31 October 2013
Some of you may have read the ‘New study abroad programme makes languages an EU priority’ article in The Guardian last week. The Erasmus programme, which is the EU flagship for educational exchange in higher education, celebrated its 25th anniversary last year and currently 33 countries participate in the scheme.

In 2013, some 40,000 British citizens received Erasmus grants to study or work abroad, compared to 83,000 German and over 70,000 French and Spanish citizens. The new Erasmus+ programme, which launches on 1st January 2014, will support activities in education, training, youth and sport, in all sectors of lifelong learning (higher education, further education, adult education, schools, youth activities etc).

Looking at the numbers above, it is telling that so few Brits are making use of their Erasmus opportunities. To look at the broader picture, the lack of language skills in Britain is not only holding back students from gaining jobs abroad, but it is also detrimental to business in this country. Studying abroad enriches students’ professional life, but also improves their language learning and intercultural skills. They also become more self-reliant and self-aware – skills that future employers value.

Students studying a language are required to spend at least eight months abroad during the third year of their undergraduate degree course, and last year the Department of Languages and Cultures (DeLC) at Lancaster University sent approximately 80-90 students to Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and other Spanish speaking countries.

Often students are very apprehensive about leaving their familiar surroundings behind. For many it is the first time that they are going to the ‘continent’, never mind living there for a whole eight months. For others, it is still a big challenge even when they have visited the country in the past. Being on holiday for a couple of weeks in the cocoon of a resort or staying with parents does not really prepare them for being part of the community that they are expected to live in.

One of the first challenges that students face when arriving in a foreign country is loneliness. At Lancaster University, they have lived with other students in the colleges and formed their own community. DeLC ensures students are well prepared for living abroad by integrating skills into their second year courses and by running a week’s preparation course. However, when in France, Germany or Spain they will have to build up new networks, often living on their own with few people to talk to outside of their work or study placement. Studying at a foreign university can be less daunting, as many universities organise cultural activities for Erasmus students. The challenge then is to meet ‘locals’, as it is often so much easier to stay with the Erasmus student group, who are likely to all speak English. Over time, students often build up a new network of lasting friendships and form connections that will help them in later life in terms of finding a job abroad. For example, a DeLC student worked for LKW Walter in Austria during his year abroad, and was then offered a position once he had completed his degree. He has now worked for them for nearly 2 years.

The challenge for all students on their year abroad is to meet local people. After all, the aim is to reach a very high level of proficiency in their studied language. This can only be achieved by immersion into the language, by speaking the language and by living the language. Language learning is an EU priority and one of the main aims of the Erasmus+ programme, as a lack of language skills is holding people back from finding jobs.

Another stumbling block is often the different culture. Even countries that are supposedly very similar, for example England and Germany, are fundamentally different. Address your superior with ‘du’ at your peril! Adapting to this new culture often leads students to question their own culture which is never easy and can bring new challenges when reintegrating into student life at Lancaster on return from studying abroad.

Moving abroad initially causes a lot of anxiety, but the fun and excitement of being in a new country with a new lifestyle will make up for this. It is well worth consideration by all, even for students only planning to go for one term or semester, and not only for those who study languages. After the first few months, students often recognise that being abroad is now part of their lives and that they feel at home in the new country – and don’t want to leave again.