You’ve made the life-changing decision to move to a foreign country. Perhaps you’ve always dreamed of picking up and going to another part of the world to broaden your horizons, gain valuable experiences, or to explore new cultures, food, and people. Maybe you’ve been given the opportunity to work abroad or advance your studies. Whatever reasons you have for moving and living abroad, we want to make the most of the experience. In order to do that, we highly recommend learning the local language. But why should an expat learn the local language? How should you even begin the process?
Why Should an Expat Learn The Local Language While Living Abroad?
If you live abroad, honestly you likely will not have to learn the language. After all, it’s not a requirement to learn the local language and you most likely can get around any large city in the world without speaking a word of it, especially if you speak English.
There are often various expat communities that stick together in any given city, think Chinatown or Little Italy, etc., If you’re from America, you will find other Americans. If you’re from Germany, other Germans, from Nigeria, other Nigerians, from the Netherlands, other Dutch.
Depending on the city you live in, you may have doctors, dentists, lawyers all available in your language. There could be shops, restaurants, and foreign supermarkets just for you.
There are still several reasons why an expat should learn the local language.
1. To Feel Independent
You certainly don’t have to, so why should you learn the local language? It comes back to all the reasons you left home in the first place. You wanted to be independent, you wanted to have a change of pace, a change of scenery, you wanted to see the world. The way you do that is not only living in another place but by experiencing it by putting yourself all in. Experience the culture firsthand, enjoy the company of the people who live there, learn to see things in another way. By learning the local language you will be able to do this and more.
2. To Learn The Culture
To get a fuller view and understanding into the culture and minds of the natives we learn the language. We can ask them questions, get their viewpoint on various matters. You will find that you share many things in common. You can relate to them on a level you may not have previously realized. You will find differences in views as well, neither yours nor theirs being wrong, just different, but you can appreciate the reasons for the difference based on the background knowledge you acquired.
3. The Feeling of Accomplishment
Every day as you interact with people, hear their stories, and share yours, you will feel a great deal of accomplishment. You’re making a success of your life in an entirely different place and culture. You’ve worked hard to do something that you can feel proud of. You will find more joy from the experience, speaking the language, and you will have a flood of more interesting stories to relate about your adventures.
Tips For Expats To Learn The Local Language
The big question remains. How can you learn the language? Here are our top tips to learn and improve in your new language.
1. Learn The Basic Phrases Early
The first step in acquiring your new language is fairly self-explanatory. You should learn and memorize a number of the most important phrases that you will need to use in daily life. Consider these the bare minimum just for getting around.
Greetings/Introducing Yourself: Hello. Goodbye. How are you? I’m good. Nice to meet you. My name is _______.
(These are all very simple and straight forward. In many languages, there will also be slight differences in greetings. For example, it is common in some Asian languages to hear something like ‘Did you eat?’ instead of ‘How are you?’. Learn these well.
Numbers, Dates, Time, Currency
Basic questions: How much is it? What’s the time? Where’s the bathroom?
The good thing about learning these phrases and words is that it will be fairly easy. Even if you don’t write or know any grammar you should be able to learn these set of basics simply through listening and practicing with a decent podcast, or YouTube video.
2. Get Out And Speak As Often As Possible
From day one, you want to be using the language. As soon as you can say, hi, bye, and dog, engage with as many people as possible in your target language. The good news is that there are a million new people for you to practice with right out your front door. Speak to people as much as you can and with as much detail as possible. You can even look into a language exchange event, it’s a great place to practice and make new friends abroad.
At first, you will be able to say only a bit. You might not be able to understand everything that is said in return. No probably! That silly smile and nodding is nothing to be embarrassed about. If you can try to pick up keywords that you know from their sentences. Even without realizing it, you may begin to pick up on sentence patterns, you’ll get used to the ‘rhythm of the language’, which likely will be quite different from the super clearly pronounced podcast lesson.
You will probably notice some words repeated over and over again or some short phrases. Take note of the ones that stand out. It’s likely that they are high-frequency words and phrases you will continue to hear, and even use yourself often.
3. Make Mistakes And Own Them
When speaking you are going to make a million mistakes and then some. Get used to it. Do not take it too seriously, have a sense of humor about it. If you’re afraid to make mistakes and hold back from speaking because of it, you will not be able to get anywhere. Make mistakes, and make a lot of them. Your goal should be to make as many accidental mistakes as humanly possible, every day.
4. Learn Only The Basic Grammar Structure
Grammar sucks! It’s true nobody really enjoys sitting down going through a grammar book learning a thousand rules that may or may not be very practical or used frequently. Unless you’re taking a proficiency test, my recommendation is to throw your grammar book out the window!
Take a lesson from students throughout Asia. In school, are required to learn English. They focus primarily on grammar, and yet after studying grammar structures for 5, 6, 10 years, there speaking ability leaves much to be desired. I have some friends who use the structure ‘~had better (do something)’ far more than any native speaker, and still don’t realize it has a threatening tone to it in many situations.
The culprit? Studying strictly from grammar books, not through real-world communication.
So what should be your goal with grammar? The bare basics!
Simple Sentence Structure
- English is Subject/Verb/Object.
- Korean is different. It’s Subject/Object/Verb.
Learn basic conjugations.
- Simple present, past, continuous, and future tenses.
- (PS. Chinese is sweet! There are no verb conjugations making it much easier than most people think! Fun fact!)
Learn these basics so that you can make your own sentences. That’s the goal. You do not want to spend the time and energy to learn and memorize thousands of complete sentences, or thousands of rules and rule exceptions. Instead, you want to learn the base forms. When you want to make a sentence all you need to do is know the vocabulary. You can find it easily enough with a dictionary on your phone.
If you want to say ‘The banana flies.’ But you don’t know the word ‘to fly’., If you know the base rules, you simply find ‘to fly’ in the dictionary and you will know how to make the sentence.
And you will be able to make a variety of different sentences based on those simple rules you learned.
(The banana flew. The banana is flying. Did you see the banana flying? The banana is going to fly! I’m going to fly with the banana. I’m going to eat the flying banana.)
5. Consume Content
The absolute best way to improve in your language is as mentioned above, to speak and practice in the language as much as possible. You will not always be outside talking with people. You need rest, you need downtime. We recommend enjoying videos, movies, music, books, and the like in your language. You don’t need to make it a difficult study regiment. Relax and enjoy something that you’re interested in. Sometimes without knowing it, this will really take you to the next level in your language learning!
The best advice anyone could offer you is to enjoy every moment with your new language, in your new environment. Make the best of your experience living abroad.
Don MacDonell is a Canadian Ex-pat living with his wife and son in Seoul, South Korea. As a teenager he was highly interested in Japanese culture and started learning much of the language. He then learned some Mandarin and after getting married he began learning Korean, which he’s been improving and communicating with every day for the past decade as a resident in Korea.
Don currently shares his vast knowledge about language learning that he has acquired from experience with three languages and additional research over the past 15 years. He has started to present what he’s learned along with practical learning advice and motivation through his website Language Level Up since 2020.