Moving Abroad Survival Tip #3: Learn The Language.
No matter who you are, no matter what country you are going to, your life is going to be infinitely easier if you learn at least a little bit of the language.
When we moved to Honduras, I didn’t have to worry about language barriers. I studied abroad in Spain when I was 20, I majored in Spanish in college, and I had received several months of intensive language training for my job. I was, for all intents and purposes, completely fluent in Spanish. So when we arrived, I had all of the normal stresses of moving to a new country, but I never had to worry about being able to communicate. In all of our time living there, I never had a problem due to language. (There were plenty of other problems, but that’s another story!)
Fast forward a few years to when we moved to Austria, and my world was turned upside down.
I didn’t receive language training prior to coming to Austria, and I was so busy with a newborn that I didn’t take the time to study on my own. So when we arrived here, in addition to the normal stresses of moving, I didn’t speak a word of German. Not. A. Word.
The first morning we were here, I realized that I didn’t even know how to say good morning. Looking back now, I cannot believe that I didn’t at least get a little German phrasebook and learn the basics. But everyone kept telling me that everyone in Vienna speaks English. And while that may be true downtown, or in the touristy areas, it isn’t the case out where we live. So here I was in Vienna, completely baffled as to how I was going to survive without speaking German.
If you find yourself in the same boat, here are a few suggestions for picking up enough of the language to survive:
Google Translate is Your Best Friend
It isn’t a substitute for actually learning the language, but the Google Translate app will become your best friend. Especially when you are trying to read a menu, for example, or find something specific in the grocery store. Yes, I was that crazy person in the grocery store walking down the aisle translating every label until I found what I was looking for. But until I learned the vocabulary I needed, it was a life saver. And even after you feel completely comfortable in the new language, you are always going to come across words that you don’t know.
Get The Apps
If you can take a language class with a real teacher, by all means, do it! If, however, your schedule doesn’t allow for a live language class, there are a ton of apps that can help you learn on your own.
A few of my favorite apps for learning a new language:
Duolingo | This is one of the most popular language learning apps in the world. You can start at the very beginning, or test out to a higher level if you already have a bit of familiarity with the language. Set a daily goal for yourself, and Duolingo will send you reminders to complete your lessons. You can even compete with friends to give you more incentive to keep up with your studies.
Eton Institute Onboard | This app is available in dozens of different languages, geared towards travelers. It will give you the basic phrases and vocabulary that you need upon arrival, plus cultural tips, which is great for learning the regional language differences. They also offer a phrasebook app for each language that goes a bit more in depth.
Memrise | Memrise is a memorization tool, and helps you to memorize words and phrases through repetition. Like Duolingo, you can set a daily goal for yourself and Memrise will send you notifications to complete your daily lesson. You have to start at the beginning, though, so this may be annoying if you already have a base in the language.
MindSnacks | Fun visual games that help reinforce vocabulary. I think MindSnacks is better for a language that you already have a bit of familiarity with, so it is best to use after you have learned a bit with one of the other apps. They also offer language lessons that you can purchase, but the games are free.
As much as you can, watch tv or movies in your target language, with subtitles or without. I don’t watch tv myself, but my kids watch cartoons in German, and it is amazing the vocabulary you can learn through tv shows. Even just hearing it in the background has helped me with certain words and phrases. I know quite a few people who have learned English completely by watching tv.
No, not language classes, although those are great, too. Just any class that interests you that is in your target language. The gym that I go to offers some amazing group fitness classes. I quickly learned my numbers (I definitely want to know how many reps I have left!) as well as other words such as up, down, front, back, again, more, exactly, and all of the body parts. Fitness classes are great because you can stand in the back and follow along until you learn what the teacher is saying, and no one will even know that you don’t speak the language.
There is no substitute for actual conversations with native speakers. And you are lucky enough to be surrounded by native speakers. Until you are at the point where you can converse completely in your new language, ask your friends to teach you new words. Try out new phrases that you have learned. Ask for clarification on anything you don’t quite understand. Most people are happy to share their language with you.
Fortunately, I have come a long way, and now feel relatively comfortable in any situation that I find myself in. I can’t carry on a full conversation yet, but I have the vocabulary needed for all of my daily activities.
It can be very frustrating, so be patient, and be kind to yourself as you are learning. And when all else fails, smile and nod your head.