Learning a new language: seven inside tips to get you there faster

Hong Kong
Hong Kong (Aotaro/Flickr)

I want you to learn the language of your host country well – really well – for one very important reason:

If you speak the language of your host country well, your time on exchange will be much more successful, enjoyable, and easy. You’ll be more outgoing. You’ll fit in better with your classmates and host family. You’ll feel better integrated into society, and more able to enjoy the culture of your host country.

In other words, put in the time to learn the language well, and you’ll reap many rewards. There is literally no downside.

Here’s how to do it.

Tip 1: Grammar isn’t everything, but it is the most important thing

As an exchange student, you’ll most likely learn lots and lots of words and phrases every day.

However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that having a big vocabulary is enough. You will never become a truly accomplished speaker of another language until you understand the grammar, as well.

As an exchange student in Switzerland, I noticed that the exchange students who were the most confident and spoke the best German had an excellent grasp of German grammar. Those students who spoke German less well and with lower confidence generally had a lot of vocabulary, but had poor grammar skills.

Learning the grammar of another language is like learning a computer programming language. Hardly anybody has the patience and dedication to do it properly. However, if you are dedicated enough to really learn the grammar of your new language well, you’ll learn your new language faster and better.

How to do it

You can learn vocabulary of a second language by osmosis – by being around native speakers and listening to them speak.

Grammar isn’t like that. You can’t hope to learn grammar just by listening to others. You need to rote learn grammar concepts, and then do exercises which help those concepts to become ingrained.

Initially, you need to be familiar with a few basic concepts of grammar – the so-called “parts of speech”. In your mother tongue, learn the meaning and roles of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and pronouns. Learn about cases (nominative, accusative, dative) and the past, present and future tenses. Find out about the concept of verb conjugation.

Then, do some research into your new language. For example, find out if it has “formal” and “informal” forms of address, and learn when it is appropriate to address people formally and informally. You should also learn whether there are any particularly unusual, difficult or important concepts in the grammar of your new language of which you should be aware. For example, students of French usually really struggle with the subjunctive case.

Next, you need to find a good grammar textbook or other resource. For European languages, I recommend the Schaum Outline series of books. Otherwise, you can check with language teachers at your high school, or call the modern languages faculty at your local university to see which books and other resources they recommend for learning grammar. Whatever you use should explain concepts clearly, contain exercises which allow you to put the theory into practice, and should contain an answer key so that you can check your progress.

Do the time

Once you’ve done your background research and found a good grammar book or other resource, you need to get down to work. Try to set aside some time every day to rote learn your grammar and do some practical exercises. I used to learn German grammar on the 45-minute train trip to and from school while all of my classmates were doing their homework.

Is learning the grammar of your new language in this way dry and boring? Mostly, yes.

But does it give you a giant pay-off? Absolutely.

I guarantee that focussing on grammar and learning it well will make you a more confident and accomplished speaker of your new language.

Tip 2: Consume as much of the new language as possible

Your time as an exchange student represents a unique opportunity to spend all day, every day immersing yourself in another language and culture. Generally speaking, the more of a new language you expose yourself to, the more you’ll retain and recall.

So, from the very first day of your arrival in your host country, you should absolutely binge on the language and culture of your host country. Watch as much TV as possible. Listen to the radio as much as possible. Become a voracious consumer of magazines, newspapers and websites. Talk to anyone and everyone you meet – not only your classmates, but also the elderly lady next door, the conductor on your morning train and the guy who brews your coffee each morning. View every day as an opportunity to stuff your brain with the language of your host country.

Doing this all day, every day, will have several benefits. Like a sponge, your brain will soak up all of the new words and phrases you hear and will store them for you to use later. Hearing all of that language will also help to improve your accent and make it more natural-sounding. You’ll also be able to hear a lot of sound, grammatically correct language, which will help you to see the grammar principles you’re learning (see step 1 above) being put into practice.

Tip 3: Communicate as little as possible in your mother tongue

The flipside of point 2 is that it’s very important for you to consume and speak as little of your native language as possible.

The reason for this is simple:

Your new language needs to become the language which dominates your communication and thought patterns. The longer and more intensively you continue to communicate in your native language, the longer it will take for your new language to get ingrained and become your primary language of communication. And the longer that takes, the less time you’ll have to practise your new language.

And, of course, practice makes perfect.

For this reason, you should stop speaking your native language as much as possible. Keep communications – particularly phone conversations – with your family and friends at home to a minimum. If you have a choice, purchase magazines, books and DVDs in your new language rather than your native language.

Perhaps most importantly, you need to avoid hanging out frequently with other speakers of your native language. Specifically, you should avoid spending too much time with other exchange students who share your first language. It’s true that other exchange students can be fantastic sources of comfort and support – particularly when things are tough. However, if they have the same native language as you, spending too much time with them can also really delay your language learning.

As a compromise, consider hanging out with other students who have a different monative language to you. If your native language is English, hang out with the exchange students from Brazil, or Japan, or Hungary. That way, you’ll still get the benefits of support and camaraderie from other exchange students, but you’ll be much more likely to communicate in your new language.

Tip 4: Get a language mentor

I recently read an article about engineers. It said that you need to do an awful lot of engineering before you can become a good engineer. Irrespective of how smart they are or how good their grades are, engineering graduates usually need to do a lot of hands-on, practical work and make mistakes in order to learn the craft of their profession. Only once an engineer has made those initial mistakes and learned from them can he or she really understand how to do the job well.

Like a new engineer, when you first start learning your new language, you are bound to make a lot of mistakes. You’ll mispronounce things. You’ll use the wrong words. You’ll refer to things by the male pronoun instead of the female pronoun, and vice versa. Making such mistakes and learning from them is all part and parcel of becoming a truly good speaker.

