Studying Abroad to Learn a Second Language? Helpful Tips to Remember


Submitted by Emma Withrow, Graduate Student at the University of Tokyo, Japan


Two years ago I was living in Yokohama, Japan, a large city just south of Tokyo, and teaching English at a small conversation school. While the experience was full of lessons to be learned and stories to later tell, there were often moments in which I felt lost and incapable.

One time, after an exhausting first half of the teaching day, I rushed through my evaluations and headed out the door of the school. Rent was due, and I would be late in submitting it if I didn’t send the cash in the next hour.

I jogged up the road to the bank and tried selecting ‘English’ from the ATM language menu. The ATM would only allow me to make a withdrawal in English. A bank transfer for my rent would require me to use Japanese. The trouble was, I only had basic Japanese language skill.

I ducked into a nearby convenience store where I could connect to their WiFi and scoured Google for help on my phone. Ah ha! A blog post made by another expat on how to make bank transfers! Armed with images of how to navigate the screens I went off to the ATM again, this time sure that I could handle the process.

As I worked my way through the screens, selecting buttons that matched those in the blog pictures, I could feel my confidence growing. ‘I can do this. This is easy,’ I thought.

And then I reached a screen that the blog couldn’t help me with. I needed to select the kanji character that represented my bank’s location, and I had no idea what that character looked like. I felt conspicuous and I felt like a failure. I didn’t want to be that foreigner, who can’t even do the basics, like pay her own rent.

I glanced around, hoping to spot another foreigner to help, but there was only a small elderly man in the ATM booth next to mine. I figured it was worth a shot to ask his assistance, as I did know how to ask in simple Japanese where something was.

E: “あの、すみません . . .” (Excuse me…)

Man: ”はい。” (Yes?)

E: ”池袋、どこですか。” (Where is Ikebukuro?)

Man: “Ikebukuro? It’s this kanji. Do you need help?”

To my absolute astonishment, the man not only spoke fluent English, but he also knew the words for the bank transactions that I needed. Within a few moments I had made my payment and was on my way back to work, relieved to know that I wouldn’t be evicted for failure to pay.


It should come as no surprise that the transition from American culture to Japanese culture is quite a shock. Even in the metropolis of Tokyo, where tourism and industry has added Western culture into everyday life, there are moments where a foreigner will feel lost. My experience at the bank was almost 2 years ago now, and I still have times where cultural and language differences create barriers for me. And yet, the opportunity to live here and learn more has offered far more positive experiences.

There are two tricks that I have found to navigating cultural differences; knowing your limits and not being afraid to ask for help.

It may seem counterintuitive to acknowledge your own limits, but in my experience it is freeing. Without knowing what I can handle, I would overreach myself and become deeply discouraged. It’s best to start at the lower reaches of your limits and then evaluate afterwards.

For example, I am constantly being approached by strangers and asked if I speak English and if I’d like to get coffee and chat. Now, to someone who is unaware, this is a common issue among foreigners in Japan, as some Japanese citizens use this tactic to get a ‘free’ English conversation. By knowing prior to anyone approaching me what I am capable of and willing to do, it takes a huge amount of stress off of me to make decisions. If I already know that I am okay with exchanging some pleasantries, but will not be comfortable getting coffee or exchanging information, then when someone offers those things I can politely decline instead of stumbling for a response. It’s best to know what your limits are prior to a situation, it takes a large amount of pressure from you.

And the last is the one topic I have struggled with since elementary school, asking for help. Instead of just standing and becoming overwhelmed by the nuances of a new culture, ask what is expected of you or what is happening. If you find yourself confused by a particular phrase or action, then ask someone. It’s the fastest way to figure things out, and usually people enjoy the opportunity to help you learn something new. As my bank story showed, sometimes asking for help will surprise you with the amount of support you’ll receive.

Learning a new culture is a scary thing, but the rewards are great. I encourage you to seek out opportunities to expand your own cultural horizons and understandings. As Jawaharlal Nehru once said, “Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.”