It’s weird to say, but I’ve actually lived more of my adult life outside of the US than in it. Even though I identify as one hundred percent American, when it comes to common place topics like work culture or politics I often end up prefacing my statements with “I don’t know how it is in the US right now but in (country I’m living in)…” Darn plane tickets! Someday I’ll be rich enough to visit home as often as I want.
To date we’ve lived in Korea, Japan, and now Germany. We’ve loved traveling and it has given us lots of interesting experiences and insights.
Every country we’ve gone to we’ve tried to learn the language. Why? Well, from a purely practical standpoint, not everyone speaks English! Speaking the language makes life way easier (“Where can I find the milk?” “Aisle 7.”) and allows you to have more meaningful connections with the people in your host country. Also, it makes you feel less dumb.
This is a topic not often mentioned on blogs glamorizing travel and the tech nomad lifestyle, and I wish it was. Feeling stupid is a big problem and hurdle for everyone I know (myself included), who’s lived abroad. Not knowing the language basically means you are illiterate, have a limited grasp of any given situation, and are completely dependent on someone who does speak the language. That’s right. You’re basically a three-year-old with more money and motor skills.
The Language Immersion Myth
There are many expats who are unprepared for this experience and think being immersed in a new language and culture will be a fun adventure. And it IS! But you need to be prepared for that feeling of dumbness. I think many people have this romanticized notion that they will effortlessly “pick up” the language without any overt study or effort. This is simply not true. Language learning takes time, dedication, and constant effort. So what can you do?
Simple but Important Strategies for Learning
Don’t be afraid!
The most important thing is not be afraid! Even though you may sometimes feel like that illiterate three-year-old who wants their mommy, you have to USE the language to get better. As adults, we can really hate doing things we’re not good at. But unsurprisingly, you have to start somewhere. (This may not apply to everyone. My husband is always super excited to try out his new language skills! I’m super envious of his cheerful and fearless attitude!)
See a sign? Label on your food? Advertisement on the train? Look it up! These days we almost all have smart phones, so this literally takes only seconds. Even if you aren’t saving these words to review later (which you really should), the constant repetition of common words will help you. One passive thing we like to do is turn on German subtitles for the American shows we watch. When we see new words, we either look it up in the dictionary, understand it from context, or simply ignore it completely. But we definitely learn a lot of new words this way!
Formal Study-Your way!
While you can stumble your way through copying what you hear and waiting for helpful people to correct you (this is how we all learned our native languages), everything will go faster with explicit study. People love to talk about how children learn languages so naturally without studying, but remember, it takes children 2-3 years to start talking! As adults we can (and should!) learn a lot faster by actual study.
So how do you study? I think here it’s important to understand your own personality. For me, the most effective way to learn is through formal lessons where the teacher leads me through with specific vocabulary lists, exercises, and of course, the accountability of formal lessons.
My husband is the exact opposite. He finds a reputable grammar book and flashcard app with the 3000 most common words and works his way through both with constant review and practice. He is then free to get additional study from fun sources like books and TV shows. Sadly, I lack this kind of discipline!
When we lived in Japan, I did most of my study on my own with the help of books and online resources. In Germany, I enrolled in a 6 month intensive course. The difference in my levels of fluency is night and day! I do WAY better when authority figures spoon feed me information, keep me accountable, and tell me exactly what to study every day! 🙂
Have fun with it!
I have a special love for language learning. There are moments of silliness that only you as a multi language speaker will understand! Like seeing potatoes in the grocery store labelled “extra dick” (dick means thick in German ;-))! Or the used appliance stores in Japan called Hard Off.
There are also moments of deep thought about cultural differences and communication strategies. In Japan, being indirect is considered more polite as it causes less conflict or embarrassment, whereas Germans value blunt directness so that there’s no room for misunderstanding. These nuances are what make language learning such a fulfilling part of living abroad for me.
I truly believe anyone can learn a foreign language. It may not be easy and effortless, but it’s not complicated either. You can do it!