Dealing with the Language Barrier as an Expat
Language and the spoken word is our most direct way of communicating. It’s how we connect with others and how we make sure our needs are met. So it’s only natural to feel lost, confused or anxious when you can’t speak a local language, or struggle to speak it well. The secret is to develop a committed belief in yourself – and to be kind to yourself – as you learn the lingo.
As an expat, you’re no stranger to adapting to new circumstances and thinking on your feet. But it can still come as a shock to find that you can’t order a loaf of bread, or make a doctor’s appointment, or that the quality of your conversations is limited by your vocabulary.
Although it’s tempting to remain in the international bubble or to spend time only with those from our home country, learning the local language can be invaluable to our expat experience. (I wish I had known this when I was a new expat. Fortunately it is never too late!)
Speaking the language can offer a professional edge when job hunting; a sense of empowerment and personal accomplishment; a more inclusive social group; and the chance to meet new people, and locals in particular.
Yet the language barrier remains a major challenge of moving abroad for most expats. Because learning a new language is not just about grasping verbs and pronunciation… it’s a humbling experience that forces us back to the classroom of life.
If you’re not a native speaker, you may relate to some (or all) of these common challenges:
- “I can’t express myself properly, because I can’t find the exact words I need.”
- “I struggle to discuss complex subjects, because I just don’t have the same depth of vocabulary as in my native language.”
- “I’m struggling with grammatical constructs I don’t even know in my own language!”
- “I can’t access the healthcare system because I don’t speak the language.”
- “I feel like an outsider/I feel self-conscious because I have an accent.”
- “I can’t support my children with school subjects/homework.”
- “Some of my mistakes, or the way I say things, offend people.”
- “I feel anxious about speaking in groups.”
- “I feel disempowered/left out because my partner/kids speak the language.”
Expats in a new country or culture also have to deal with nuances like slang, context and different communication styles. Mastering all this can become especially intimidating when there are expectations from a partner or parent-in-law, children or locals.
Anxiety can also inhibit us from noticing relevant or important language messages from those around us, which may lead to more misunderstandings.
Mastering language anxiety
It’s important to recognize that “language anxiety” – feeling stuck, or being afraid to speak the new language – is normal.
When we don’t feel in command of a language, it’s easy to become unsure of ourselves. We may even have to confront a long-held belief like “I’m no good at languages” or “Mistakes mean I’m not smart enough”.
Here are some pointers to help you develop both your confidence and your language skills:
- Accept that you will experience some discomfort – this is okay – and acknowledge how brave you are to put yourself out there everyday.
- Allow yourself to make mistakes – and not to take it too seriously or personally. Mistakes are how we learn and, as time goes by, you’ll be making fewer and fewer of them.
- Give up your ideal of perfection. Here’s an opportunity to see yourself – and the way you express yourself – in a more creative and flexible way.
- Remember that you’re not alone. Many expats are in the same position as you. Share your experiences with them and get practising together.
- Own your accent! Though some locals may become impatient, many will find it interesting or charming.
- Celebrate milestones. Whether you’ve uttered a few phrases or taken part in a group conversation, congratulate yourself.
- Keep trying. It will become easier!
- Practise affirmations like “I’m improving my [insert language] every day.” (The beauty of this one? It’s true!)
- Consider joining a language class. You’ll meet others in the same position and can share learning tips and techniques.
- Use technology. Take advantage of the many language programmes, apps, online resources, books and audio CDs available. (See LifeHacker.com’s top five language apps). Even using the ‘notes’ function on your phone can help you to memorize vocabulary and encourage learning by repetition.
- Make language learning interactive. For example, using mnemonics – like a song, rhyme, acronym, image or phrase – to remember grammar rules or key phrases.
Can you relate to the language challenges mentioned above? What techniques have helped you? We’d love to hear your thoughts!
If you like this article, subscribe to our newsletter and share these tips with someone who is trying to learn a new language.
P.S. Thanks to Thomas Tischhauser and Renata Harper for their contributions.
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10 commentsWrite a comment
Nice article Vivian!
I think every expat has such problem in countries where English, particularly, is not spoken language. Joining a class is really useful thing to do, at least it makes one feels there are others in my very same place and I am not alone. People from other parts of the world away from Europe used to stress that they have an accent, despite this is not an issue at all, but to discover this you really need to meet with other nationalities.
Usually if one works as an expat, he is talent in a particular field, this is something he/she has to use while dealing with others to make connections and friends.
I think language is a big challenge, but it is something could be dealt with.
Thank you so much for your comment and sharing your thoughts with us. Glad that you find this article valuable and that the challenges and solutions described resonate with you.
The idea of empowerment is key in the article. I just went through a terrible experience with my new husband who was so eager to move to the U.S. He joined an English class taught by a bilingual Puerto Rican who explained some of the concepts in Spanish, and as a former ESL instructor, I was ready to help him. Pedro Manuel had promised me that he would accompany me to events with my English-speaking friends and not hang around with other Dominicans all the time. Then I noticed him seeking refuge in a largely male-dominated world of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and felt he was rejecting my language and culture. Confronted with the challenge of English, Pedro Manuel retreated to the comfort of the familiar, like the “expat bubbles” I so often hear about.
When Pedro was here in 2011, he underwent the firefighter training in Spanish. I think he underestimated the difficulty and the amount of time it would take to be able to construct simple sentences in a new language. Add to it the strenuous labor at his job and worries about his family back home, which left him both physically and mentally exhausted.
Once he admitted how disempowered he felt and faced his fear of sounding foolish, we were able to start making progress. Just this past weekend he was able to ask for the restroom at a local restaurant without my help, and when a colleague asked where he was from, he answered, “I am from the Dominican Republic.” I later discovered that his bilingual friends were actually helping him.
He has more than enough technology at his disposal, and I have begun practicing affirmations with him.
Glad that you find this article valuable and thank you so much for your comment and sharing your experience with us.
You beautifully describe the story of your husband as an example of empowerment and what was the the turning point for him. I also like that you share how it was for you as a native speaker. Actually this article is also for helping native speakers understand how it feels when you are not and how to be supportive around people who are learning/struggling with the local language.
Lori,every week many readers come here for insights and inspiration and your comment serves this purpose. Thank you for being such a valuable member of the Expat Nest community.
Many thanks and best wishes,
Learn to laugh at yourself, invaluable tool for language learning.
Good tip Les ðŸ™‚
Thanks for your comment,
Fantastic tips – We will certainly share these with our clients! Language anxiety can be paralysing and as adults I think such a tough thing to admit we are struggling with. I laughed aloud at ‘Own your accent!’ I am always paranoid about the way I sound when talking in another language but now I’ll try and remember that the natives find me ‘charming’.
Thank you so much Claire. Glad that you find this article valuable. Indeed our accent can be charming ðŸ™‚
Great article, Vivian, and very useful tips! Thanks a lot.
I agree that learning the local language massively enriches the expat experience. In my mind, this is separate from the question of whether it’s better to socialize with locals vs. other expats. There is a certain comfort in being able to express ourselves in our native language and sometimes having that outlet is vital to our sense of “home.” Or another language where we feel “at home,” which might not necessarily be the local language. Just a thought ðŸ™‚
Thank you so much for your kind words and I am glad you find this article valuable.
A very interesting point you are raising here and valuable input by seeing the topic from a different perspective. I think the most important is to richly connect with others (locals and expats) and of course we could achieve such connection in the local language too. Whatever makes us feel ‘home’, however each of us define ‘home’.
Many thanks and it is so great having you here,