To get you through this initial stage, you need to recruit what I would call a “language mentor”. Your language mentor should be a host parent, host sibling, or other trusted person who speaks the language of your host country as his or her mother tongue.

During the first or second month of your exchange, you should sit down with your language mentor every night for at least a couple of weeks and talk for an hour or two in your new language. The purpose of these discussions will be for you to practise speaking the language and put all of the vocab and grammar you’re learning into practice. It will allow you to make mistakes in a safe, low-pressure environment, in front of a trusted person who won’t react negatively to your mistakes.

The more you speak with your language mentor, the more mistakes you will make and get out of the way so that you don’t make them later. You should become a much more confident and fluid speaker, as well. Try it.

Tip 5: Ask questions of everyone else

Obviously, you’ll lean heavily on your language mentor in your first weeks and months on exchange. But you should also feel free to ask your classmates, teachers, other host family members and fellow exchange students for help with your new language.

Until I was a really confident German speaker, I would constantly ask questions about the language to anyone who was available. I’d ask my classmates about verb conjugations. I’d ask my host siblings how to put things into the past tense. I can even remember pointing to a word in a German-language book and asking a stranger on a train what the word meant.

Did it sometimes take courage to ask so many questions?

Sure. In fact, sometimes I felt like a complete ignoramus, particularly at the start of my exchange year. But I honestly never had anyone react badly to such a request. Everyone was helpful and did their utmost to explain things to me in a useful way. They even spoke very slowly to me at the start of my exchange, when I was really struggling.

Like me, you’ll probably have a thousand questions about your new language, particularly early on in your time on exchange. You might worry that your constant language-related questions will drive people crazy. However, the truth is that almost everyone will see how hard you’re working to learn a new language – their language – and will be happy to help you. So, ask away.

Tip 6: Practise, practise, practise

It’s easy to feel confident about understanding a language when you’re at home in your bedroom learning vocabulary or talking to your language mentor.

It is far harder to put all the theory you’ve learned into practice by conversing with actual people in the real world. In fact, it can be very intimidating to enter a shop, bank, or train station and start interacting with the people who work there.

Here’s the thing, though:

Each time you talk to another person and practise putting sentences together and listening to the response, it gets a little easier. The more you talk in your new language, the better you will get at talking. Keep talking, and your confidence will snowball.

So, talk as much as you can. Join in the dinner table conversation with your host family, the post-soccer game discussion with your class mates, and the before and after-school chit chat on the school bus. It is all a great opportunity to practise your new language and build confidence in your speaking. Make a deliberate effort to go out of your way to talk, rather than sitting there silently.

It’s also important to practise speaking to strangers, too – for example, when you’re shopping or buying train tickets. The reason is that the language and vocabulary you use at home with your host family and at school with your classmates is likely to be different to the vocabulary you use when you’re talking to less familiar people, in more formal situations. You need to talk to people in both familiar situations (eg your host family) and less familiar (eg a bank teller) situations. Talking to people in a broad range of situations will give you an opportunity to practise a broad range of words and phrases.

Tip 7: Supercharge your vocabulary learning

Like most exchange students who are serious about learning their new language, I used to carry around a little note book for language learning. Every time I encountered a new German word which I thought was useful, I’d write it down in the note book.

Unlike most exchange students, though, I’d add details about the word. If the word was a noun, for example, I’d also look up the gender of the word, and the plural form, and would write those down, as well. Then, I’d learn the word, its gender, and the plural, rather than just the word itself.

Learning vocabulary in this way took more time, but ultimately enabled me to speak German in a much more error-free way than if I had just learned the word itself, with no additional detail.

I recommend that you not only keep a little note book to write new words in, but that you add some details which will be useful to know later on. If your new language is like German, with gendered nouns, learn the gender together with each noun you learn. If the language is a tonal language, like Mandarin or Vietnamese, learn the appropriate tone that goes along with each word. If the language has characters which need to be drawn in a particular order, like Japanese, learn that order together with the meaning and pronunciation of the word.

Learning vocabulary in this detailed manner takes more time up front, but will save you much time and many errors down the track.

Do you have any language learning tips or tricks that have worked for you in the past, and which you think could be useful for other exchange students learning a new language?  If so, please tell us about them in the comments area below.

As always, I wish you the best of luck.


Five exchange student “must haves”

I first went on exchange in 1996. For some reason, the planes of 1996 couldn’t carry very much luggage per passenger. (It was probably because it wasn’t all that long since the Wright brothers had invented flying). This meant that each of us was only allowed to take 20kg (44 pounds) of checked-in luggage.

I was going overseas for a whole year. As I was only able to take 20kg of clothes and other luggage with me, I needed to be smart about what I packed. Unfortunately, I was an 18-year old guy who’d never lived alone and had barely travelled overseas before. I was the opposite of smart. I filled my suitcase and carry on with all sorts of stuff, 90% of which I then never actually used while I was on exchange.

After I arrived overseas, I compounded my error by purchasing many books, CDs and other heavy items. I then had to schlepp all of this stuff with me as I moved between my four host families. Finally, I had to find a way to get it all back home at the end of my exchange.

In retrospect, I don’t actually think that you need much stuff to live overseas for a year. The secret is to take (and purchase) a few key items which you use over and over again. Even if planes have evolved since I was 18, meaning that you can now take unlimited luggage with you, you should still try to minimise the amount of stuff you take with you, and pick up along the way.

Here are five things that you must take with you or purchase when you go on exchange.

