Last updated: 7 October 2014
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"Remember that life is a lot more stressful if you cannot communicate."
One of the most common questions people ask before they make the move abroad is whether they should learn the local language, and to what degree. It’s quite well known that the most popular expat destinations for each country are where there is a commonality in language and culture as this has a large impact on the ability to integrate locally.
However, if you are considering moving somewhere that your native tongue is not the local language, you will have the decision to make – learn the language or not.
While each situation is different, being able to communicate effectively can have a significant effect on the quality of life someone experiences, whether they live at home or abroad.
However, before you reach for the self-help CDs, there’s a few things to consider.
Firstly, you need to consider you own circumstances. When people move abroad, there are often three reasons for doing so:
- Long term/permanent: when you’re searching for a better life
- Medium term: Maybe for your career, or you fancy a change
- Short term: Travelling or work related
The length of your stay and the perception of your new location will shift significantly if you feel comfortable. Many locations will have an expat community where the local language will undoubtedly be English (the common language). However, when people move abroad, even if it’s intended to be a permanent move, remaining in these expat circles can often become less fulfilling and the desire to move may increase with time.
The common excuses for not learning the local language include “I can’t possibly learn them all”, “people speak English anyway” or event “they want to learn English, and they can do that if I speak English”.
The benefits of learning the local language
The benefits of learning the local language are incredibly significant and include:
- Understanding the basic customs and being courteous
- Being able to socialise and increase your sphere of friends
- Increase the propensity to study/work
- Increase your career prospects
- Being able to communicate in an emergency
- Being accepted by the community
Even if you cannot speak the language perfectly, simply making an effort is often greatly received, and it actually increases your chances of improving your language skills, without you even being aware.
Why wouldn’t you learn?
The most common reason for not learning is laziness, for many, learning a new language later in life is a tricky thing to do. However, it is not impossible.
Many will also drum out the excuse that they can get by in English while covering up a fear of failure or of looking stupid by getting something wrong.
When should you start to learn?
Our belief is that once you have decided on your destination, the sooner you start to learn the better. There is a common approach that “I’ll start once I arrive”. However, it’s highly likely that from the moment you land you will need to understand at least some common elements, and even be able to strike up a small conversation.
Always remember that understanding signs, asking for directions and getting assistance are more easily and effectively communicated in the local language as it is unlikely that English will be used in each of these. And in the cases that it is, quite often the correct information can be miscommunicated.
However, it’s never too late to begin learning. If you have limited time before your move, or maybe the move has arisen through unexpected circumstances, you can always begin once you arrive in your destination.
It’s likely that there will be someone locally who will be able to help you, especially coupled with self-help. Sometimes approaching a new language with two feet can reap excellent rewards.
Just remember that life is a lot more stressful if you cannot communicate.
How do you go about learning?
30 years ago, the only ways to learn were to either read, submerse yourself in the language or get lessons. While these approaches definitely stand the test of time, having lessons can be an expensive approach. Today there are many resources to help you get going, and even become fluent.
The rise of resources such as self-help CDs and software such as The Rosetta Stone and Linkword Languages can be done in spare time. They use a variety of techniques ranging from memory tricks and pure repetition. If you often find yourself with time available, maybe you travel extensively, this is a great time to try to pick up a new language.
Many of these resources now include online tutorage which allow you to speak to people directly, increasing your exposure to the language, allowing you real time improvement.
Government websites will often have an immigration section which also includes useful resources to help you learn the language. While not fully extensive, they will certainly help you learn the basics to get by, as well as offer guides on the key information to know and understand about local culture.
Of course, the tried and tested approach is to take lessons. While lessons will often be more expensive than the other methods, it can also be the most cost effective as you will actively be corrected and therefore learn the correct way, including pronunciation.
So, should you learn the local language?
Whether you’re moving for a month, year or the rest of your life, it is always a good idea to learn the local language where you live. Doing so will help you get more out of your new expat life, and also will help reduce unnecessary stress which could arise from being isolated.