Language Learning for Expats

The Expatability Chat Podcast

Language learning tips

In this episode I dip my toes in to the world that is learning a new language. With a few quick tips on language learning for both you and your children.

Even if you’re moving for just a couple of years or so, you’ll get so much more out of your stay if you can speak the lingo. 

I’ll share 5 reasons why an expat should learn the local language, however long you’ll be living in that country. And especially if you’re moving to an expat hub – get yourself out of the expat bubble and thrive!

Also, I’ll offer you some quick tips to get you up and running. And most of what I talk about will apply to your kids as well as you.

Then I move onto talking about what’s known as full immersion language learning, and the pros and cons of that... Whilst it’s generally acknowledged that full immersion into a language is the best way to become fluent, this is pretty stressful and not always possible. 

And I’ll share why I don’t believe that full immersion is always a good format for children and can be extremely damaging for some.

Not learning the language will make your everyday expat life more stressful – like going to doctors, shopping or getting your paperwork done – simple things you’ve always taken for granted become minefields when you’re trying to navigate them in a foreign language.

If you don’t speak the language, you will feel cut off from the country you live in.

Remember, learning even a few words and phrases of a new language is inclusive and will open so many doors for you as well as boosting your confidence and giving you a massive sense of achievement.

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Hello, lovely Expateers. Welcome to this episode of the Expatability Chat podcast. Today I want to dip my toes into the world that is learning a new language. I feel a bit of a fraud talking about this because I am absolutely crap at learning languages. For this, I totally blame the English educational system. I'm not entirely sure what it's like these days, but I didn't start learning a language, compulsory French, until I got to secondary school, so about 11 years old. Far too late, in my opinion. And then, of course, there's the stereotype of British people not bothering to try and speak a foreign language because, air quotes, everybody speaks English anyway. But we're not going to go there because we are not stereotypes, are we? We are intelligent, bold, forward thinking, and fully capable Expateers who know that we need to be able to live happily and comfortably in a foreign country. And to do that, we need to be able to speak the language. Even if you're moving for just a couple of years or so, you'll get so much more out of your life and your stay if you can speak the lingo.

And then, of course, your children will benefit a huge amount from being able to speak a second language, or a third, or even more in many cases. So what am I going to cover in this episode of Expatability Chat? Well, first of all, I want to emphasise how important learning the language of your host country is, and to try and make you get out of that very tempting and very comfortable expat bubble so that you can fully enjoy your experiences overseas. Yes, yes, I know it's hard. You're really busy. You've got so much to do. You're parenting, or not parenting, you're working. It's just another thing that you need to fit into your busy life. And besides, you know that you'll be able to meet fellow expats who speak your language, especially if you're moving to an expat hub. You may think that surviving using only English will be easier than embarking on a language study course. And yeah, I guess it will be, but you will miss out on so much. Now, you may genuinely not have the time to attend a full-time language course, and I get that, I really do. I certainly had no time to spare before I moved to Japan, so there was no way I could learn Japanese on a full-time course or even part time, frankly, before I moved there.

I was a full-time mum, plus a full-time publisher. But there are plenty of ways that you can learn a good amount of a new language. I'll offer you some quick tips to get you up and running, and most of what I talk about applies to your kids as well as you. And at some point, because I'm me, I will go off on a bit of a rant about full emotion language training. But let's start with the good stuff first. So why is learning the language so important for an expat? Us expats moving on temporary assignments tend to be a little bit more adventurous, mainly because we are usually moving due to a career placement. One assignment may be in China and the next one could be in France. And yes, while the working partner may well be working in an environment that speaks their native language, the accompanying partner will be in that country without the inhouse backup. You have to create your own life and it really does help when you can communicate with other people in their native language. So learning the language of your host country is not just a necessity, but it is also an opportunity for you and your own personal development.

One of the main reasons for laziness about studying, and yes, I do mean laziness, we do need to make it a priority. So one of the main reasons for laziness about studying a foreign language is the lack of a pressing motivation, it's not really enough motivation if you know that you're going to be living working with people who speak the same language as you. Therefore, before embarking on your own learning path, you need to work on your motivation. Why should you learn the language of your host country? Let me give you five reasons why you should learn the local language. Number one, to get in touch with locals and with the local culture. English is not spoken fluently everywhere. Just get off the beaten track by a very short distance and you'll soon discover that with English, you can only partially join in with your new life, which will make your experience very one dimensional and very much less exciting. Locals tend to appreciate expats that at least make an effort to learn the local language, and they are more willing to help you when needed. Number two, bureaucracy does not speak English. Local bureaucracy can be challenging as hell.

