In a world that is exponentially shrinking every year through globalization and technology, there is an ever-growing need to become culturally competent.
This is why international education and cultural exchange are so important.
Not only does living abroad expose individuals to other lifestyles, but the immersion is also a catalyst for effective foreign language acquisition, improvement of our empathic capacities, and exchange of ideas.
1. Language Acquisition
Two years ago, I spent a semester in France and saw first-hand the drastic improvement that immersion had on my French language abilities. When I first arrived, I had some basic knowledge of the language, but I was very insecure when I tried to speak it. By the end of the four months, however, I was able to hold a full conversation in French, and my grammar and writing improved significantly, as well. I felt much more confident in my French classes when I returned to the U.S., putting my newly acquired skills to use — and my French only got better from there.
This experience is what later encouraged me to study abroad again, this time in Germany, primarily to improve my German speaking abilities. I’ve been here nearly two months now and I’ve already seen major improvements in my speech, as well as my reading and listening comprehension.
I would say the number one obstacle for learning a foreign language is the lack of practice. Being constantly exposed to a language means we get more time to practice, refining our familiarity with the language.
2. Empathy Building
International education also helps us build empathy. I actually wrote my International Studies senior thesis on this idea. Living abroad is a great way to take a step back from our comfortable lives and walk into a new world. This is important because it helps us contextualize ourselves and reduce our ethnocentrism, which keeps us from understanding the perspectives of other cultures and individuals.
By moving to a new country, we are able to better grasp the massive scale of the planet we live on. The reality is that we are a part of something that is so much bigger than us, and it can be easy to forget that sometimes when we get used to our routines. Going abroad, then, helps us put ourselves into context and allows us to better understand our role in the greater scheme of things. We are able to create bonds and relationships with people we may not have otherwise; these relations are crucial in establishing and strengthening empathic connections.
3. Exchange of Ideas
Lastly, cultural exchange facilitates the exchange of ideas. It’s likely that the people you are closest to at home (friends, family, colleagues, peers, etc.) have had similar experiences to your own. Contrary to how it may seem sometimes, our experiences are subjective and do not represent a fully objective scope of reality. If we only look at the world from a single angle, we miss a lot.
But, when we go abroad, the people we meet have had completely different experiences than our own, and thus, different perspectives, too. Engaging with these individuals is key to enriching our understanding of the world and getting a more complete overview of what the world is like outside of our own little bubbles. What are their views on art, fashion, politics, food, religion, technology, the environment, etc.? Having a one-on-one conversation with a native and showing curiosity in these aspects gives us a better insight into the culture of our host country. Always be willing to listen respectfully and be mindful that our way of life is just one of many. A willingness to listen and learn helps us get the most out of international education and cultural exchange.
This post was contributed by Maria Garcia, who is spending her fall semester studying abroad with AIFS in Berlin, Germany.