture of its speakers. Thus, take advantage of your time abroad: don’t be afraid to ditch touristy activities and really immerse yourself in the target culture. The best way to learn a language is by doing, so put yourself out there! In the end, you’ll not only be able to communicate with a new contingency of people, but also — and perhaps more importantly — you’ll expand your horizons and enrich your worldview.

3. Discover new media in the target language

When you’re living abroad, it’s surprisingly easy to avoid engaging with the target language. When you’re at home, you can talk on Skype with your friends from home; when you’re on the bus, you can listen to music from your native language on your iPod. Don’t let yourself do this! Instead of watching reruns of your favorite series on Netflix, find a movie or TV show in the target language that interests you. Instead of listening to your favorite bands, create a new playlist with songs in the target language. This will serve a dual purpose: not only will you squeeze in extra language practice, but you’ll have common ground to bond over with your friends that you make abroad.

4. Avoid spending all your time with other travelers

Image via Bartomeu Caldentey Vives / Wikipedia

The world is becoming more and more connected every day, and it’s likely that you’ll find a sizable population of people from your own country (or at least who speak your language) wherever you travel. While this community is great and supportive, be wary that it can become a bubble. If you spend all your time abroad speaking in your native language with others from your country, you’re missing out on a potentially eye-opening cultural experience — not to mention valuable language practice. Try to connect with natives as much as possible, and limit the amount of time that you spend with follow expatriates (or at least make an effort to use the target language when you’re with them).

5. Take advantage of online resources

The internet is a vast bastion of language-learning resources. Indeed, there’s seemingly endless material available online in almost any language. Instead of reading news in your native language, find a reputable website in the target language. If you want to have free conversation practice with a native speaker, consider making an account on a conversation exchange website. If you want to practice your comprehension skills, take an in-depth online level test that will show you what you need to practice. And while you’re at it, change the settings of your email and social media accounts so that they’re in the target language, too!

6. Be realistic

The promise of traveling abroad can be deceiving. Indeed, traveling abroad is a great way to learn a foreign language, but you won’t be able to master the complexities of an entire language in one month. Instead, set attainable goals, like being able to order a pizza over the phone, or being able to read a comic strip without consulting a dictionary. Indeed, language learning is a long process that is fraught with challenges and frustrations. But don’t give up! In the end, your hard work will pay off.

Whether for school, work, or pleasure, going abroad can seriously improve your language skills. But it won’t come naturally — you’re going to have to make an effort. Luckily, if you follow the advice above, and put in a little elbow grease, you’ll be well on your way to mastering the target language. Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun: you learn language best when you’re motivated and excited to learn, so have a great time when you’re abroad, and your language skills will follow.

Paul writes on behalf of Listen & Learn, which offers Spanish courses in London, as well as other tailor-made foreign language courses worldwide. You can visit their Facebook page or contact [email protected] with any questions.