Well, let's be honest, bureaucracy can be challenging as hell everywhere, even in your own home country. In some countries, bureaucracy can be soul destroying. Even if English is one of the languages spoken, I'm thinking of South Africa here. Now, you as a resident, even temporarily, will have to deal with application forms, driving licenses, ID documents, and things written in the local language. So in this sense, even having minimal linguistic competence is simply essential. You cannot guarantee on having a local fixer, a friendly translator available to you at all times. Number three, understand more and you will understand better. Now, what I mean by this is quite hard to put into words, but sometimes there isn't a direct translation for something that happens in a country's language. And by understanding the language, you do understand the culture better and their way of life. The other thing that it can mean is knowing what's going on around you. There are countless examples on the internet of sometimes funny, sometimes rude situations where others don't believe that you can understand them due to a potential language difference. Knowing another language will help you stay safe at the very least.

It allows you to understand in sufficient detail what's happening around you. In emergency cases, for example, if you get lost, knowing how to ask directions is really important. But what is even more important than asking for directions is understanding the response that you're given. Because if you can't understand what they say back to you, how on earth can you take action? The fourth reason that an expat should learn the language is to meet other expats and build your community. Now, how does that work in an expat bubble? Well, when you live abroad, you have an immediate need for a reliable social network. Go and listen to my previous podcast episode on finding friends as an expat for why this is so important. While it's essential to be able to get into direct contact with the locals, it is also vital to be able to create a solid network of expats. You do need to be able to relax in company and to have conversations in your own home language. The way to do this and to learn the language at the same time is to study the language together. So you can establish relationships at a language class, for example, and there you'll meet people just like you and start building your social network.

The fifth reason for learning language is, surviving is not the same as living. Yes, it's true, English is often enough to enable you to survive anywhere in the world. But do you want your experience abroad to simply be a survival game? Surely you want to thrive in your expat life. There's a lovely quote by Rita Mae Brown that says, language is the roadmap of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going. There are just so many experiences that simply cannot be fully understood or translated into English, and not just in a linguistic way either. As a cultural attitude, this is true too. Now that you've considered just a few of the benefits of learning the language as an expert, I'm sure you're going to be motivated enough to look for a language course that suits you. And of course, everybody learns in a different way, so it's important to work on the way that you want to learn a language. I'm going to give you some quick tips on language learning. Now, as I say, I am by no means an expert on this topic at all, but I've researched it deeply on your behalf, so do feel that I'm able to share some tips with you.

I'll also link several language learning resources in the show notes of this episode so that you can choose an option that best suits you. The most important thing is basically do what I say, not as I do, and learn the language before you move abroad. Everyone I meet says this about learning the language. I wish I'd learned the language before I moved overseas. Please take their advice. Try out an evening class if they still exist, or a home study learning pack, perhaps. There are loads of online learning apps nowadays with pretty much every language covered, so you don't really have much of an excuse. Except time, really, and that is one excuse I definitely understand. This next tip helps. Listen to your target language regularly. Now listening, just having the sound coming into your brain as much as possible really helps you absorb the sounds of the language. Some people recommend having it play while you sleep, so you can take it in unconsciously. Personally, I've not tried that. I have enough trouble sleeping as it is, but it could work for you. Even if you can't learn to speak that well, at the very least, you'll get your ear attuned so that when you get there, it doesn't all sound like gobbledygook.

Shortly before moving to Japan, I watched a TV program that was spoken Japanese but subtitled in English. This was the first time I'd properly heard Japanese spoken, and it sounded absolutely impossible. I couldn't even pick up a syllable. However, once I arrived and heard it spoken around me all the time, it quickly made it so much easier to learn. Japanese wasn't as hard as I expected. Reading it, however, whatever. Well, so to start, I listened to a language training programme through my headphones while on the bus on the way back from the school run. And then when I got a car, I found listening to a talk radio show, which was particularly helpful in South Africa, especially. Usually, while I've got no clue what's being said at first, the rhythm and sounds begin to sink in and they do eventually make sense. Another tip is to watch TV. Watching movies and TV shows in your target language can help too, as it can fill the context gap of when and how words and phrases are used. Hearing something on the radio, for example, you don't necessarily have context, but when you can see it, you can roughly work out what's happening.

