There is a wide consensus that during their year abroad higher education (HE) language students should improve their language skills in contact with native speakers in the host community. Research shows, however, that many students find it difficult, if not impossible, to make meaningful contact to locals, and some consider the lack of it as a personal failure. Student data from interviews (n = 24) and a nominal voting exercise (n = 12), as well as tutor data (n = 11) from the University of Bath were analysed and are discussed from three perspectives: Jim Coleman’s concentric circle model, social capital theory and sociocultural theory. This illustrates that the list of objectives frequently used in the context of the year abroad should also emphasise participation in and contribution to the local community as a key objective. The article argues that students should be made aware of these crucial aims, and they should understand that neither participation nor contribution opportunities appear automatically. Indeed, students are required to make a concerted effort in an unfamiliar and complex social situation. This may mean that students need support to reconceptualise their identity as second language learners and develop greater learner agency before and during the year abroad.