Many of you expats will find yourself in the same situation that I am in: living in a country whose language is different from that of your home country. And many of you will be faced with the decision of whether to try to learn that language or not. In my opinion, and in my experience, it is well worth your while to consider taking up this new language.
Perhaps you studied this language before you moved. In that case you’ve got a head start. But maybe the last time you studied it was back in school, and at the time you did not consider it very relevant, so you were not paying a lot of attention. Some of you have not even taken a single course yet. Perhaps all you have done is memorized a few phrases from a travel guide, and since moving, you have had a chance to try out your pronunciation while buying train tickets or shopping.Whether you have experience with this foreign language or not, now is definitely the time to sign up for classes. Depending on where you are currently living, many governments offer free or subsidized language classes. But if not, you should explore your new neighborhood and check out what kind of local language schools are available, or go over to nearby universities and see if you can sign up for a language class there.
Many people back in your home country will pay top dollar for language immersion courses—that is, for the chance to be in an environment where they have to speak another language all day for several days or weeks in a row. You are lucky enough to already find yourself in that situation. Every day offers you opportunities to practice. You might as well make the most of this “total immersion” experience you find yourself in.
Of course, to make it more like a “total immersion” experience, you have to make sure you don’t only speak this new language in the classroom. What you need is a language exchange group or partner so you can practice in an informal setting.
Here in Madrid, there are many language exchange groups, called intercambios. They usually meet at bars after work once a week. There are so many of these groups that there are usually several being held on any given night around the city. The idea is that you find people who will speak to you in their native language for half the time, and then the other half of the time you speak to them in your native language. That way, everyone gets a chance to try out their language skills.
The advantage of going to an intercambio is that you get to try out what you learned in the classroom, but in a social setting. Your language teacher at the school probably slows down a bit so students can understand what is being said; but the people at an intercambio usually have little or no experience teaching languages, so they tend to talk at a normal pace. You get to hear it spoken with its natural rhythms and inflections, in the local accent. It’s quite a challenge in the beginning, but you will get the hang of it.
Another great advantage of going to a language exchange group is that you get to meet local people. Your experience as an expat will be greatly enriched if you reach out and meet people in your adopted country, but sometimes that is easier said than done. The people who have come to an intercambio are not only interested in learning your language but also curious about your culture and open to meeting foreigners.
Of course, learning a language is not just a great way to meet local people and enrich your overall expat experience. It also looks great on your résumé. Speaking a new language is a skill that you can take back with you if you ever return to your home country. If you are not planning on returning, then this skill will help you find a good job in your adopted country.
Overall, there are many advantages that make learning the local language well worth your time.
Sheila is a freelance translator, editor, writer, and serial blogger who has been in Madrid long enough to consider herself a permanent Madrileña.
Read Sheila's other Expat Focus articles here.