Living abroad has its share of cultural challenges, and speaking the local language is pretty high up on the list. Without those language skills, it’s very likely you don’t feel you’re making the most of your experience in your new home. Those who do speak the language seem to thrive in their newly adopted environment, while you might feel like you’re just barely making it.
Whether it’s stalled motivation, a busy life leaving very little time for language study, a course that doesn’t fit your learning style or goals, or the simple fact that you’re too shy to leave your comfort zone, don’t be discouraged by the growing feeling that the life and opportunities you imagined for yourself by moving to another country are passing you by.
We’ve come up with a list of common challenges that those living abroad and trying to learn a language might face, along with some strategies to conquer them, help you stop “just getting by”, and really start living life in another language.
1) Getting stuck with the same English-speaking crowd.
It’s totally normal to feel like hanging out with other expats or people from a culturally similar background. Not only does it create a support network for every question, need, or worry you may have, but it also creates a natural sense of a “home away from home”. After all, who better to understand your experiences than someone who’s been through the same? The drawback is that it could get too comfortable, and you might find it especially hard to get out of that comfort zone. English may be an international language, but speaking it all the time risks placing you in a bubble.
Strategy: Try to throw yourself into your new environment by making local friends and engaging with the local culture as much as you can. It’s worth putting things in perspective: Locals will be as curious to find out about your life as you are about theirs. If you’re working with local colleagues, find out where the best pubs and restaurants are located and organise a meal out with your co-workers. If you’re studying, make a point of taking part in culture nights and attend local events for students.
If you feel less than confident in your language skills, anticipating potential topics and rehearsing what you might say in a conversation, or doing a few topically related speaking exercises to warm up for these situations can be helpful.
2) Being the same version of yourself that you are at home.
This is one of the main reasons why English speakers find it so hard to engage with locals. Hobbies, habits, and lifestyles differ from country to country, and if you don’t make the effort to integrate into your environment and do as locals do, there’s the danger that you’ll always be on the outside looking in.
Strategy: Think of yourself as a spy on an undercover assignment. Your mission: to integrate with your new surroundings as much as possible. Every little thing helps — avoid tuning in to English-language radio, and resist the temptation to look for food from home. Get out and embrace the unknown. Eat where locals eat, watch popular TV shows in your target language, read the regional newspapers, and listen to music your new friends like or that you hear in your surroundings. Follow social groups on Facebook to find out where locals hang out or where you can practise your hobby. Soon, you’ll start meeting new people and gain deeper insight into the language and inner-workings of your new home.
Culture isn’t separate from language, so start making the effort to immerse yourself. Most of all, people will appreciate the effort, even if you make mistakes.
3) Local friends who only want to speak English with you.
Strategy: Sometimes the direct approach is best, and this is one of those cases. Ask them to speak their language with you because you’re learning, and explain to them how much you love the language and what it means for you to be able to speak it. Most will be flattered and only too keen to help.
In many places language lessons can be expensive, so many locals may see you as an opportunity to get an English lesson for free. If they insist on speaking in English, speak back in the local language. Two-language conversations are perfectly acceptable and can be pretty fun. Otherwise, strike a compromise: Offer to speak English for an hour in exchange for an hour of conversation in the local language. Once you start speaking to someone in one language, however, it may feel unnatural to switch to a different language later, so try to get your hour in first.
4) The overwhelming feeling that learning a language is a struggle.
This comes down to psychology and confidence. There’s no such thing as being a “language person”; it’s all about your state of mind and the strength of your motivation.
Although the image of your old homework covered in red ink may still haunt you, and verb tables might make your eyes glaze over, what’s most important is to get over the fear of making mistakes and focus on the benefits of learning a language. Regularly reminding yourself why you want to learn your chosen language will boost your motivation when it might take a dip.
Strategy: Dive in head first. One of the biggest turn-offs to language learning is rooted in the way we learn languages at school. There’s too much grammar and not enough practical conversation, too many rules and not enough room for experimentation. Language is an expressive medium; you need to somehow (any way you can) live it in order to learn it.
Build up your confidence by speaking it with small goals in mind — whether it’s by ordering a coffee or asking directions. Any small interaction can be a triumph. Keep track of any progress you make using tracking apps (some language apps like Lingvist track progress for you), and keep a notebook or note app on hand to jot down phrases and words. Most of all, don’t be afraid to ask your friends questions about usage — they’ll be a great source for making your speech more native.
It’s amazing how much you can learn if you commit to a purpose. Start slow, break down your psychological barriers one by one, and reward yourself for your small successes.
5) The fallacy that you will pick up a language by living in the country.
There’s a general misconception that once you start living in a country, you’ll start speaking the language without having to make any effort. The reality, however, is very different. Whether you were planning to learn the language or not, just living in the country will not make you a speaker of the local language. Instead, it may actually make you complacent.
Strategy: Language learning takes effort — and working smarter is better than working harder. You can start building your confidence with as little as 30 minutes a day. Review your most commonly used vocabulary — words you use on a daily basis, in real-life situations — make short sentences with them, and practise. Rinse and repeat. Your vocabulary will start expanding, and you’ll start making strides in your language learning in no time.
Learning a language abroad doesn’t need to be a challenge.
Live, breathe, and absorb the new culture and all that it has to offer. Be curious and passionate, open and receptive. Embrace your new life and the friendships, experiences, and morsels of native language you’ll pick up along the way. Treat this chapter of your life as one of the most fascinating and fulfilling times of your life.
Strategy: Stop “just surviving” and start really living your life abroad with Lingvist’s uniquely customised courses, which are tailor-made to your ability and give you only the most relevant material first. Learn with daily challenges, useful learning features, and specialised courses to keep you moving towards your language goal.
Photo credits: Tim Tiedemann, Alicia Steels, Matthew Gerrard, Daniel H. Tong