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Parlez-vous Français? Top Tips for Making the Most of Your Time in a Foreign Lab

Whether as a summer intern, exchange student, MSc, PhD or post-doctoral student, working abroad can be one of the many perks of working within the sciences. Although these experiences will often require substantial planning in advance, there are funding opportunities and many receptive destinations around the globe.

During my undergraduate degree, graduate studies hadn’t been an avenue that I had truly explored. However, following the closing and opening of several (metaphorical) doors, I found myself in Montreal, Canada, in a French-speaking university and lab. During my time in Montreal, not only did I make the transition from an undergraduate student to a competent, independent scientist, but I also learnt a great deal about learning another language and culture. Integrating into a (surprisingly) foreign city, group of people and way of life has not been a breeze; however, these challenges have taught me a great deal about myself, and others. Furthermore, it is something I would strongly, and actively, encourage others to experience!

Why is Moving to a Foreign Lab a Good Experience?

Joining any new lab can be a challenging and substantial undertaking. Add in a new language and things can really become interesting! Usually simple tasks such as finding reagents, asking for advice and even starting to make new friends can become significant challenges. Despite this, hundreds, if not thousands, of brave non-English speaking students/researchers take on this challenge every year. However, little is said for those who do the opposite – moving from an English-speaking environment to a foreign one.

Despite already having a good understanding of the language of science, taking on this challenge can be very rewarding and useful, both personally and professionally. Appreciating the difficulties that non-native speakers face can be incredibly useful for working with (and helping) those from distant shores who may later join you in your English-speaking work environment. As well as re-exploring your learning methods, and your ability to overcome big challenges, succeeding in a new country can set you apart from other competing students/researchers. And of course, it can be a lot of fun!

What Can You Do to Make the Move Easier?

This is by no means a comprehensive guide, but food for thought, and inspiration for making your stay that much more fun and rewarding. It can often take months to settle into a new place so accelerating this process can help you make the most of your time abroad.

Here are some pointers to making the most of this challenging experience:

1. Learn the language! It may sound obvious, but it is essential to apply yourself to learning the new language. Here are some useful ideas:

  • Always have a dictionary handy (pocket/e-reader/phone application).
  • If you are about to talk to someone, try to practice the conversation you are about to undertake.
  • Try to think in your new language.
  • Set your phone to the new language.
  • Take language classes for your appropriate level.
  • Learn the grammar.
  • Learn the grammar some more (it’s not fun – but it is essential).

2Join a team, join a club, join something…

  • If you’re an athlete, find out the nearest clubs and go check them out. As soon as people hear that you are a fresh arrival they’ll sweep around you and welcome you to their home.
  • If you’re a musician (especially if you’ve just moved to a big city) go find musician meet ups, jams, etc.
  • If you don’t have a ‘thing’ yet, start one! Try beginner classes – be it dancing or sewing. Newbies tend to be that little bit more friendly anyway.

3.  Say Yes­– if you’re invited out to a bar, a house party or to watch a sports game (even if you don’t like sports), make sure you grab these opportunities. You won’t understand much, you’ll struggle to have a conversation covering more than where you come from or what do you do, but embrace it! Through these efforts you will not only become more confident as an individual, and in your new tongue, but it’s a great way to work on your small talk (an essential in your conference tool-kit).

4. If you watch TV series, re-watch episodes you know well, dubbed in language X (The Simpsons en français, for example).

5. Be disciplined and pragmatic. Often, your new colleagues will want to embrace the opportunity to practice speaking English with you (and they’ll probably be somewhat fluent, making it that much harder to avoid speaking English). Make it clear that you want to learn language X, and set up some rules: Speak language X every other conversation or every other day.

6. Avoid English-speaking people ­– well not necessarily, but avoid falling into the trap of ‘being at home’. Of course it’s great to socialise with people from your hometown/county/country, etc., but, especially in the first few weeks, it can be easy to miss the opportunity to fall into a group of ‘locals’.

Although your time in a foreign lab will be challenging, the skills you will develop will remain with you throughout your life. They will be applicable in many situations, not just your scientific career, allowing you to offer and appreciate different cultural perspectives. You will probably gain a newfound respect and admiration for all those international students with whom you shared your undergraduate degree. You will have experience and wisdom to share with fellow scientist exploring a new language – a great way to meet new and diverse people (as well as increasing the likelihood of invitations to sunnier climes).

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