Expats: why bother learning the language when they all speak English anyway?

Posted on 13/10/2011

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It’s a common experience. You arrived in your new country full of enthusiasm, or at least good intentions. But six months in, you’ve found that it’s harder than you thought to get past the initial stages of language learning. You’ve found, too, that English is perfectly sufficient to get by, both with the locals who all seem to speak it fine (or at least passably), and within the expat community: you have Anglophone removal men, doctors, cleaners. Your children go to international schools. Your friends are also strangers in this foreign land, and English is the common language between you.

All of this is comfortable. It’s also more than understandable: you’ve left behind family, friends, and all that is familiar. Speaking your own language is one of the few things that makes you feel like you, that makes you feel, well, normal. So I’m not pointing fingers.

But I’d also like you not to miss out. Here are some reasons why it’s worth persevering.

1. It’s a great opportunity.

There are many reasons why it’s a good idea to learn a language, from the pure joy of it to the enhanced career prospects – not just for you, but for your children later in life.

And there’s a reason why British universities ship their languages students off to far-flung destinations for a year in the middle of their degree. It’s because being immersed in the culture and the language of a country really is the most effective way to become fluent. Immersion being the key: when I lived in Spain, back in the stone age, my contact with the UK was limited to the occasional phone call and the daily thirty minutes of email I could afford in the extortionately priced calling centre. (And, of course, letters -remember them?) Almost everything else I did was in Spanish – TV, books, magazines, church, talking to people in the shop.

Yes, for a month my brain hurt. After ten minutes of The Simpsons I could almost feel the smoke coming out of my ears. But then something clicked, it became easier, and somewhere along the line it became, well, almost effortless.

It’s probably not reasonable to expect or even advocate that approach to students in the day of Facebook and BBC podcasts. And it’s almost definitely unrealistic for other expats. But the closer you can get to this model, the faster you will progress.

And becoming fluent – or even being able to get by – in another language is a fantastic achievement. Honestly, it feels good. I can’t think of a single negative side effect.

2. It makes life easier

No matter how good your expat network is, at some point you will come across someone who doesn’t speak English as well as you need
them to for that situation. Maybe your cleaning lady is Polish; maybe you’ve found the ideal home in the window of an estate agent where there is no sign saying “English spoken”. In those situations, speaking a little – or a lot – of the local language will come in handy.

3. Being fully present

In a year, two years, five years, when you go home or move on to your next country, you will be asked “what was it like in Belgium?”. And the truth is, you won’t be sure. It was pretty much the same as every other country you lived in. There was a NATO store where you could buy green Doritos; there was an international school; you could get CNN on your television.

Why not, instead, live the adventure? Come back with some stories to tell of the interesting people you’ve met, the aspects of culture you’ve learned. Like it or loathe it, you’re doing the expat thing anyway. You might as well make the most of it. And you’ll certainly be in a better position to do that if you speak a little of the local language.

4. Being respectful of people and their culture

Anyone who’s ever had an argument with their spouse knows that it’s not about what you say; it’s about the way you say it. There’s choice of words, tone of voice, and the all-important body language. You’ve probably seen the statistics: the words themselves account for a tiny proportion of communication.

When you make an effort to speak the local language – even, perhaps especially, if they are bumbling efforts – you are communicating something beyond the words you are speaking. You are communicating that you understand you are a guest in another culture, and that you intend to respect it, even if it is not always straightforward for you.

This, too, will make life easier: I’ve learned from experience that people do not tend to respond well to sentences that say – or sound like they are saying – “but in England, we have such-and-such, and it’s much better”. People working in customer service will be kinder and (perhaps) more helpful to you if you show them the respect of trying to speak their language; if you are seeking to make friends, it will also help you immeasurably. People will be more receptive when they see you are being respectful.

5. Giving a good impression of your home country

Rightly or wrongly, there are certain stereotypes of certain nationalities that persist. English-speakers are sometimes felt to be arrogant, because of our (admittedly often correct) assumption that “everyone” speaks our language.

If you make an effort to speak the local language, you will cause them to question such stereotypes. We are all, in small ways, ambassadors for our own country, and what we say – and how we say it – will reflect on our host nation’s impression of our home. Wouldn’t you like to give a good impression of yours?

 

 
— for more hints and tips on language learning, buy Conquering Babel: A Practical Guide to Learning a Language here in the US and here in the UK.
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