Home » How To Deal With The Language Barrier When You First Move Abroad

How To Deal With The Language Barrier When You First Move Abroad

Nothing signals culture shock quite like a language barrier. Touching down at your destination, tired and lost, being confronted by grumpy officials barking orders you can’t understand and pointing to forms covered in unrecognisable text can provoke anxiety.Even if your new job will operate in your mother tongue, living overseas will usually involve a certain amount of immersion in a foreign language. For many expats it is a case of sink or swim, picking up essential phrases as they go along.

Newly arrived expats will survive their first days in a whirlwind of tasks and administration, but over time this wears off, giving rise to more personal problems. Without the ability to chat freely, expats can feel very isolated.

Being far from friends or family, adjusting to a new job in a new culture can be a cause for both excitement and nerves. Without the ability to chat and share even the simplest interaction, expats can quickly find themselves feeling isolated and lonely.

For many expats, especially those without any previous language training, language anxiety is very real. Known as ‘xenoglossophobia’, the feeling of unease or apprehension when learning or trying to speak a new language is basically the fear of the making a fool of yourself.

Unfortunately, anyone learning a new language will make mistakes. However, bear in mind that you can’t get better at anything without learning from your errors. Anyone intending to stay in a new country long-term should see their stay as a continuous learning opportunity, revelling in opportunities to improve.

Of course, becoming fluent takes time, and fresh expats just need to get going. We’ve got some top tips for smashing through that language barrier and getting on with life.

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This doesn’t mean chest poking your conversation partner until they understand what you aggressively shout at them.

Instead it is an invitation to use the traveller’s oldest trick: pointing, shrugging and playing charades. When all else fails, rely on the fact that most helpful people are willing to translate mad gesticulations into useful answers and directions.

The use of gestures can make your meaning clearer.

Militaries working overseas often issue their troops with cards of pictures labelled in appropriate languages. Using these cards, service personnel can communicate even complex ideas with the locals.

Don’t be afraid of downloading similar picture apps onto your phone or making use of props you may have. Getting directions, for example, is easiest when you see the route traced out on a map.

Focus On What’s Important

A language barrier is a key component of culture shock. That overwhelming feeling of being lost and confused by the strangeness of everything comes when you try to do too much at once.

Trying to read every poster, listen to every tannoy announcement on public transport or understand all the TV adverts can be a recipe for frustration. The reality is, you don’t need most of the information that is being blasted at you.

Embrace The Local Culture

Your normal day-to-day activity will be filled with exposure to the local language in a chaotic, haphazard way. Learn to enjoy the language by sampling the TV, music and movies available.

Listening to music in the local language can be a great immersion experience

You don’t always need to understand the lyrics to a pop song to dance to it, and watching a DVD with subtitles on can be a fun way to pick up new vocabulary.

Turn Your Phone Into A Phrasebook

Use the notes feature on your smartphone to save words or phrases that you want to use or encounter regularly. Reminding yourself of a phrase just before you use it for real is a great way to build confidence as you go along.

Investigate Translations For Bills And Documents

Some countries with large expat populations are ready for the monoglots that need to navigate their bureaucracy.

Government departments, banks and utilities companies may offer to send letters and emails in a language of your choice. Complicated tasks can be made a little bit easier once you’ve read the instructions in a language you can understand.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask

Meet local people who have a grasp of your mother tongue, and you can make learning a two-way experience. Chat away in any combination of both languages and ask all those perplexing questions about grammar, vocabulary and culture.

Google Translate

As usual, there is an app to help work out what is going on in any interaction. Google’s ambitious translation tool aims to be a digital linguist in your hand, translating back and forth. In theory it is possible to have a whole conversation without either party needing to share a single common word.

Translation apps aren't infallible but can be helpful

In the real world, the app can struggle to keep up, making for awkward silences and some maddening mistranslations. However, there is one feature that always works well and is useful to expats. The app accesses your phone’s camera to scan texts written in foreign languages, rapidly transforming them into a semi-sensible translation. When trying to make sense of documents, directions or warning signs, give Google a go.

Bin The Textbook

All too many of us learnt languages at school in an uninspiring classroom, being told the rights and, more often, wrongs of language.

Languages evolve and change quicker than printed books can keep up. Whilst books are a great way to revise the basics of a language, day-to-day usage will vary, so use apps and speak to local people instead.


Go with those grammar goofs, embrace that awful accent and just try to enjoy learning.

Unless you plan a lifetime of learning the one language, accept the fact that you will never be totally fluent. Instead, learn to celebrate small milestones; greeting friends, ordering a meal or asking for directions in your new language are all worthy of a pat on the back, even if you are not textbook perfect.

Know Before You go

It might seem obvious, but the more familiar you can get with the language before you arrive, the better off you will be. Learning a few key phrases will help you communicate but also build the confidence you need to put new phrases into practice.

Some learners find apps like Duolingo helpful, others prefer to build up a pocketful of their own flashcards to revise from. Whatever works for you, the earlier you start, the more confident you can be when you land.