This is something that I recommend to help your children learn the language. As I'm sure you're aware, they do love a little bit of extra screen time, and I'm sure you'll feel better at allowing them to spend that extra time on screen when they're learning a new language. Reading something in your host language, in your new language. This can be incredibly helpful if the alphabet is the same as you're used to. Take a look at online newspapers. These are up to date and relevant, and you can use pictures as clues to aid comprehension. Following a specific story over a few days can help build your vocabulary. I found this particular method incredibly helpful when I was traveling around South America many years ago. But as I say, I can't imagine trying it out with a Japanese newspaper. Flashcards are often cited as a way of learning a new language. Now, these are really helpful to learn just vocabulary, and it works especially well for children. Only for children that can read, though. There's no point in having a flashcard for a baby. Personally, I've not ever had time to go with a suggestion, but many recommend it.

Make a plan. Now, you know that I do love a good plan, and I love it even better when a plan comes together. Look, I know how busy you are right now with the whole moving process, the whole parenting, day to day life, and just everything. So I don't want you to put any more pressure on yourself right now. Yes, it is important to learn the language if you have the time and opportunity to go for it full-time. But please don't add to your overwhelm. Some people find a new language very easy to pick up. Others, like me, find it incredibly difficult. So at the very least, just focus on learning these properly useful words and phrases. First of all, greetings and the culturally appropriate way to use them. The next one to learn would be numbers. Now, this is a fun one to learn along with your children, but you're going to need to know the numbers, especially if the currency denominations are at the higher end of figures, hundreds and thousands rather than one, two, three, and so on. Directions. Actually, for me, this one should be at the top of my list as my sense of direction is truly dire.

I can get lost just crossing a road and I wish I was joking at this. So as I mentioned before, asking for directions is good, but being able to understand the response is even more important. So get these words and phrases under your belt as soon as possible. Now, food. Well, obviously, you're going to need to eat. Learn the basics so you can either ask for what you need in a specialist shop like the shops in France, for example, or to be able to read the labels in a supermarket and to order in a restaurant. One of the first tourist phrases we tend to learn is how much? Yeah, fair enough. And like the direction suggestion and the numbers previously, it's far more important to learn all possible responses so that you're not ripped off. I think these are the absolute minimum selection to learn before you go. Do let me know if I've missed anything, though. And the rest can come later and it will come much more easily once you're there and hearing the language every day, I promise. Yes, learning a foreign language becomes so much easier once you have arrived in your new country.

Now, learning a foreign language as a child. The younger the child, the quicker they pick up a new language. Studies prove that children who learn new languages from a very young age have a much better pronunciation than older kids and adults, often on a native speaker level. I think this is because they don't have the self consciousness we gain as we get older. Also, once one extra language is picked up, it seems to create pathways in the brain that means acquiring other languages later on is so much easier for them. I have seen this in action and it really is truly incredible. But my research does not extend into that scientific area. Actually, young children don't learn a language as such. They acquire a language as if by osmosis. Now, can you remember learning your native language? No, I bet you can't. You acquired it from birth. Get a kid to listen to other languages early enough and they will assimilate a good portion of it. Let me give you some specific tips on language learning for children. First of all, the younger the child, the more play based this teaching should be. I do hesitate about using the word teaching in this context as I want to emphasise the acquiring of language as seamlessly as possible, rather than formal teaching.

The more fun and casual you can make this, the better your child will move forward. Take the pressure off. If they think they're getting formal teaching, they may just switch off and not bother. As I said, flashcards do work well with children, assuming that they're old enough to read. Stick post-it notes on household items, learn the words of foodstuffs, teach numbers by counting the stairs. All fun, simple, and a natural way to gain vocabulary. If you intend to send your child to a local school in your host country, they will need to learn a hell of a lot more than these few words, though. Which leads me on to the next topic I want to cover, full immersion language learning. It's generally acknowledged that full immersion into a language is the best way to become fluent. However, this is pretty stressful and not always possible, especially if you have other commitments like parenting or work. Full immersion means diving headfirst into a country, into a culture, into a life, and into a language with no life jacket at all. Immersion means living, properly living and interacting with the language, only speaking that language. If you, as an adult, take a formal full emotion language programme, you are not allowed to speak anything other than the language you've signed up for.

