As a native English speaker, one potential obstacle you may encounter when moving abroad is language. This can come as a surprise to many people, which is understandable especially when you consider English has increasingly become the dominant international language during the past century and a half.
Additionally, prior to becoming expats, many people have experienced life abroad in the form of annual vacations or perhaps an occasional business trip. The bulk of their time is spent in hotels, and touristy areas where locals are accustomed to dealing with foreigners and have adapted to, at least, a basic understanding of English.
Unsurprisingly, these two factors, can lead to the following misconceptions;
- Everybody speaks at least some English
- Most people understand a little English
- Everyone overseas wants to understand/speak English.
In certain countries/areas the above may be accurate. In Scandinavia for example, English is widely taught as a second language and a large proportion, particularly the younger population, have a very good command of English.
However, in reality few working expats settle in tourist destinations, (of non-English speaking countries), with the obvious exceptions being some Mediterranean countries such as France, Spain and Portugal. In areas that do not rely on holidaymakers it may prove challenging to find anyone who can say more than “Hello”.
At first this may not be too apparent, people you would commonly interact with upon arrival in your new country, ie. car rental, real estate agent, lawyer etc. are likely to be able to understand, you. However once your initial dealings are over these people are gone and you move onto the daily interactions. Purchasing something from a local market might be achievable with some creative gesturing, however if you have to deal with anything official or bureaucratic, such as a school, hospital, government office, public sector or the local town hall, things can become much more challenging and potentially problematic.
An obvious solution to help ease potential problems is to become proficient at the local language or at the very least become familiar with 20 or 30 phrases. Of course there are many positive reasons to take this action. Properly immersing yourself in a new country is much more enriching if you are able to communicate with local people, better understand cultures, read local newspapers or watch the local news.
Wise Move Tip – Parents will be amazed how much they can learn from watching local kids TV shows with their own children.
Certain people have a natural aptitude to learning language and it is true that younger people, especially children and young adults tend to pick up a new language faster, but older people should not let that prevent them from trying to obtain this important skill.
Language training can begin prior to the move and in recent years modern language techniques have evolved with greater emphasis on conversational skills rather than the rather laborious method of learning strict grammar, which many people find hard to grasp. Language tutorials online are very common and probably the most accessible method in order to get started. If you are able to arrive in your new country with a few phrases you will find you can build momentum quickly which is often half the battle. There may be some pitfalls and red faces along the way but your hosts will certainly appreciate the effort you put in.
The good news is the vast majority of expats find getting to grips with the local language much easier than they anticipated. Apart from the obvious sense of achievement, expats tend to feel more integrated and connected with the local community. It may be the key factor of a really successful move.