About languages when moving abroad

English language for emigration

If you’re not a native English speaker, many will tell you how important it is for you to understand and speak English. How little you can do if you master only your own language, which, while spoken by [put how many million speakers you like here] will turn completely useless as soon as you cross the border. That if you want to work abroad, without English you’ll never stand a chance for international jobs.

All of that is definitely true. Together with Spanish, English is the 2nd most spoken language in the world as a native language (after Chinese), and the most widely spoken if we include non-native speakers. It is the Lingua Franca of modern times.

So, I speak English quite well. Do I need to learn another language?

Well, it depends on the country you’re going to, and on how long you plan to stay.

Let’s take the cases involving a long stay, as immigration for a permanent work position or for retirement, in a country where English is not national language.

There are some countries where although natives don’t speak English with friends or family, will be still mastering the language very well and will be willing to speak it. This is for instance the case of Scandinavian countries.

Unfortunately, there are other countries out there where, while many people will at least understand you, coping in everyday life by just speaking English will simply not be possible over a long time.
Imagine living in France for years while not speaking a word of French. Or in Italy without speaking some Italian. Can you figure out the nightmare?

Furthermore, there are countries where you’ll do very little, if nothing, with English alone.

I believe you can find all nuances and levels of English knowledge in native inhabitants, while traveling the world.
The point is, in most cases you will have to learn the local language, sooner or later. You will need it in order to talk to people, to shop, to get a service, to claim a right, etc. You will need it in all cases in which there is a person with little or no English knowledge between you and what you are trying to obtain.

There is also a psychological side to that. This really depends on your personality, but I can confidently say that most people will never feel at home or comfortable in their place of residence until they won’t be able to interact with fellow residents thoroughly.

In my case, I moved to a country in which people have a decent average knowledge of English, but where still you can’t completely rely on it. Not everybody understands it.

When I first came here, I used to speak English all the time to anyone. When people understood me, good for them. Otherwise, it was their problem.
But over time, my attitude changed. I got to know the city, I moved to a bigger, nicer apartment, my probationary period at work came successfully to an end, I decided that I liked the country and its culture, and, most important of all, my wife was finally able to join me here.
So, we found ourselves here, planning for a life ahead here, in a foreign country.

That changed my perception completely. I eventually felt like I was missing something real important every single time I was talking to a native. My colleagues talk to me in a good English, but converse one another in German (not exactly in German…. we’ll come to that below) and I cannot understand them. Sometimes they laugh, and I don’t get the joke. When I went to ask the Police about an issue with my driving license, they could not understand English.

Again, it depends on your personality, but for many people it can be very frustrating. For sure it is for me.
If you find yourself in such a situation, you really don’t have much of a choice: you have to learn the local language.

The third stage: when speaking local official language is not enough

This morning I entered a gas station for breakfast. The clerk asked me if I wanted a bag for the fruit I had just bought.
I am a very-low-level speaker of local (official) language, which is German by the way, but I initially could not even understand such a simple question.
The reason behind is that the guy talked to me in the local dialect. A dialect that is not easy to understand for native German speakers themselves. You’ve got the idea.

All this means that when you get to finally speak the local official language (and I am still far away from it), you’re not done yet.
Then you’d better start getting accustomed to local dialect. You won’t necessarily have to speak it, but at least to understand it.
Of course you could ask people to talk to you in the official language all the time. They will mostly do that, but often will not be very happy about it. It is pretty much the case when people do everything in their life by speaking a dialect.
Plus, it is not very practical for you to ask people all the time to repeat the first sentence, when you are going to live ten years on a certain place.
And you will hardly ever feel at home.

Then it is up to you: are you willing to put additional effort and time in learning a dialect? Are you willing to ask people the meaning of local expressions? Do you even want to take a course? I don’t know in other countries, but here dialect is so deep-routed that you can find dialect courses in most popular language schools!

I know some foreign residents who didn’t even attended any course: they learned the local dialect day after day, and the dialect only. But in my humble opinion there is a huge downside to that: the moment you cross city limits, you don’t speak the local language any more.
In the particular case of German, it is native language for almost 100 million people; I don’t want to put time and effort in learning a variety of it which only a couple million people can understand. It is much better to take a top-bottom approach: first learning the standard language, then trying to get accustomed to local dialect.

If you are willing to move abroad in order to find a better life or to reside in your dream country, you may be scared by what you’ve read here.
I’ve heard several people saying “I’d like to move abroad, but I’m afraid that locals could laugh at me due to my poor ability in speaking their language”. This is a reasonable concern: some natives probably will. And not only about language: it could happen also about your habits and culture.

Moving abroad is never easy, because you have to adapt to many things which are done differently than they are in your home country, and language is only a part of that.
Unless you’ve already moved abroad in the past, you’re not going to be completely prepared to face what is emigration, I promise you. Not even if you are a thorough planner and a very flexible person.
But, if you’re really motivated, I’m sure those kind of difficulties will never stop you.

One Thought on “About languages when moving abroad

  1. The more you learn, the better off you’re going to be. Even just a few basic words is a million times better than walking up and rudely speaking English immediately. Native English speakers are notorious for this. I see it every day. Start with hello and build from there. Try to show some respect for the local land.
    EarthDrifter recently posted..30 Hours in AddisMy Profile

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