Learn to Cope with Language Barriers as an Expat

We use language and the spoken word as our most direct way of communicating. It’s the way we connect with people to make sure our needs are met. It’s therefore natural to feel lost, anxious or confused if you can’t speak a local language, or have a hard time to speak it well. It will help you if you believe in yourself – and also to be kind to yourself – while you learn the language.

Learning the local language is very valuable

Expats are no strangers to adapting to new circumstances and thinking on their feet. But it can still come as a shock to discover that you can’t order a loaf of bread, make a doctor’s appointment, or that conversations are limited by your vocabulary.

While it’s tempting to stay in the global bubble or to spend time only with people from our home country, learning the local language can be of great value to the expat experience

Speaking the local language can give a professional edge when job hunting, a feeling of empowerment and personal accomplishment, a more inclusive social network, and the opportunity to meet new people; especially locals.

Still, the language barrier is a major challenge in moving abroad for a lot of expats. Learning a new language is not only about grasping verbs and pronunciation… it can be an overwhelming experience that puts us back into the classroom of life.

Common language-related issues expats face

In case you’re not a native speaker, you may relate to some of these common challenges:

  • “I find it hard to express myself properly since I can’t find the exact words I need.”
  • “I struggle to speak about difficult subjects because I don’t have a similar depth of vocabulary as I do in my native language.”
  • “I’m struggling with grammatical issues that I don’t even understand in my own language!”
  • “I have problems to enter the healthcare system since I don’t speak the language.”
  • “I feel like an outsider because I have an accent.”
  • “I can’t help my kids with school projects / homework.”
  • “Some of the mistakes I make, or the way I say things, can offend people.”
  • “I feel anxious about talking in groups.”
  • “I feel left out since my partner / children speak the language.”

Expats in a foreign country or culture also have to face nuances such as slang, and other kinds of communication styles. Mastering all of this can become very intimidating when dealing with expectations from a partner or parent-in-law, kids or locals. Fear can also prevent us from noticing relevant or important language messages from people around us, which may lead to several misunderstandings.

How to deal with language anxiety

IIt’s important to notice that “language anxiety” – to feel stuck or to be afraid to speak the new language – is very normal. When we don’t feel we control a language, it’s easy to not feel sure of ourselves. We may even have to deal with a long-held belief such as “I’m no good at languages” or “I’m not smart enough”.

Here are some tips to help you develop both your language skills and your confidence:

Accept that you will feel uncomfortable at times.

This is all right. Acknowledge how brave you are by being out there each day.

Give yourself permission to make mistakes.

Don’t take it personally. Making mistakes is how we learn and, as time advances, you’ll be making less of them.

Don’t try to be perfect.

Here’s a good opportunity to see and express yourself in a more creative and flexible manner.

Don’t forget that you’re not alone

A lot of expats are in the same situation as you. Share experiences and practice together.

Own your accent!

Although some locals may get impatient, many will consider it interesting or charming.

Celebrate achieved milestones

Whether you’ve uttered a few sentences or taken part in a group conversation, be sure to congratulate yourself.

Keep trying

It will get easier!

Practice affirmations

Practice affirmations like “I’m improving my [insert language] each day.” The beauty of this one? It’s actually true!

Join a language class

You’ll meet other people in the same situation and can share learning tips and techniques.

Use technology

Make use of the many language programmes, apps, online resources, books and audio CDs that are available.

If you can relate to the various language challenges we hope our above-mentioned tips can be of help to you.   

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