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Over a period of roughly the last 200 years, English has become the global international language in just about every domain of human endeavour.

It is also a fact that prior to moving overseas most expats will have had little experience of foreign life other than through taking holidays abroad.

Apart, perhaps, from some specialist breaks or adventure excursions, the vast majority of such holidaymakers inevitably spend the bulk of their time in hotels and locations that exist to service the tourist market. It is therefore quite natural to find that many of the local people in these tourist locations speak passable English or at least have some basic understanding of it.

These two facts together lead to problematic assumptions for some expats and the creation of some common myths, namely:

- Everybody overseas speaks (some) English.
- Everybody overseas understands (some) English.
- Everyone overseas wants to speak/understand English.

If one believes the above three things to be true, then the natural conclusion is that learning the local language is a luxury one can afford to ignore.

Nothing could be further from the truth!

Except for some Mediterranean destinations in Spain and Portugal, comparatively few expats settle in tourist locations. Upon arrival they can therefore be unpleasantly surprised to find that the local people do NOT speak or understand English. If the local area and economy exists to serve a local population as opposed to holidaymakers or an expat enclave, then people that speak English to any extent may be hard to find.

This does, of course, vary somewhat by destination. In Scandinavia and the more northern European destinations, English has been extensively taught in schools for many generations and a large number of people can speak at least some English.

In central and Eastern Europe the position is different. Historically, many countries here used German or Russian as their second language and although English is rapidly replacing them as the cross-border tongue, the expat may nevertheless find that it is not widely spoken outside of professional circles.

In Western Europe, in countries such as France, Spain, Italy and Portugal, in non-tourist areas, it may well be difficult to find anyone who knows more than “Good Morning” or “Thank You” in English. This also applies in south Eastern Europe, the Balkan countries and Greece.

In many countries in north and central Africa, French is still the most widely spoken second language. Once again this is changing but in vast areas English is largely unknown.

From the Middle East through to the sub-continent, South East Asia and China, the legacy of old colonialism, imperialism and the more recent phenomenon of tourism means that English is more widely understood but again this may be only by professional or commercial people.

The main fact for the expat to grasp is that in very large areas of the world, and particularly outside of major centres or professional environments, English is not going to help you much.

Initially this may not be apparent. Whether you are renting or buying, usually the estate or letting agency will wheel in an English-speaking salesperson to smooth the deal. Many solicitors or notaries will also speak some English – particularly if they regularly conduct house sales with English speaking expat buyers.

All this can lull one into a false sense of security, because on day-1 of your arrival these people will vanish and you will be on your own!

This need not be a big problem in some situations. Going in to a local shop to buy a kilo of potatoes can seem like a major obstacle but with pointing and plenty of smiles, you’ll get through. Smiling and playing ‘the helpless foreigner’ are universally understood behaviours and usually generate friendly and helpful responses from local people.

Unfortunately, these communication problems become less amusing when dealing with officialdom or bureaucracy. Expats trying to get their utilities connected in some countries, for example, are often shown little sympathy by tired and overworked call centre employees when their first question is “do you speak English?”

There are many situations where a lack of local language skills can cause trouble. Perhaps you’ve gone to see your doctor for an appointment only to realise you have no way of describing what’s wrong with you. Possibly your local school has just telephoned with what you presume is an urgent message about your child but you can’t understand what they’re saying. That caller at your front door you sent packing with the message “not today thanks” may in fact have been a meter reader with a legal right of entry. The first you know about the gigantic new electric pylon going up outside your front door is the day it is erected - because you couldn’t read the ‘request for objections’ announcement in the local press/town hall.

As these examples indicate, expats need to think seriously about learning the local language!

This should not only be thought about in the content of problem solving but more positively in the context of opportunity. If you have moved overseas to fully experience another country, it will be difficult to achieve this goal if you cannot speak the local language, watch local TV, read the local newspapers or even have a conversation with your immediate neighbours.

It is true that not everyone has the same ability when it comes to learning a language. Some are naturally gifted while others have to work harder at it. It is also true that age can play a part - children and younger adults usually find it easier to become proficient in another language than older adults.

Whatever your situation, there is rarely an excuse for not even trying to learn the local language. Many expats, particularly those that are slightly older, are put off by their recollections of school-based language teaching. This is unnecessary as both methods and media have changed over recent years. There is now more emphasis on conversation than the learning of strict grammatical rules and this helps almost anyone pick up some useful language skills very quickly.

If possible, it is usually a good idea to start studying before you leave for your new country. Through conventional tapes, CDs and now interactive PC programs, there is a vast amount of choice available in home-study courses for just about every language. Doing some evening classes may yield even better results as conversing with others is highly effective in terms of both learning and building confidence. You may also find language chat room sections on many expat websites that give you the chance to practice your new language.

It is also worth checking out the embassy of the country you are moving to. It probably has its own web site which will often have information on language courses that are local to you in your country of origin.

The ultimate objective is to arrive in your new country with at least a few basic phrases and words as well as the ability to understand a few things that may be said to you. Once you arrive, this effort must be continued and expanded upon. Visit your local town hall who will normally have information on local courses or people who provide private language training for expats. Some government sponsored courses may even be free or if not, are usually very reasonably priced.

Once settled in, try to make the effort to watch at least one hour of local TV every day – the news, current affairs programmes, soap operas or even children’s TV are all good candidates. Buy the local newspaper and armed with a dictionary, make the effort to read at least 1-2 pages of it per day initially, building up to the whole paper over time. Make the effort to get out to local establishments such as bars, shops and social events so that your can practice and improve your knowledge of the language.

The good news is that most expats admit to being surprised how quickly they pick up at least some of the local language and with a bit of hard work, this can be expanded over a year or two into a basic but effective conversational level familiarity. Frequent humiliations will be inevitable but will almost always be something that you and the locals can laugh about together!

If you work hard at it, you will find that as your familiarity grows you will start to feel a little more like a ‘local’ and are able to enjoy your new life, country and culture just that bit more. Speaking the local language will help you to integrate and feel more comfortable when out-and-about and the sense of achievement experienced when you start communicating with local people in their own language can be remarkable.

If nothing else, think of it as a courtesy to your new local neighbours and friends. Most people everywhere, to some degree, are proud of their culture and its heritage. Remember that constantly refusing to make a serious effort to learn the language may be seen as an insult to them and their culture. What they may find acceptable from a two-week holidaymaker is one thing; what they believe is appropriate from people that move to their country is entirely different.

Of all the hints and tips in this book, the suggestion to learn and use the local language is perhaps the most important. This one thing alone may make all the difference between a successful expat experience and one characterised by isolation and loneliness. Make the effort and enjoy yourself in the process!


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