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When people consider moving to a country where they don’t speak the native language, it’s normal to be concerned about being able to communicate effectively on a day-to-day basis. For even the most seasoned expats among us, it’s still a hanging question for each new home they consider. Indeed, communication issues can make living abroad complicated, but it’s not as difficult as you may think. In fact, our brains can adapt very quickly to new environments. Daily runs to the store might become second nature as you gradually learn numbers, greetings, and names of the things you want to buy.
Knowing even conversational English will get you very far in this world, as it’s the native language of about 400 million people while an additional 1.3 billion people have proficiency in it. It has become one of the most important languages of humanity and certainly the world’s modern lingua franca.
However, the majority of the world’s population has experienced zero communication in English. Despite this, an English speaker expat can begin to navigate their new home with a combination of English and some rudimentary knowledge of the local language.
Language Decisions in Short-Term vs. Long-Term Living
Certainly, the necessity for proficiency in the local language grows the longer you live there. If you’re only planning on living in Ecuador for just a year, for instance, then you might be able to experience daily life without too much struggle and still make long-lasting friendships. If you’re planning on staying for a few years or potentially even permanently, your potential lack of knowledge of Spanish will begin to become a hindrance as you continue to try to assimilate into the local culture. You may see that your circle of friends and contacts, once expanding rapidly, start to plateau.
To gain the respect of the locals no matter where you live, you should always make an attempt to communicate in their local language. This might be as simple as a greeting and some polite words asking for help. Trying to speak their language shows mutual respect, even if it’s a short exchange of just a few words. While living in the Czech Republic I often found myself butchering phrases in the Czech language, receiving a smile and an understanding děkuji (thank you) in the process. Locals certainly know after a short interaction (or perhaps even before) that you’re a foreigner, and the effort to communicate in their mother tongue usually goes a long way in showing your interest in and desire to adapt to their culture.
Luckily for those of you taking the plunge into life in a new country, the best way to learn a new language is by immersion. You can gradually learn a language and the benefits will increasingly pay off the longer you live there. However, it’s always advised that you combine this on-the-ground acquisition with other learning platforms such as in-person or online language courses.
The Benefits of Proactive Language Learning
Acquiring a language can be messy and haphazard without the proper guidance and discipline. Choosing to attend in-person language courses or subscribing to online language services will help to fill in many of the missing pieces. Signing up for language courses within the country is a great social benefit and will give you insights into the local culture as well. Schools often offer meetups for the chance to make friends with locals learning your language as well as other expats studying alongside you. These courses can be one of the best ways to make an initial group of foreign friends when you arrive on your own in a new country.
One of the core goals of Expat Empire is to make the process of moving abroad as seamless as possible using technology. With that in mind, we recommend italki, an online language learning community composed of both students and teachers. Their easy-to-use online platform eliminates subscription requirements and lets students directly choose their teachers. Best of all, the lessons can be held at your discretion of time and place, an added benefit for those not living in major cities. It’s an excellent way to connect 1-on-1 with a professional and experienced teacher without having to meet in person.
For those interested in a full course language-learning experience, we recommend Babbel, the first language learning mobile app founded in 2007 and based in New York and Berlin. Babbel has been at the forefront of technology since its inception and has been the gold standard of online structured language learning. It’s advantageous for those that want a bit more self-directed learning through lessons that you can enjoy through their intuitive mobile app at your own pace. Offering complete language courses in more than 10 languages, you can make progress on your studies when and where you want.
Beyond the most practical benefits of learning the local language, spending time every day focusing on a “project” like this has cognitive health benefits as well. Researchers at the University of Washington published a report that found that focusing on a new language will increase attention control and improve memory overall. By proactively engaging in this process while getting accustomed to your new home abroad, you will experience less anxiety that may result from your move.
When Local Language Proficiency Becomes a Necessity
For long-term and permanent residency in a country, learning the local language through certified courses is, in many cases, a requirement. To become a citizen of Norway, for instance, you must have 250-300 hours of approved education in Norwegian. For those that want to forego citizenship and stick with a Permanent Resident Visa, some countries such as Germany require education in their language as a requirement for an application. Temporary residency visas do not have this same requirement, but at some point, your ability to apply for temporary residency visas will run out and you’ll be forced to apply for permanent residency or move on to another country.
Simply put, if you’re considering permanent residency or citizenship after your move abroad, you should begin learning the new language in gradual steps. This can begin long before your move and any knowledge of the language will greatly benefit you after you arrive. We recommend that you begin your language education via self-taught courses such as Babbel or 1-on-1 with language teachers through platforms like italki. Before long, your hard work will pay off as you’ll blend more smoothly into your new society and locals will be impressed with your commitment and speaking abilities!
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Whether you are looking to move abroad or just country hop for a while, Expat Empire is here to assist you with those big questions. Take a look at our consulting services and Expat Tools to see which of them will take you to the next step in your journey abroad!