Lessons I Learned about Adjusting to Life Abroad

Lessons I Learned about Adjusting to Life Abroad

By: Rachel Osterman
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Photo: Myself in Brussels, Belgium during my first solo vacation.

Something I’ve always dreamt about since I was little was moving to Europe and living in a completely new culture. Last summer I was fortunate enough to get a chance to live in Prague, Czech Republic for two months, and it was one of my most life-changing experiences to date. And now, just a little over a year later, here I am doing a Co-op as an English teaching assistant in a small town in central France.

In these past three months, I have not only learnt so much about my own culture, but also about how to adapt to another culture. I thought I’d share the two most important lessons I’ve learned so far, in case they may inspire hope in those who are having difficulty adjusting to their new lives abroad.


Lesson 1: How to Overcome Culture Shock and Learn a Language

I knew going into my Co-op that I would have to adjust to a small town French culture, but I didn’t expect to experience culture shock at all, let alone at the level I did. When I lived in Prague it only took a week to adjust to the culture; however, in hindsight I realize it was a very sheltered version of the Czech culture as I stayed in a large city where most locals spoke English and lived with eleven other Canadians who were sharing that new experience with me. But this time around, I didn’t plan on how different it would be to move to a new place all on my own, and I didn’t consider how little the locals spoke English. I’m the only Canadian, and one of the very few fluent English-speakers, in this small town.

I also completely overestimated my French level. I had studied French for a total of six years, but all that had been five years prior to my arrival. So, while I used to consider myself fluent, that quickly changed when I arrived. Fortunately for me, I met a very kind local girl on my second day here, who introduced me to her large group of friends. Since then, they have showed me so many different aspects of local and traditional culture that I would not have experienced on my own, for which I am forever grateful. They also required me to speak French right from the get-go, which I both dreaded and appreciated… at least if I didn’t fully appreciate it then, I definitely appreciate it now!

Now I can feel my comprehension, grammar and vocabulary improving every day, and there’s nothing quite like the confidence boost of native French speakers complimenting me on my improvement! I’ve found that throwing yourself into the culture of a small town where no one else speaks English is the best and most rewarding way to learn a new language. It takes consistent practice, effort, patience, and time, to get to a comfortable level with a new language – all of which is fostered by living abroad.


Lesson 2: Why You Should Step Outside Your Comfort Zone and Take the Opportunity to Travel

I feel incredibly lucky to live in a small town, because I get to experience and immerse myself in a uniquely French culture. I was a bit nervous at first about leaving the city life behind, but I soon came to realize that the change would be a great new adventure. It was still a huge cultural adjustment, but the moment my perspective changed about my life in this small town was when I planned and went away on my first solo vacation.

In all my life, I had never expected to take a solo trip, believing that it would be too scary and unsafe. Instead, I found taking a solo trip to be a supremely liberating and confidence-boosting experience. Not only did I have the freedom to do whatever I wanted, when I wanted, but I also proved that I could accomplish something grand by myself; I travelled to eight cities in four different countries over the course of fourteen days! And when I returned to my small town, I found myself feeling rejuvenated, and I like I had finally found my place within the town. I had realized that it was okay to be the only Canadian and fluent English speaker here, because that was my role to fill within the society. I personally transformed my status from being something that made me stand out and feel self-conscious, into something that made me feel unique and special. It amazed me how much a change of perspective influenced my way of life and made me much happier.


So if you’re ever feeling down about your move to a new place, try traveling , talking to new people, and gaining a more worldly perspective. Get out and try local cuisine, or observe local traditions. Practice speaking the local language with people you meet, and you never know how many people will find your ability to speak English to be an asset as well. Bon courage!

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Posted on April 02, 2015