The hidden truths about expats learning a foreign language

7 February 2019

Learning a foreign language – it’s a no brainer for an expat, isn’t it? When in Rome, do as the Romans do, as they say. But does it follow that all expats should learn (or at least try to learn) the language of their new host country?

What are the real benefits of learning a foreign language during your time abroad? And what are the hidden risks? And what do people never tell you before you start? Here, we delve a little deeper into the value, the risk and the methods of learning your host country’s language.

benefits of learning a foreign language

What can a new language do for you?

For many expats, buoyed by the sheer novelty of their impending assignment, learning a few basics is simply just one exciting part of the process. Hello. Thank you. Yes. No. Where are the toilets, please? They experiment with the sounds, investigate the new alphabet, snigger at its strangeness.

But while new expats may be excited by the prospect, more seasoned expats are less keen. Having got used to living in an ‘expat bubble’, they see less need for it. But whether you are a first-time assignee or a world-weary serial traveler, remember that learning the local language is valuable in many ways that are not always obvious.

From a professional standpoint, it shows a respect for local culture that can only help in building relationships – which are often an essential barometer of the success of your assignment. If people like you, you will get on better. You don’t have to be word perfect, you need to show willing. If, however, you do aspire to greater proficiency in the language, you add another string to your professional bow when you add language skills to your CV. When the next career move comes up, that “Teach Yourself Japanese” audiobook you downloaded to your smartphone could prove a very shrewd investment. 

A smattering of phrases will of course also help you in your daily life – whether it helps you to get served in restaurants, understand road signs, or decipher food packaging. But there is a deeper importance to learning a language. It is well known that one of the main reasons for expat failure is loneliness, stemming from a failure to connect with a local culture. Making an effort – almost regardless of your eventual proficiency – to learn the language will give you an inroad into the culture. That will help you to feel less excluded – and more a part of the strange new world that you will be living in for the foreseeable future.

What they never tell you…

What they never tell you…

Learning a language is not the same for everyone though. Expat experiences suggests you should be prepared for a few risks.

First is the risk of getting it wrong. Most native speakers will, as mentioned, appreciate your efforts to speak their language. But stories of over-confidence abound, and there is a danger of causing offence. An innocent word may be a slurred vowel sound away from a shocking profanity. Tread carefully!

Much depends on your method of learning and, indeed, your linguistic ability. Expat families often find that their children pick up the local language far more readily than their parents do. And there is a big difference between casually picking up spoken language and formally learning the grammar and syntax. If you want to take the language seriously (and want to add something extra to your CV), there is no substitute for formal lessons if you want to reach a level of written accuracy as well as spoken fluency.

However, some expats have noted a risk that comes with too much proficiency. Long-term expats may spend so long away from home that they lose the knack of speaking their mother tongue. Equally, long-term expats have expressed frustration at their children growing up with a different mother tongue. Despite their parents’ best efforts they revert more naturally to the language they hear around them every day – frequently to the frustration of grandparents and wider family members who are unable to talk easily with them when they visit.

Maintaining your original mother tongue (or encouraging your children to do likewise) is a smart move professionally and socially. Whatever words they may use, your children will thank you for it one day.

Great – but how do I learn?

Overwhelmingly, learning your host country’s language will be of benefit to expats. But what’s the best way to do it? Here are a few tips:

Use your phone

In your smartphone you have the most convenient learning apparatus possible. There are hundreds of podcasts, streaming services and YouTube links to teach you virtually every language possible. Some are paid, many are free – a great starting point is this list. Simply listening to local language books and broadcasts will help you pick up the language by ‘osmosis’. Some swear that listening to well-known novels in a new language is the best way – whoever said that Harry Potter had no educational benefit? You can even download the “News In Slow” – a version of current news slowed down to help beginners. Watching local TV, listening to local radio and buying local newspapers will also help as part of the ‘immersion’ method.

Be proactive

Listening is one thing. But to really make that learning stick, you need to start speaking. This takes more than practice: it takes courage. But don’t put it off. Get out there and try it. It will increase your proficiency – and boost your confidence!

Find a learning partner

Talking to locals is essential – but it can also be very useful to share the learning experience with your own countrymen. It will seem awkward, but try it. And include your family if possible. Not only will it help the whole family unit to immerse themselves more fully in the local culture, you can support each other in your learning.

Ask your employer

Assignees working for larger employers may find that resources are available and funded by the company. It has been noted that a second language can add 10-15% to a salary – big companies clearly understand that it is worth the investment.

Find a tutor

If you would rather do something less individual than immersing yourself in foreign-language podcasts, you will find a wide range of group and personal tuition options in all major expat destinations. If not, personal tuition is also available online. Again, this may be employer-funded – but even if it is not, it can be money well spent. Joining a local language class will clearly give you the added benefit of working with a group of like-minded novices.

Enjoy yourself

Enjoy yourself

The world of languages is a fascinating one. Whether or not you are a natural born linguist, learning a few words will add to your experience. Not only that, you may find that it adds to your CV…

Find out more about cultural challenges facing expats: Cross-cultural awareness: more than just a different country.

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