Whether by design or fate, living abroad presents several challenges, one of the biggest being learning a new language. Many parents see their children absorb the local language, but when it comes to our own language acquisition there can be a number of barriers: perhaps we don’t have the time, perhaps we will not be there that long, or perhaps languages are just not our thing. Whatever the case maybe, choosing to put our valuable time into language learning is not necessarily an easy decision.
Do you have to learn the local language when living abroad?
If we are talking about actual necessity the answer is often no. These days – unless you are really off the beaten track – you can get by speaking English. Locals relish the chance to practice and show off their (superior) linguistic abilities and when that doesn’t work Siri and Google are never far away.
Another factor that tends to minimise the need to learn the local language is that expats tend to stick together. This is a completely natural and understandable survival mechanism we deploy when we are abroad. We look for something familiar, a shared experience, a shared background, something that isn’t so foreign in our scary new surroundings. However, this does little to help when language is concerned.
If learning the local language is not really needed why should we bother?
The answer is less about language and more about what our efforts signal to our hosts. It is rare that any attempts to master basic greetings, niceties, and common phrases leave a bad impression. Even when you make a complete mess of it, locals are most often touched, even if slightly amused, by your desire to try. Yes, it might be nice to be able to order a coffee at a café or ask where to find the salt at the supermarket, but what you are really doing is showing respect for community you have entered.
Whether you decide to deep dive into the grammatical intricacies of your host language, or just want to be able to greet your neighbours appropriately, learning any amount of language is an important step towards feeling at home.
Language as a part of culture
Language and culture go hand in hand. Language is how people communicate their values, ideas, traditions and customs, and as a result, we also get an idea about the people speaking that language. For example, in Germany you could infer from the language that Germans value honesty and directness. On the other hand, learn Japanese and understand that being sensitive to the feelings of others is of utmost importance. Language provides us with little clues to how things work and helps us to find our place within the host culture.
Learning as an adult
Earlier we touched on how much easier it is for children to learn a new language. Actually, if we look at the science behind language acquisition, you will see that it is less about ability and more about the way we go about learning. In other words, it is not that our brains have closed shop and won’t let anything new in, it’s just that as adults’ things work a little differently.
Kids absorb language in a heartbeat, but they won’t necessarily know why or how that language functions. Generally speaking, they also have a lesser fear of making mistakes and will literally hear something once and blurt it out with little care for whether it is correct.
Adults on the other hand have years (and years) of conditioning; we want to know why something is a certain way, we want to know how certain ideas or concepts fit together and we certainly do not want to make fools of ourselves! These things slow us down, but in the end, make us better users of our acquired language.
Tools and resources for adult learners
There is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to the best way to learn a language. Joining a class can be a great way to get out and meet people and practice your language in a ‘safe’ environment. However, the cost of classes varies wildly depending on whether you attend a community class or enrol in a language school. At a language school your teacher is likely to be more formally qualified and lessons more structured, but this does not guarantee better results – the key is finding what works for you.
If fitting in classes between work, kids and life in general is something that sends your stress levels soaring, there are many other ways to learn while enjoying maximum flexibility. These days there are a world of Apps you can use – free Apps like Duolingo to paid programmes like Babbel. Language learning Apps provide on-demand lessons that can literally be taken anywhere, paused mid-unit or revised as often as you like.
Although, many of these Apps have voice recognition to help you with pronunciation, nothing beats talking to a real person! If you are not quite ready to talk to ‘people on the street’, signing up for an online language exchange or speaking class can be just as good! Pre-pandemic there was little choice in the way of affordable online tutors. Now you are spoilt for choice! If you are thinking of hiring an online tutor, make sure you get a free taster lesson and check their references. Remember, it is absolutely fine to try a few out before making your choice.
Another way to practice speaking is to sign up for a tandem or language exchange group. Most cities have numerous groups that can be found on Facebook or via your local community noticeboard. Through these groups you can find yourself a partner to meet with regularly either in person or virtually. In a language exchange you spend half the time speaking your native language then swap to practice your target language, gently correcting each other as you go. Tandem lessons are more like having a coffee with friends and help you to build confidence and learn pronunciation in a casual setting.
However, you decide to learn your host language, just know that speaking and understanding even a tiny bit, will immensely improve your experience and help you find your place in your new community.
Kerschen, K. & Cruz Martínez, J, (Penn State University Summer/Fall 2021 – Newsletter). Children vs. Adults – Who Wins the Second Language Acquisition Match?. Bilingualism Matters.
Newport, E. L., (2019, March, 05). Children and Adults as Language Learners: Rules, Variation, and Maturational Change. Topics in Cognitive Science.
Shashkevich, A., (2019, August, 22). The Power of Language: How words shape people, culture. Stanford News. RacismNoWay. (unknown). The importance of Culture, Language and Identity.