I’ve heard a lot of misinformation about the benefits of learning a language abroad over the years.
Out of the 7 I’ve lived in, I’ve only spoken the language beforehand in 3 of them (all English-speaking). That amounts to about 2 years out of a total of 14 years. The rest of the time I’ve had to deal with the reality of learning a language from scratch.
Okay, that’s enough for me today.
My experience, both personally but also as a researcher of multilingualism in international companies (you can read more about me here), is that my everyday linguistic reality is usually quite complex.
But what expats are often told is that when you learn the language you will have a successful life abroad, and if you don’t learn the language you will suffer greatly.
The reality for many expats (or immigrants, if we want to get technical here) really isn’t that black and white.
There are a lot of grey areas on that spectrum where expats use their linguistic resources very differently depending on circumstances.
If you grew up multilingual or in a country that’s multilingual e.g. Switzerland, you already know that from experience. But multilingualism is more of an exception than the rule in this day and age (of course, that varies greatly from continent to continent).
So in this post I’m taking down the three biggest myths I’ve heard about the benefits of learning a language abroad so that we can normalize your everyday language struggles.
To be clear, I’m not propagating that you shouldn’t learn the local language. My aim is rather to give a more realistic understanding of what you truly gain (or not) from learning a language abroad.
MYTH 1: YOU CAN BECOME FLUENT IN A LANGUAGE IN A YEAR
That depends on at least three factors (but this is not a comprehensive list):
- what we mean by being fluent
- your opportunities to practice the language on a daily basis
- your linguistic baggage
So let’s take these in turn.
1. WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE FLUENT?
Well, even scholars cannot agree what being fluent in a language really means.
Does it mean the ability to get by in basic transactional situations?
Does it mean the ability to comfortably converse in the target language in all kinds of situations?
Or does being fluent mean that even locals can’t tell (or only barely notice) that you’re speaking in a foreign language?
Since fluency in a language is difficult to define, for the sake of this post, let’s agree that being fluent would mean being able to comfortably talk to anyone in a foreign language in most situations.
So when we talk about learning a language in order to become fluent, we want to reach that state where we’re not sweating profusely from trying to understand what people are saying to us or struggling to formulate our own thoughts.
So how much effort does it take for an expat to reach that state?
2. HOW MUCH CAN YOU PRACTICE THE LANGUAGE?
It is possible to become fluent (in the sense that we’ve just agreed) within a year, but only on the condition that you practice the language every single day and that you’re immersed in it day in and day out.
For instance, there’s been a huge difference for me in terms of how fluent I became in German versus Danish in the first year. Comparing these two languages is a great example because they’re from the same language tree (although the typical challenges people have with learning either one are quite different – grammar (German) vs phonetics (Danish)).
While learning German, I was completely immersed in it every single second of my day and with very few opportunities to use another language as backup. Within a year, I still had an accent but I was comfortable handling most situations in German.
Whereas with Danish, try as I might, I could barely understand what people were saying in basic transactional situations even after a year. And that’s because my everyday life was (and still is) largely in English, which was always there as a crutch.
I think you can see where I’m going with things here.
Unless you have the luxury of being surrounded by the speakers of the target language every single day with no way out, you’re not going to become fluent.
But for many expats, such a language immersion is not possible for a number of reasons.
All the more so if the language that you’re trying to learn is very different from what you’re used to, which brings us to the final factor that constrains your ability to become fluent in a year.
3. HOW DIFFERENT IS THE LANGUAGE FROM THOSE THAT YOU ALREADY SPEAK?
A further influential factor relates to how different the language that you’re trying to learn is from the language(s) you already speak.
Each language has its own logic. It takes time to understand that logic and how it relates (or not) to the languages that you already know.
If it’s relatively close to what you already speak, you’re able to make connections between different languages faster and expand your vocabulary.
But if you have to learn an entirely new alphabet or a grammatical system, you’re going to have to invest a whole lot more time than you anticipated to become fluent.
We should also not overlook the fact that we’re all different.
Not everyone is a language person and so, for some, learning a new language is something that will never come naturally (but that shouldn’t stop you from moving abroad if that’s you).
My main point with taking down the myth that you can become fluent in a language in a year is that it’s dependent on so many variables.
The process of learning a language abroad is far from a linear and one-size-fits all experience, which is worth keeping in mind when you’ve been toiling away learning whichever language for some time now.
MYTH 2: YOU’LL GET A JOB EASIER IF YOU SPEAK THE LANGUAGE
Yes and no.
Finding a job abroad is definitely easier when you already speak the local language.
But there’s more to it than that, so let’s break this down.
YES, YOU’LL FIND A JOB EASIER IF YOU SPEAK THE LOCAL LANGUAGE
This applies to areas where you don’t have any international companies and the city or town where you’ve decided to live is rather monolingual.
Your only option in such a scenario is indeed to learn the language in order to find a job.
End of story.
NO, YOU WON’T FIND A JOB EASIER IF YOU SPEAK THE LOCAL LANGUAGE
This is where things get a bit murky.
Because it’s not always just about the practical ability to speak about a language.
In order to be taken seriously as a professional in a foreign language, you will also need to overcome any prejudice against foreigners or the stereotypes associated with the particular accent that you have (we all have one!).
Even if you’re pretty fluent but you have an Eastern European accent (broadly speaking here), you’re going to be up against stereotypes about Eastern Europeans.
Even if you’re pretty fluent but you don’t use the right expressions or style of communicating which indicate cultural understanding, then you’re going to be seen as a bad fit for that company.
These are just two examples out of many.
But what they have in common is that being able to express yourself in a foreign language is not all there is to it.
How you’re perceived as a foreign language speaker, and the prejudice and stereotypes that your audience has about your origins, can really make or break your ability to get a job.
It’s not fair but it does happen.
What makes such linguistic discrimination all the more tricky is the fact that it’s not condoned in the same way as racism or ethnocentrism (and we all know that having legislation around these don’t really stop it from happening on an everyday basis either).
We of course need to tread carefully around labelling certain experiences as linguistic discrimination, as with any kind of discrimination.
But broad scale studies e.g. in the UK and Denmark have shown that employers can make a lot of unwarranted assumptions about candidates based on accents and communicative style – even if the candidates are otherwise fluent speakers of the foreign language and even perfect for the position.
So no, being pretty fluent in a language is not the magic key to the job market.
It helps, but it doesn’t fix everything.
MYTH 3: YOU’LL MAKE LOCAL FRIENDS EASIER IF YOU LEARN THE LANGUAGE
I’ve written about the struggle of making local friends before.
There’s a very widely circulating myth that learning the local language leads to locals being more willing to become friends with you.
Sure, some locals will definitely be more open towards you once the language barrier has been removed.
But it doesn’t mean that the usual barriers of being seen as a foreigner are somehow magically removed.
I’ve experienced this in every. single. country. that I’ve lived in.
And my success rate, if I can put it like that, of making local friends has not been higher in places where I already spoke the language to a comfortable degree.
I’ve been successful at making local friends only when I’ve met local people that have a certain openness to those who want to live in their country.
These locals can be open because they’ve lived abroad themselves, because they’re genuinely a people-person, or because they just really really like you as a person.
But being fluent in the local language on its own does not make you more interesting or relevant as a potential friend.
Being fluent in the local language only means that you’re able to communicate and get to know each other without a major language barrier.
But it’s not a magic pill that makes you more desirable as a potential friend.
How has learning the local language worked out for you in your expat life? Let me know in the comments below.
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.