You must tread water in an environment where you're not allowed to speak your mother tongue. It's not easy, but it does work. However, not everyone, as I say, is able to commit a full language immersion. But as an adult, you can choose to do this. And now I want to rant. I shall try to do it quietly. So many parents have the idea that their children will do amazingly well in a full emotion local school environment with little to no negatives about this. Full immersion language training can work extremely well for some very young children. Many expats choose to send their toddlers to local nurseries or kindergartens where the only language spoken is the local one. And without doubt, those children do learn the language very quickly indeed. But this is not always the case. And the older the child, the worse it is for them. Please do not be sucked into the, “Children are little sponges and will quickly adapt, and all kids are resilient.” These tropes are damaging. For some children, full immersion can be extremely damaging. A few years ago, I had a client who placed their 16 year old into a local language school with these beliefs in mind.

The teenager had no knowledge of the new language prior to being dropped into this school. Unfortunately, this did not have a happy ending, and the psychological damage was so severe that a lot of therapy was required, and the whole family had to move back to their home country very quickly. I can rant more, and I will. I shared this personal story on my socials recently, and I got a huge number of responses that validated my feelings. A recent conversation with my own mother threw up a very, very old, probably repressed memory for me. I was only about three years old and I couldn't understand a word anyone said to me. I could not make myself understood. I couldn't even ask to go to the bathroom, which obviously had consequences. Now, what was going on there? Well, I was born in Wales and the nursery, the kindergarten I went to there, was a Welsh language nursery school. I hated it. Even though I was so young, I can now clearly remember the discomfort, the shame, the disorientation, the confusion. The fact that I couldn't understand what anybody was saying to me made me feel dreadfully anxious.

Not naturally confident until I got a lot older, this stress would have been torture to me I'm sure. And poor little baby me. As I say, this is a very newly discovered old memory. But when I remembered it, the pain felt current. Can you imagine this full immersion language learning as an awkward tween or teenager with huge amounts of self consciousness and maybe a lack of confidence? If I felt that at two or three years old, imagine how much more difficult it would be for somebody older. Adults have the choice to do this full emotion. Adults have the life tools and experience to handle the isolation to some extent. Children do not. I know that full immersion works for some people, for some children, but as I know from clients and other contacts, it certainly does not work for everybody. And it can cause some serious mental health problems, as I mentioned just now. Following me publishing that little personal tale of woe, some expat parents reached out to me as their little ones had become selectively mute after being in a local language kindergarten. Now, I've actually met quite a few selectively mute children overseas, all of whom had been placed in a situation where they couldn't make themselves understood.

If you're not familiar with the term, selective mutism is an anxiety disorder characterised by a consistent inability to speak in specific social situations, despite being capable of speaking in other contexts. Basically, they can speak okay in their native language, but not in their new language. When a shy child is placed in full immersion language environment, there is a potential risk of mental health problems, including selective mutism. This is especially common when the child may already struggle with communication in their own language, just simply due to their very young age. That issue, that shyness, that anxiety can become bedded in for life. Please don't let your child lose their voice. Not everyone has an innate confidence to help them cope. Imagine a child who moves to a new country and is enrolled in a full, emotion language school without prior exposure to the language, they know nothing. They don't know yes, they don't know no, they don't know how to ask for the bathroom. You're going to keep coming back to that, Carole? Yeah, why not? They will feel isolated. They'll face difficulties making friends and experience emotional distress due to the language and cultural barriers they may encounter.