1. Black Polartec or polar fleece top

If you’re going on exchange to a place where it regularly snows or gets below 10 degrees Celsius, you need to take an overcoat or jacket of some kind. I took a long black trenchcoat, and a long-sleeved, quarter zip black Polartec jumper.

In no time, I ditched the trench coat and spent the rest of the year wearing the Polartec top. The main advantages of the Polartec were that it was light and was easy to wear when riding a bike, but very warm. The black colour was neutral and inconspicuous, so no-one noticed that I wore it every day. It went well with casual (school) wear, and didn’t look too bad over the top of more formal attire, like button-up shirts.

The trench coat, on the other hand, weighed a ton. It was terrible to ride in because of its length (and in fact it caught in the chain of my bike and ripped, twice). It was also a bit of a formal piece, which didn’t pair well with my usual school attire of jeans and sweaters.

Don’t repeat my mistake when selecting your outerwear to take overseas. Get something light, packable and neutral. My black Polartec was the perfect solution for me, and could be yours, too.

2. Grammar book and sensible dictionary

Books are heavy. Foolishly, I took a lot of them with me on exchange. As it turned out, I really only needed two – a grammar book and a dictionary.

As noted in my article on language learning, a grammar book is probably your single greatest asset when you’re learning a foreign language. You can use it when you start learning a language and need to learn the rules of grammar and then practise them. And you can use it as a reference book for the balance of your exchange. You’ll get a lot of use out of it.

You also need a dictionary. Get something sensible, like an A5-sized paperback dictionary published by Langenscheidt, Collins or Roget. You don’t need a hardcover, thousand-page boat anchor like the one I took with me. Keep it simple. Keep it light.

3. Radio of some kind

Your host family or families should provide you with access to a small stereo of some kind. If they don’t, it’s worth spending a couple of hundred dollars to purchase your own once you reach your host country.

Why do you need a sound system?

There are lots of reasons. For one, if you’re in a country where you’ll be learning a foreign language, listening to the radio is a great way to learn that language. Radio news broadcasts, foreign language music, and the banter of local DJs will all help you to learn the language faster.

Once you’ve obtained a stereo, it’ll also provide you with free entertainment. As an exchange student, you’ll probably have a fair bit more free time than you currently do at home. It’s also likely that you won’t be able to work and earn money while you’re overseas. This combination of lots of free time and not much money will require you to get creative about what you do in your spare time. On a per-hour basis, purchasing a small stereo and listening to music is one of the cheapest ways to entertain yourself.

4. A bike

OK, so this is something that you’ll definitely need to acquire once you get overseas, rather than taking it with you. But it’s such an essential and useful item that it should be right at the top of your exchange student bucket list.

Your host family should have an old bike that they can lend you. Otherwise, a decent second-hand bike will cost you a couple of hundred dollars up front.

Why are bikes so great? There are at least four reasons:

  • They give you mobility and freedom – It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to drive when you’re on exchange. However, a bike will be nearly as convenient as a car and will enable you to get to school, go shopping and visit friends when you want to (subject to your host family’s timetable, of course).
  • They are virtually free to operate – Once you have a bike, they cost virtually nothing to run. Unlike bus or train tickets, or travelling with a car, you can ride as far as you want, as often as you want, and it won’t cost you anything.
  • You can explore your host country – Unless your host family lives in the middle of the Australian desert, or somewhere in Siberia, there should be a few nearby towns that you can ride to and explore. If you find yourself in Europe, Japan, or another densely populated area, there will probably be dozens of new places that you can ride to easily.
  • Cycling – especially off-road – is a blast – Cycling is one of the world’s most popular pastimes for one main reason: it is a hell of a lot of fun. Riding on paved roads and bike paths is fun because of the speed involved. Even riding a bike at 20 km/h feels much faster than driving a car at the same speed. Mountain biking – riding at speed through forests and on trails – is even more fun. During the course of your time as an exchange student, riding a bike can go from being a means of transportation to being a genuine hobby.

5. A smartphone with a high-resolution camera

As part of your preparations for going on exchange, you may be tempted to spend a few hundred dollars on a new camera so that you can take photos of all of the new and interesting places you’ll visit.

On the one hand, you might consider spending up big on a new digital SLR camera, which will allow you to take super high-quality photos of your travels. On the other, you may consider that a compact, digital camera is the better way to go.

Actually, neither of these options is particularly good. The SLR will be too heavy and bulky to carry around with you on your travels. I’d also advise against spending big money on a camera which could easily get lost, stolen or damaged. A small digital camera will have its own limitations. Image quality is unlikely to be great, and you still run the risk that the camera will be lost or stolen. If it’s a while since you’ve downloaded your photos – for example, because you’re in the middle of a long holiday – your photos will be lost.

There is a better way. Instead of purchasing a new camera, I recommend spending $2-300 upgrading your mobile phone. The phone should have a camera with at least 12 megapixel quality, if not somewhere in the mid to high “teens”.

The picture quality most likely won’t be any worse than a comparably-priced compact camera, and the phone will most likely be smaller and lighter. The real advantage of using your phone’s camera is that you can set the phone to upload your photos to Google Drive, OneDrive, Instagram and so on, as soon as you take them. This means that if your phone gets lost or damaged – which unfortunately happens quite frequently while you’re travelling – all of the photos of your once-in-a-lifetime travels will be safely tucked away in the cloud.

Can you think of any other essential items for exchange students to take or acquire when they go on exchange? Please leave a comment below.


Good luck, Matt

How exchange students can make a good first impression

Abraham Lincoln noted that a reputation is like fine china – once broken, it is very hard to repair.

