It is important to know about the history of the country where you will be studying. This will help you out in a couple different ways – one is to help you understand the country’s background and current situation. The other is it will also help you actively interact with locals and feel more connected to the community. When you can show that you took the time to educate yourself about their history, it will help facilitate more profound relationships with those around you. Plus it avoids those awkward situations where you pretend to be “in the know” about what a local is talking about, but really have no idea (this happens to me a lot, especially with local politics).
Example for Argentina – Are you familiar with the military dictatorship in the 70’s and 80’s? What about the economic crisis in 2001/2002? Both of these events, and many more, continue to shape the lives of Argentines today and it will help you to understand them better. I recommend cracking open a history book or (dare I say it?) browse through Wikipidea You do not have to have to get a PhD in Latin American Studies, but having a vague notion of who Carlos Menem is or what is up with the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) can really help.
Get a Head Start on the Language
Many people wait until their first day of class to start their language education, but really anyone can get a head start before they leave. It can be something as simple as watching a film or listening to a podcast or the local radio. This will help get an ear for the accent and the rhythm of the way people speak even if you are a complete beginner in the language. This might even make you your teachers favorite student because you are so on top of things your first day of class.
Example for Argentina – Try watchig “La Historia oficial” Not only will this allow you to hear the porteño accent common in Buenos Aires, it is also a great film (and won an Oscar to prove it). The film also shows the situation during the military dictatorship, which would allow you to multi-task with the “Get Informed” section (see above).
Open Your Mind
No, this is not a reference to the 1990 classic Arnold Schwarzenegger film, Total Recall (super excited about the remake, by the way). This is about preparing yourself to go to a foreign country with an open mind and without assumptions. What do I mean by this? Most people understand that culture and ways of living are different in other countries, but some do not always think of the extent of this, especially other countries that at first seem similar to their own. Coming with an open mind helps to not get frustrated with these difference and minimize certain aspects of culture shock.
Example for Argentina – People from other countries might rely heavily on their debit and credit cards to pay for the daily expenses. In some cities you can even pay a taxi driver or a parking meeting with a card. With economic problems and lack of technology, Argentina may not be as card friendly as you are used to. Many restaurants and services do not take cards and lack of cash can get frustrating for some foreigners. This is why it helps to realize that this is the way the country works and that by accepting that will allow you to focus on all the amazing things Argentina does have to offer like choripan (!!!), pork sausage on bread that will make even the veteran vegetarians drool.
It is important to take into account some of these suggestions as language travel is not going to be the same as a regular tourist trip to a foreign country. You will be immersed in the language and culture and taking these extra steps will help you take full advantage of your stay.