And that can negatively impact their learning experience for years to come. The whole point of a kindergarten is learning how to learn, not necessarily learning a language. So if you are considering moving abroad and you're thinking about putting your child into the local school with a different language, please think very, very carefully about it. Make no assumptions. Not all children are little sponges. Not all children are resilient. At the very, very least, please just make sure that they have enough of the new language in their head before going into that new school. Now, just to turn my rant on its head, because as I always say, everybody is different, blah, blah, blah. Full immersion for kids is probably the absolute best way to go about it if you're moving to that country permanently. For a start, if you're moving permanently, everyone will need to get to native level fluency at some point. Also, being in the local school will mean that they'll have local friends rather than the international school system friends who move on regularly. Remember too, you will need to be able to communicate with the school in their language. It may be extra motivation to get yourself up to speed with the language sooner rather than later.

You'll need to be able to understand the homework. You'll need to be able to understand meetings with the teachers. For this, I think it's going to be easier for me to share word for word the experience my friend went through with her children when they moved to Switzerland. From talking with so many other expats and immigrants over the years, this seems to be a fairly common experience of a local school. So her words. “I honestly think that the children have been more needy and demanding of me this past year than they ever were when they were in nappies. Sometimes I feel I've been homeschooling with the amount of support that they've needed. I have had to be very, very tough with the children, which hasn't been easy. In the first term, in particular, the children were visibly sinking with exhaustion from the language immersion. So I had to insist on bedtime being stuck to, very strictly. Sometimes that meant that by the time the homework was finished, there was very little time to unwind before bed. By Christmas, getting out of bed in the morning was a desperate struggle for them. And when they sat at the table at meal times looking as if they were too tired to bother feeding themselves, I seriously wondered if we'd done the right thing.

But they did recover. I am mentally drained, but also strangely exhilarated. This year has taken all of my inner reserves and energy, but the children have come to the end of it with local friends, extremely happy, increasingly independent, and with language skills being developed at an amazing rate of knots. So it's been worth it, even if there have been times when the gin bottle has taken a bit of a bashing. The school system is not perfect, but then show me one that is. The advantages of integration, in my view, for a family planning to stay here for good, far outweigh the disadvantages. Overall, we have had a mostly positive experience, but that is partly due to our own attitude to our surroundings and the culture in which we find ourselves. How well anyone copes with integration is, in my experience, down to parental attitude, i.e. how committed the parents are to making it work for the children.” Now back to Carole. Whilst acknowledging that ultimately this was exactly the right education for her children because they were going to live there permanently, please note the exhaustion, the mental strain for both parent and children. Each child is unique and only you know your own offspring well enough to consider how they would deal with this situation.

Even then, are you sure that you aren't projecting your own feelings, your own hopes, your own assumptions onto them? And even equally importantly, how will you deal with the needs in a language that you may not know well? Are you up to supporting them through that transition, through that full immersion training? Learning a language doesn't just mean learning new vocabulary and the rules of grammar. Oh God, grammar. Oh, flashbacks. Truly knowing a language means understanding the culture and being able to interact with others. If you don't speak the language, you will feel cut off from the country you live in. You'll feel like a tourist in your albeit temporary home. Learning a language also helps you to see the viewpoint and culture of another country's people all the better too. It's not often easy to learn a new language, but it is always worth it. And as an expat moving overseas, there are few skills that could be more valuable to you. Some people prefer to learn in a formal class, while others would rather work at it in private. Don't put too much pressure on yourself at this really busy time, especially if you're not getting it.

Think of how a baby learns their native language. They hear it first. They hear you talking to them. Next, they understand. They understand what those strange sounds mean. And then they speak. Only a word at first, mama, dada, cat, you know. And even then, their pronunciation is a bit garbled. Consider how long it is before your baby can speak in complete sentences and before they can talk about complex abstracts. It's not instant, is it? So don't expect yourself or your child to pick it all up instantly. And definitely don't expect your child to simply become bilingual overnight because you put them into a local language school. You don't need to become completely fluent, especially if you're only going to be in that country a short time. But you do need to be able to communicate. Focus on what's going to be useful for your life, not just tons of unrelated vocabulary. Not learning the language will make your everyday experiences more stressful, like going to the doctors or the dentist, shopping, or getting your car paperwork sorted. Simple things that you've always taken for granted become minefields when you're trying to navigate them in a foreign language.

Learning a language is inclusive and will open so many doors for you, as well as boosting your confidence and giving you a massive sense of achievement. Please remember not to overwhelm yourself or your child with too many expectations. Until next time, au revoir, auf Wiedersehen... I can't remember any more right now. Hah!

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