The same is true of first impressions. Once you’ve made a bad impression on someone else, it can take a lot of time and effort to undo that damage and change the way he or she thinks about you. Make a good first impression, however, and that person will usually remember and think about you in a positive way – even if you subsequently have a few “off” days.

Why do you need to make a good first impression?

How exchange students can make a good first impression
Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski

As an exchange student, you’ll meet many new people during the course of your exchange.

You need to make a good first impression on every one of those people.


Well, for starters, you’re basically starting your life from scratch in a new country, and will have no friends to start with. People will generally only want to hang out with you if you seem like a good person to hang out with. If you come across as friendly, uncomplicated and open, you’ll attract new friends. If you come across as unpleasant, self-centred and negative, you won’t. Unless you want your friend counter to be stuck on zero for twelve months, you have to prove to others that you are worthy of their friendship.

Second, the number of people you’ll be seeing on a regular basis and who are potential friends is actually quite small – maybe in the vicinity of 50 or 60 people. You’ll see your host family or families, your class mates, other exchange students, and that’ll be about it. No work friends. Probably very few sport or co-curricular friends. Not as many friends-of-friends or extended family members as you may be used to at home. The bottom line is that your pool of potential friends is quite limited. You can’t afford to turn too many of them off by acting badly, simply because there aren’t that many of them to start with.

Third, the blunt truth is that being friends with an exchange student is harder than being friends with a normal person. People need to speak slower so that you can understand them. You’re only going to be there for a limited time. Because everything is new to you, you may need a bit of hand-holding, even in relation to simple things like buying a bus ticket. People need to be assured that the extra effort they’ll make in being your friend is worth it. That may sound mercenary, but it’s true.

General tips for making a good first impression

First impressions Norway
Flickr/Vidar Flak

Having gone on at length about how your exchange is doomed if you don’t make a good first impression on others, it’s my sad duty to tell you that most people aren’t very good at it.

I sure wasn’t before I went on exchange.

However, here’s the good news:

Making a positive first impression on others is actually a skill that you can practise and become proficient at. You just need to understand a few basics.


People tend to read a lot into the way you greet them. They can take offence at things that seem trivial if you aren’t aware of them, like the firmness of your handshake.

So, play it safe, and do all of the following when greeting someone for the first time:

  • Be sure to smile. If you don’t feel like smiling – for example, because you’re stepping off a 24-hour flight from Sydney – fake it till you make it, and smile anyway.
  • Shake hands if appropriate and make eye contact while doing so.
  • Be sure to introduce yourself, ask the person you are meeting his or her name, and tell that person that you are pleased to meet him or her.
  • If the person you are meeting for the first time is older than you, consider addressing him or her with the title “Mr” or “Mrs” or their foreign-language equivalents.
  • If you are on exchange to a country in which a foreign language with a formal and informal voice is spoken, don’t forget to use the formal voice when addressing that person – for example, vous in French or Sie in German.


Something else to remember is that it is generally considered polite to address someone using their name, including people you’ve just met.

In certain countries, including Switzerland, it is considered rude to greet your acquaintances without using their names. If you see your friend Thomas in Switzerland, you need to greet him with “Hi Thomas” instead of just saying “Hi”.

Even if you aren’t in a host country with such a cultural rule, if you know someone’s name, including where you have just been told that name, use it when greeting him or her.

One of my colleagues at law school had a reputation for being a friendly and outgoing person. He seemed to have a prodigious ability to remember the names of people he’d met. I eventually learned that he had a notebook that he used to carry around. Every time he met someone new, he’d write down their name and a few key details, and commit those to memory.

Was that kooky?

Sure. But he kept it a secret, so no-one knew. What people did know was that he remembered the names and something about nearly every one of his 300 classmates, and was extremely likeable as a result.

If you aren’t great at remembering names, or just want to make a good impression, I recommend his kooky-but-effective notebook method.

Making conversation

Exchange students - making conversation
Flickr/Moyan Brenn

You can make a good first impression by being an easy and enjoyable person to talk to. If people like talking to you the first time, they’ll most likely want to talk to you again.

Don’t worry if you aren’t a natural conversationalist. Probably only 10% of people are. Again, the rest of us are faking it until we make it.

The truth is that making conversation is a skill that you can easily learn. There are really only four things you need to remember:

  1. People love talking about themselves. If you keep the conversation focussed on the other person, and don’t talk about yourself too much, the other person will most likely enjoy talking to you, and want to talk to you again. Keeping the conversation focused on the person you’re talking to is also very easy: just ask that person lots of questions, and show genuine interest in his or her answers. Don’t ask questions in a stalkerish, third-degree kind of way, but in a way which shows that you are interested in what the other person has to say
  2. There are some things that nearly everyone is interested in. You can default to those if you can’t think of anything else to talk about. For example, nearly everyone likes music of some kind. Nearly everyone is interested in travelling. Nearly everyone has been to the movies in the last month or so. Nearly every male has some interest in sport and cars. And so on.
  3. Steer clear of discussions about politics, religion, or money. If music, sport and travel bring people together, money, religion and (especially) politics drive people apart. Those topics polarise people and you can easily make others think you’re pushing a political or religious agenda. Avoid them if you can.
  4. Keep things light-hearted and positive. Don’t dwell on the negatives of your host country, or make unfavourable comparisons between your host country and your home nation.

