Tips for Learning a New Language While Living Abroad
Have you ever thought about picking up and relocating abroad? It’s a tantalizing idea for many, especially as economies globalize and the “digital nomad” or expat becomes an ever more present figure in the working world. The flexibility many industries provide (and have been forced to provide, especially, by the COVID-19 pandemic) opens up workers’ boundaries physically as well as metaphorically. If you could do your job from anywhere—or since you can—where would you go?
But it isn’t always that simple, certainly not from a psychological perspective. One of the most common impediments to people considering a move abroad, especially among native English speakers, is the fear of being unable to get familiar with the language while living abroad.
Still, though it’s daunting in prospect, in practice it’s far from insurmountable. Here are some tips for navigating a new country regardless of your comfort level with its language.
Develop Study Techniques for Learning a New Language
The most effective and immediate way to conquer your fear, whatever country you are living in, is to develop and stick to a reliable language learning routine. Depending on your learning style, schedule, and personality, this may take the form of:
- a group in-person class
- an individual online course
- a group online course
- daily practice on an app
- a private tutor
Whichever you choose, or if you participate in a combination, try to be as consistent as possible. Build your skills bit by bit every day if you can. Your best chance of progress lies in going over the rules and examples even when you don’t feel like it. Duolingo is one of the most visible free choices on the market, setting a minimum of three simple lessons for the day, and allowing you to see and continually try to top your high daily score. For some languages, it even offers podcasts with stories to listen to that are commensurate with your experience.
You’ll probably feel like you are moving at a glacial pace, but one day you will read a sign or engage someone in conversation and realize how exponentially your confidence has grown. And when it comes to pulling off an expatriate life, confidence is everything.
Find an Expat Community
Of course, learning never takes place in a vacuum—and it can happen a lot faster with a support system cheering you on. As soon as possible after arriving, try to link up with one or more groups of expats who speak your language or come from your area of the world, or with whom you have other commonalities.
This endeavor is ever simplifying in the age of social media. Apps like Meetup are perfect for locating activities where you might meet such kindred souls. This will help you form friendships and become a part of a community that makes you feel at home.
The relationships you build through expat meetings, parties, and activities will serve as a great springboard, whether socially or professionally or otherwise, as you settle into life in your new country. Through them, you will get to know the geographical lay of the land, discover places and organizations and sources of entertainment you may not have heard of, and get a sense of the values of the environment. Is the atmosphere particularly artsy? Do people congregate around sports? What is the dining culture like? With a cohort of fellow expats, you won’t be alone in figuring these things out.
Activity or interest groups are also likely to bring you into contact with people who are native to the area and can help you acclimate to life there. This leads us to our next point…
Immerse Yourself to Learn the Language
Get out and about as much as possible! All the knowledge and information you are accumulating about this new language and culture will begin to make sense that much sooner if you dedicate yourself to experiencing it firsthand. Visit new neighborhoods or nearby cities. Patronize different establishments (the smaller the better!) and make conversation with the people inside them. Do a bit of investigating: try to notice the differences in people’s behavior in, for example, casual versus more official settings.
On a more formal and structured level, you can join programs like Tandem that pair you up with people looking to improve their skills in your language. An environment that combines an educational and social element is proving to be an increasingly popular means of developing proficiency in speaking, which is probably the linguistic skill you’ll wind up using most on a daily basis. Plus, having yet another opportunity for friendship never hurts!
Hear and See the New Language
Along a similar line, take time—especially during periods of transition, like a commute—to absorb the verbal signifiers all around you. Practice reading and understanding signs; once that becomes easy for you, pick up a newspaper or book in the language. Listen to automated messages on public transit and translate them to the best of your ability; as a next step, listen to public radio or watch the news. Do the same with even seemingly trivial messages, like ads before videos—these too add up over time.
There is hardly ever a shortage of mundane media on which you can sharpen your comprehension skills. And choosing active consumption over passive will make a world of difference. Actively participating in what you read and hear will ratchet up your comfort in your new home by several degrees.
Ask for Help
The people you meet along the way, whether through your workplace or social network or in the actual sphere of public service, can be a resource to you. Rely on them for help as you adjust to the norms and pace of life. Learn from their mistakes, and seek out their guidance when you (inevitably) make your own.
This goes double for official matters like registering an address, filing taxes, and applying for a visa. Often these processes are not as intimidating as they come across, but they can involve multiple steps that can quickly get convoluted. Ask your more seasoned contacts for advice and they’ll likely be glad to steer you through the twist and turns.
When it comes to your health, you may want to lean on a little help from the right insurer. With a global medical plan, as opposed to a local health insurance plan, you will have access to English-speaking doctors and hospitals.
Consult the internet too, as you’ve already proven your proclivity to do by visiting this site. Resources like International Citizens Group can arm you with the tools you need to build a financially feasible, sustainable life in your country of choice. Online forums answer frequently asked questions and provide links to helpful services. Like with everything else, it comes down to a little old-fashioned research.
There’s a lot to learn, prepare for, and get accustomed to at every step of the process of moving abroad. Where such an undertaking is concerned, knowledge gives you even more power than usual. The journey of learning a new language, especially as an adult, can be trying and nonlinear. Don’t let it deter you: there will be small victories en route, and your efforts will ultimately come to fruition in a more universally recognizable way. Meanwhile, there are so many aspects of living within a new cultural context that has little or nothing to do with the language. Focus on those, and before you know it you’ll be navigating the place like a pro.