As an exchange student, you’ll find that you develop a little “getting to know you” conversation routine because of the sheer number of new people you’ll be meeting all the time. As an exchange student, my unwritten routine of questions when meeting a new person looked something like this:

  • I would introduce myself and find out the other person’s name
  • The other person would usually ask where I was from, and I would tell them I was Australian
  • I would ask whether they had been to Australia, or travelled abroad, themselves. If we had both travelled to the same country, I would ask where and ask how the person had liked certain places or experiences.
  • I would ask where the other person was from – ie, whether they were born in the area or whether they had moved there from elsewhere in the host country.
  • I would ask what the other person did in his or her free time.
  • I would ask the other person whether he or she followed any sports.
  • I would ask the other person what sort of music he or she liked.

Your routine, when you develop it, will probably look quite similar.

Dress – the “adding one level of neatness” rule

People you meet for the first time whilst on exchange will think better of you if you’re dressed well and your appearance is neat and tidy.

A small hack to make a good first impression based upon your appearance is to dress one level “neater” than everyone around you. For example, if people at the school you attend in your host country generally wear jeans and a t-shirt to school in summer, wear jeans and a polo. If they wear jeans and a polo, wear jeans and a button-up shirt. By only taking it up one level of neatness, you won’t look too preppy. But you will look well-dressed, and make a good impression.

There is also a range of situations in which you will need to dress more conservatively in order to make the right first impression. These are:

  • Situations where the people you’ll be meeting are mostly aged in their 50s and above
  • Any time where you are giving a speech or presentation in front of a group
  • Times when you are meeting with high-ranking or important people – for example, your school principal, senior people within your exchange organisation, your local mayor or politicians from the area in which you’re being hosted

Making a good first impression on your host family

Exchange Students - Making a good impression on your host family
Flickr/Malte Kopfer

Your relationship with your host family is easily the most important relationship you’ll have as an exchange student. You need to get that relationship off to the best possible start.

Show that you’re willing and ready to fit in

You can make a good first impression with your host family by showing that you are ready to fit in as a member of the family. This means:

  • asking – preferably on day one – about your host family’s household routine. What time do they get up in the morning? What time do they go to bed at night? What are their arrangements for laundry, cleaning, ironing, and so on? Is there anything you can do to help around the home? Once you know the answer to these questions, try to fit in with that routine like any other member of the family.
  • finding out about your host family’s rules regarding lights-out time, the time they expect you home at night, internet use, use of their land-line phone, alcohol consumption, and whether you can have friends over to visit, and then abiding by those rules, from day one. These are some of the top “friction” points between host families and exchange students, and you need to learn your host family’s rules, and stick with them, from day one.
  • accepting invitations from your host family to go out, participating in family activities, and generally going along with the family’s agenda and movements. The deal with being an exchange student is that you will integrate into your family’s existing routine, rather than your family adjusting that routine to suit you.
  • limiting the amount of time you spend by yourself in your bedroom, and maximising the time you spend around your host family. Even sitting watching TV or reading a book in the family room while the family circulates around is a better way to build a relationship with them than holing yourself up in your room, alone.

Show that you’re serious about your exchange

Your host family will have an emotional stake in the success of your exchange. If you do well as an exchange student, your host family will feel that they have contributed to that success. If you don’t do well as an exchange student, they will feel partly responsible for your failure.

From the outset, then, you can make a good impression on your host family by demonstrating that you know what you need to do to have a successful exchange, and are prepared to do it. You can do this by:

  • Taking school seriously – including by attending full time, doing your homework, and otherwise participating in school life enthusiastically
  • Diligently studying the language of your host country, if you are in a country where you’re required to learn a new language
  • Showing from the outset that you are willing to adapt the culture and customs of your host country, and
  • Meeting any requirements of your exchange program

For more information on what will be expected of you as an exchange student, see my article on what you can expect as an exchange student.

Show that you are interested in building a relationship with your host family

Most of all, the members of your host family will be looking for early confirmation that you are prepared to establish a meaningful relationship with them.

Your host family is opening its house to you and wants to welcome you as a member of the family. Your host parents have volunteered to be your guardians and closest adults for the duration of your exchange; your host siblings are prepared to be your de facto brothers or sisters. They have all probably been looking forward to your arrival.

From discussions with former host families, I know that it causes a great deal of pain and disappointment to a host family when an exchange student arrives and seems uninterested in spending time with them.

Building a meaningful, deep relationship with your host family is straightforward. Mostly, it’s a simple matter of spending time with them. That means accepting their invitations, spending plenty of time in the common areas of their house, chatting to them about their day at mealtimes, helping your host siblings with their homework if required, and helping your host parents with minor chores if asked.

Things that will get in the way of you establishing a good relationship with your host family include:

  • you spending too much time on the internet, social media or being preoccupied with your smartphone
  • you spending a lot of time on the phone or otherwise communicating with your family and friends at home
  • you spending a lot of time alone in your bedroom – especially with the door closed
  • you spending the majority of your time with other exchange students, and
  • you not learning the language of your host country

Take note of these “do”s and “don’t”s, and be sure to work on your relationship with your host family, from the outset.

Making a good first impression on your classmates

Exchange students - making a good first impression - school mates

It’s also important to make a good first impression on your school classmates. After all, school is where you’ll be spending the majority of your time each day. You will make a good impression at school if your attitude, demeanour and behaviour make clear to people that:

  1. You want to meet, and make friends with, as many people as possible, and
  2. You want to fit in and be a normal member of your class and school communities

Meeting and befriending people at school

There will be multiple opportunities for you to meet your schoolmates during your first few weeks at school. You can get to know them whilst travelling to school if you are walking, riding a bike, or using public transport. You can get to know them in class and between classes. You can get to know them through school-based sport and co-curricular activities.

Make a big effort to go above and beyond these obvious opportunities. Once you make friends with someone, try to get to know that person’s friends, too. If you can do extra sport at lunchtime, or extra classes which will help you to mix with different people from your classmates, do that, too. Make it your mission to meet, and become friendly with, as many people as possible.

If you get invited to spend time with people – at lunchtime or after hours – accept the invitation. Be sure to smile and ask plenty of questions when you’re with those people, and thank them sincerely for inviting you. If your behaviour turns people off, you are unlikely to get a second invitation. Remember what Abe Lincoln said. You’ll only get one chance to make a good impression on these folks, so make it count.

Fitting in with your classmates

When you first arrive at your new school, you may be a bit of a celebrity.

As well as being a new student – which in itself usually makes people curious – the fact that you come from another country will give you added novelty value. People will most likely want to ask questions about your home country, comment about your accent, and generally make a bit of a deal about having someone from overseas at school with them.

This attention can be enjoyable. However, it is superficial and won’t last.

The best thing is for you to try to blend in with your classmates as quickly as possible. You’ll earn their respect and acceptance by attending every class with them – no cutting class – sitting up, paying attention and participating in lessons as much as possible.

If there is a way you can help your class – for example, by helping them in a subject in which you have particular expertise – you should do it.

Try to get a feel for the culture of your class, find out what your classmates are interested in, and generally get to know how everyone else ticks. Be chatty, positive and open.

The message you want to be sending to your school mates at all times is that you like them and that you want to be a part of the school, rather than someone who stands out.

Other exchange students

Making a good first impression - other exchange students
Flickr/Agus Sutanto

Finally, you should try to make as good a first impression as possible on other exchange students.

It’s in your interests to have as many friends as possible amongst your fellow exchange students. The friendships you make with them are likely to be one of the most enduring legacies of your exchange. Also, the reputation you earn amongst your exchange student peers will attach to your home country. You need to be a good ambassador for your home country whenever possible.

Be a good friend

Students in US Army schools have traditionally adopted the unofficial motto “cooperate and graduate”. Those students know that the more they help and support one another throughout the rigours of army training, the more likely they are to graduate successfully.

The golden rule amongst exchange students should be “help each other and thrive”. The truth is that being an exchange student can be very hard at times. Like those army officers in the US, the more exchange students help and support one another, the better their chances are of having a successful exchange.

Certainly, if there’s one thing you should do in respect of your fellow exchange students, it’s to be as helpful as possible. When it comes to new exchange students, share as much of your accumulated wisdom as possible. Help them with language issues, reassure them about any cultural or language problems, listen patiently to their gripes about school and host family – the usual things which are hardest to adjust to – and forgive any naïve behaviour. Encourage them to call you if they need a hand or someone to chat to. Call them for a talk every now and then, to make sure they are settling in OK.

The same goes for your more experienced fellow exchange students. Even exchange students who’ve overcome teething problems and know their way around appreciate having a confidante and friend who is experiencing the same things as them. Show that you’re willing to be such a friend.

Good luck,




Tips for foreign exchange students in Australia

Foreign Exchange Student - Australia
Canberra (Photo: Flickr/Denisbin)

“Australia. It has everything, and they speak English” – Murray Walker, former Formula 1 broadcast commentator

Australia has a lot to offer foreign exchange students.

It is a safe and peaceful place to live, with a high standard of living and well-resourced schools and health care facilities.

It has a beautiful natural environment – encompassing unspoilt beaches, rain forests, vast deserts, and a snowy alpine region – as well as famous man-made structures such as the Sydney Opera House.

Exchange students in Australia learn English – the world language. Being almost all descended from migrants themselves, Australians welcome foreigners and are tolerant and understanding of those who are learning English.

This post will tell you everything you need to know about being a foreign exchange student in Australia.

High school in Australia

Foreign Exchange Student Australia
School in Canberra (Photo: www.radford.act.edu.au)

As an exchange student in Australia, you will attend a high school and will most likely be enrolled in “Year 11” – the second-last year of school – or “Year 12” – the final year. The Australian school year runs from late January until mid-December.

Subject choice

In Australia, there is no “streaming” of students into different schools depending upon whether they intend to study at university or not, as in some European countries. Everyone attends the same school regardless of their intended career path.

This means that most schools offer a wide range of elective subjects. It is usually compulsory for all students to study English and mathematics. Otherwise, students are generally free to select subjects which interest them and/or which are necessary for their intended career.

Shortly after your arrival, your host family or exchange program representative will take you to your school for the purposes of meeting the school principal and enrolling you in your classes. You will most likely have to study English and mathematics along with everyone else. Otherwise, you should have a lot of freedom in choosing the subjects you study – history, foreign languages, art, music, and so on.

Another thing that may be different to school in your host country is that Australian students generally only study a few subjects in the final couple of years of school. In the Australian Capital Territory, where I live, students in their final two years of school usually only study five different subjects. The flip side is that they tend to study those subjects in great depth.

Government and non-government schools

A slightly unusual feature of the Australian school system is that a large number of students – about 40% – attend non-government (private) high schools.

Your exchange organisation or host family may arrange for you to go to a government or non-government school. Both types of school are generally of a high standard in Australia.

School uniforms

Most Australian high school students wear school uniforms. It’s likely that you will have to wear a uniform to school, as well. If this is the case, your host family or exchange organisation will help you with some or all of the costs of purchasing the uniform.

Your school uniform might take a bit of getting used to, but it will also have real benefits. For starters, you won’t ever have to spend time thinking about what to wear to school. You will save money by wearing the same thing week in, week out and not having to purchase new clothes all the time. Wearing a uniform will also mean that you will blend in with your classmates from day one.

Extra-curricular activities

Most Australian high schools offer extra-curricular activities that their students can get involved in.  At government schools, this usually includes dance groups, band or orchestra, and musical theatre groups. At non-government schools, it normally also includes sporting teams.

Getting involved in these activities is a great way for you to meet and socialise with others from your school – particularly as there is no language barrier involved.

Australian English

Foreign Exchange Student Australia
Manly Beach, Sydney (Photo: Flickr/Jason James)

Australia was a British colony until 1901, and the main language spoken in Australia is English.

Australian English evolved from British English. With a few exceptions, the spelling of Australian English usually follows the British format – for example, Australians write “colour” rather than “color” and “mum” rather than “mom”.

The standard dictionary for Australian English is the Macquarie Dictionary, which you can purchase from virtually any book store in Australia.

At the beginning of your exchange, you may find Australians difficult to understand when they talk. They tend to speak more quickly and unclearly than British or American people. However, you’ll soon adapt.

Social etiquette

While Australians have a reputation for being laid back and informal, they are actually relatively socially conservative. If you want to fit in as a part of your host family and school community, you will need to be sensitive to, and pick up on, Australian social etiquette.

Bear the following in mind.

  • Swearing – nearly all Australians consider swearing impolite. Never swear in front of, or even within earshot of, your host parents, school teachers, or other authority figures.
  • Nudity – Australians tend to stay covered up more than Europeans. Females usually keep their tops on at the pool or beach.
  • Australians usually consider it impolite to discuss political or religious views, except in family situations or with very close and trusted friends.
  • Australians generally are tolerant of homosexuality, but consider sexuality to be a private matter. If you happen to be gay, avoid any “in your face” displays of gay pride.
  • If you go out to eat with friends or other “equals” (such as your host siblings), the usual practice is to “split the bill” – ie, for everyone to pay for the items he or she has ordered and eaten – rather than one person paying for the whole bill. Tipping is generally optional in Australia.
  • Australians tend to value egalitarianism and dislike flashy displays of wealth and status. If you’re lucky enough to have a fancy new iPhone, or a $2000 watch, or your parents have a holiday home on the French Riviera, don’t make a big deal of it.

Money management

Foreign Exchange Student Australia
Melbourne (Photo: Flickr/Ari Bakker)

Your host parents will help you to set up a bank account during your first couple of days in Australia.

All Australian bank account holders receive a debit card to use at automatic teller machines (ATMs). It can take 7-10 days for the bank to generate the card and send it to you. I recommend bringing a small amount of Australian cash with you – perhaps $200 – to use until you receive your debit card.

The banking system in Australia is robust and modern. There are automatic teller machines (ATMs) for withdrawing money in virtually every town and suburb, so you should have no problem with accessing your money.

The Australian banks also have a proprietary payment system known as EFTPOS (electronic funds transfer at point of sale). The EFTPOS system allows you to use your ATM card like a credit card. When you go to make a purchase, you swipe your debit card at the EFTPOS terminal located next to the cash register and enter your PIN. The money to pay for your purchase transfers from your bank account directly into the store’s bank account.

Your parents at home should be able to transfer money from overseas directly into your Australian bank account using the international SWIFT system. You can obtain your Australian bank’s SWIFT number and other relevant details when you first set up your account.

Cost of living in Australia

When it comes to the cost of living in Australia, there is good and bad news.

The bad news is that Australia is one of the most expensive countries on earth to live in. The cost of living in Australia is generally comparable to that in Scandinavia, Japan or Switzerland. It is far higher than the cost of living in most parts of the United States, Canada and Europe.

The good news is that your host family will meet many of your biggest costs – including most of your food, accommodation and transport expenses. You can minimise many of your remaining expenses by bringing things with you, or purchasing online from stores like Amazon.com.

What to bring

Some of the most expensive items in Australia, relative to the rest of the world, are listed below. I recommend that you bring these items with you, if possible, rather than planning to purchase them in Australia.

  • Branded clothing and footwear – If you are happy to wear inexpensive, no-name, department-store branded stuff, you’ll be well catered for in Australia at a low price. If you prefer name brand items, such as Wrangler jeans, Ralph Lauren polos, and Nike or Adidas sports wear, you’ll notice that those are extremely expensive in Australia. Shoes of all kinds – sports, casual and formal – are also relatively expensive. You should either stock up on such items before leaving for Australia, or set up an Amazon account and know your sizing well.
  • Electronica – Things like smart phones, digital cameras and laptops are relatively more expensive in Australia than elsewhere. Bring your own rather than purchasing them in Australia.
  • Books – Books are more expensive in Australia than in many other countries. If you are a big consumer of literature, get a Kindle, or open an Amazon account for purchasing hard copies.
  • Cosmetics and toiletries – Obviously, it’s impractical to schlepp a year’s worth of cosmetic supplies across the world. But if you have room, bring a good supply of small, high-value items such as razor blades, cologne/perfume, toothbrush heads if you use an electric toothbrush, and make up. Such items are relatively expensive in Australia.

Typical “shopping basket” of expenses

Here are the costs of an imaginary “shopping basket” of items purchased in Australia, to give you an idea of your potential costs of living. (All costs are in Australian dollars):

  • Mobile phone plan – Unlimited national calls and text, 2GB  data = $30 per 28 days (Vodafone Combo $30 recharge)
  • iTunes music = $1.69 per track
  • Magazines = $7-$12 depending upon size and subject matter
  • 600 ml Coke Zero = $3.60
  • Medium Big Mac Meal = $8-$10 (variable depending upon location)
  • Body spray / deodorant = $6.00 (Rexona 200gm varieties)
  • T-shirt = $50-60 (Superdry, Abercrombie and Fitch, or similar)
  • Jeans = $100-120 (Levis 500 series)

Getting around

Foreign Exchange Student Australia
Jamison Valley, New South Wales (Photo: Flickr/Andrew Fysh)

In Australia, road transport rules. The vast majority of Australians get around in their own cars, and buses are their usual choice of public transport. The long distances between state capitals mean that Australians usually fly interstate.

There are well-developed train networks in the state capitals – especially Sydney – but outside the major population centres, trains are few and far between. Again, people tend to travel long distances by car or bus.

Cycling is popular in big cities, but the spread-out nature of Australian cities means that bicycle transport is only practical for people whose homes are relatively close to where they work or study, or for short-distance local trips.

What does this mean for you as an exchange student?

  • You’ll most likely travel to school by bus (train if you are in Sydney) or your host family’s car, or that you’ll ride if the school is close enough.
  • It’s likely that you’ll travel long distances by bus or car, or plane for distances greater than about 300km.
  • You’ll probably undertake local trips using your bike or that your host family will drive you.

Australian food

Australians cook and eat a wide variety of foods, reflecting the multicultural nature of Australian society. Asian and southern European influences are particularly strong.

Vegetarianism is not as prevalent in Australian society as in, say, Europe. However, there is a wide variety of vegetarian foods available in Australia, as well as vegetarian-specific restaurants in the larger cities.

Foods for people with specific allergies or intolerances (for example, gluten or lactose intolerance) are widely available in Australia. Your host family should be able to accommodate any specific dietary needs you have.

Australian culture

Foreign Exchange Student Australia
Photo: Flickr/Les Haines


It should be possible for you to continue almost any sport you currently participate in – or try any new sport you’re interested in – during your student exchange in Australia.

Australians play a wide range of sports, including sports with British (rugby league, rugby union, cricket), American (baseball, basketball) and European (soccer, cycling, mountain biking) heritage. These are mostly organised in clubs outside school. Your host parents will be able to help you get involved in any sport you are interested in.

Given the generally sunny Australian climate, swimming, surfing and tennis are popular in Australia. There is also a small alpine district in south-eastern New South Wales where skiing and snowboarding are possible during the winter months.


You’ll easily get your fill of music in Australia.

There are at least two or three FM radio stations available in every location in Australia, including a commercial station playing popular (top 100-style) music.

Australia also has a small but enthusiastic home-grown music scene. Government-run youth radio station Triple J is available in most locations around Australia and has a heavy emphasis on Australian music.

In the paid music space, iTunes, Pandora and Spotify are all available from Australia. The biggest retailer of physical CDs in Australia is called JB Hi-Fi, and has locations all over the country.



Nearly all Australians have access to high-speed broadband internet at home, and it’s almost certain that your host family will have a good, high-speed connection that you can use.

Furthermore, there are an increasing number of public places such as shopping centres which have “free” Wi-Fi. Your high school will most likely have its own Wi-Fi network for students to use.

In short, you should have no problems with connecting to the internet whilst on exchange in Australia.

Mobile telephones

There are three main mobile phone network operators in Australia, called Telstra, Optus and Vodafone. You can use this guide to Australian phone networks and frequencies to help you work out whether your existing mobile phone will be compatible with an Australian mobile phone network. Your host family will help you to get connected to a mobile network during your first couple of days.


Australia generally has a warm climate, but many locations have a high diurnal range. For example, Canberra usually has a long stretch of days in summer where the temperature exceeds 35 degrees celsius. It also usually has a long stretch of nights in winter where the temperature is below freezing.

Many visitors are surprised at how cold parts of Australia can be in the winter months. Even beachside locations or elevated parts of warm states such as Queensland can get extremely cold, with temperatures close to zero in winter.

Make sure you do your research before departure. Find the Wikipedia page for the city or region you’ll be staying in, and pay particular attention to the table of average temperatures. Pack accordingly.

Risks and hazards

Foreign Exchange Student Australia
Great Barrier Reef (Photo: Flickr/Lock the Gate)

Australia is generally a safe place to live. There are a few things to be aware of, as follows:

Health risks

The biggest health risk you’ll probably face whilst in Australia is the sun. The sun is particularly strong in Australia and you can burn in a matter of minutes at the height of summer. I recommend that you apply 50-factor sunscreen every day in summer. You should definitely do so if you’ll be playing sport, going to the beach or spending long periods outside.

A related issue is heat exhaustion or heat stroke. It is best to avoid exercising in the middle of the day in the summer months, and important to stay hydrated at all times.

Australia is mildly famous for having many venomous or other dangerous animals. The risk of you being affected by any poisonous snakes or spiders, or sharks, during your exchange in Australia is low. However, there are some localised animals – such as crocodiles and Irukandji jellyfish – which cause serious or fatal injuries to people every year. Your host family or other people you are travelling with should be able to tell you when you’re entering a high-risk area for such animals.

Personal safety

Australia is generally a safe country from a personal safety viewpoint. Having said that, there are a few basic rules you need to follow:

  • At night time, neither males or females should be out alone, particularly in inner-city locations. Always go out with a friend or a member of your host family.
  • As in most countries, hitch-hiking is not safe in Australia. If you need to get home and have no money, call your host parents or a taxi.
  • Some schools or other groups in Australia have a heavy binge drinking culture. Limit your consumption of alcohol or other drugs, and take care around others who are intoxicated. Being intoxicated yourself makes you more vulnerable to physical and/or sexual assault. Intoxicated people are more likely to try to assault you, even if you are sober.
  • Numerous people drown at Australian beaches every year. If you are swimming at the beach, make sure you do so with a friend or group of friends.

If you have any questions about living in Australia as an exchange student, please leave them in the comments below.

Good luck,