Is it possible to get by living in a foreign country without knowing the language? Yes, absolutely.
Is it going to be easy? No, not necessarily. But there is a way to make life easier for yourself.
Continue reading if learning the local language is not an option for you and you’d like to have an easier time living abroad without knowing the local language.
This post is part of a series of posts on language issues while living abroad. In Part I I talked about the question whether you should learn the local language, and what to do if learning the language is not an option for you.
Maybe you’re in the country temporarily, maybe you’ve just arrived, maybe it’s taking you a lot longer than you thought to learn the local language, or maybe it’s just difficult for you to dedicate time to learning the language. Regardless of your circumstances, as expats, we still need to get by in our day-to-day life in a foreign language country.
No matter what, it’s inevitable that you’d have to acquire some kind of vocabulary so you can at least navigate your life abroad a tiny bit better.
But in your case, the goal is not to become fluent or even good enough. The goal is to get by in key situations.
So rather than learn to speak and understand a language across all situations, you would be targeting and prioritizing which vocabulary you would need most in order to get by.
My experience with living abroad without knowing the language
I’ve moved to a country where I didn’t speak the language four times. Three of those were relatively long-term moves (German-speaking and French-speaking Switzerland, and Denmark where I live today) and one was a temporary one (Portugal for 3 months).
Although I have a good head for learning languages (which is offset by my complete inability to do the most basic of calculations), there is still a considerably long period where I don’t have a damn clue about what it says on the labels in grocery stores or on public transportation notice boards.
You would think that a serial expat would feel completely at ease everywhere from the very first moment. Well, that is far from the truth.
To some extent, starting over (even in a foreign language) and navigating a foreign country does become a kind of a routine over time. But just because I have some experience doesn’t mean it is somehow easier for me than anyone else.
The truth is that the first weeks and months of living in a foreign country (sometimes even visiting!) genuinely gives me a throbbing headache.
It’s such an intense experience of too many impressions and too much information. On top of that, in a language that I may not even speak.
But it’s completely unproductive to get bogged down by feeling overwhelmed (and if that isn’t sound life advice in general, I don’t know what is).
Rather, over time I have worked out a routine which helps me get by surrounded by a foreign language and get on my feet faster.
So let me share my routine with you so you too can live in a foreign country without knowing the language.
Prepare for the ‘language scenarios’ where you can’t get by without knowing the language
Especially in the early days or months, these scenarios for me always include:
- Using public transporation (buying tickets, reading schedules and signs)
- Asking for directions (in case Google Maps somehow fails me)
- Reading street signs
- Buying groceries
- Reading documents (rental agreements etc.)
- Dealing with bureaucracy (getting a bank account, residence permit etc.)
Later on, further scenarios often come up which require a different kind of vocabulary:
- Understanding the gist of work emails that are in a foreign language
- Dealing with doctors or buying medicine from a pharmacy
- (Still) dealing with bureaucracy (paying bills, subscriptions etc.)
- Buying essentials or new products
- Reading menus in restaurants
- Giving instructions to a taxi driver
- Gym membership and following the instructions in gym classes
- Being polite to strangers or telling people to stop harassing me (sadly, welcome to the world of being a woman!)
These are the situations that I have always encountered living in foreign countries. Of course, you may have others that are more relevant for your lifestyle, but the above list does cover the basics.
Being at least somewhat prepared for these ‘language scenarios’ helps me focus my language learning in the early days and months, especially when my goal is not to become fluent or even proficient but just to get by.
In order to prepare myself for these language scenarios, I use a combination of three basic tricks.
1. Build a handy little ‘image vocabulary’ in your phone
I like to take pictures of signs, labels on food items, instructions etc.
I then translate them on the spot with Google Translate (if possible) or later in my own time. Sometimes I also ask a stranger around me for help with translation. I keep those pictures for future reference when I might need that vocabulary again (but mostly also because I have a visual memory).
Keeping an image vocabulary in my phone allows me to free up some much-needed headspace while I try to get settled in a new routine.
For instance, buying groceries is always a nightmare for me.
I always take forever the first few weeks in a grocery store. It’s partially because I’m trying to orient myself in the store (it’s amazing how differently supermarkets can be organized from country to country!).
But it’s partially also because I take my time going through the aisles. I take pictures of things I’m not entirely sure about, and of things that are familiar to me but obviously labeled in a foreign language.
On the basis of this image vocabulary, I slowly build up my vocabulary of food labels and ingredients until these new words become an active part of my basic vocabulary.
If this sounds like a strange approach, I’m actually not alone in it. Just have a look at Discover Discomfort’s handy suggestions for how to get by with a small vocabulary in key situations while traveling the world.
2. Pay attention to frequently used expressions and signs
Once you get over the first few days or months of impression overload, you’ll start to notice expressions or signs that come up over and over again.
If you really want to get by without actually learning the language, make a note of these reoccurring expressions or take pictures of these signs for your image vocabulary.
In fact, most of language learning takes place through repeated encounters with the same words and expressions. The more we see/hear them, the easier they’ll stick with us.
You can also expose yourself to more of these frequently used expressions or signs by watching shows and movies in the local language.
This probably sounds like generic advice but you’ll want to be more single-minded about what you’re looking for when you watch shows or movies in the local language.
Rather than train your ear to become used to the sound of the new language, look out for situations in the shows or movies that you are likely to encounter in your daily life. Pay most attention to:
- What do the characters say to each other in specific situations that are relevant for you?
- What words or expressions do they use in those situations?
As you’re watching, your goal is not to be able to follow everything that is being said in the show or movie. You’re looking to understand the language in the specific situations that are relevant for your life abroad.
Prioritizing learning commonly used expressions accelerates your ability to navigate basic situations because you will hear those expressions being used around you also.
As a result, you will also have an easier time recognizing what’s going on around you, even if you don’t understand every word.
In order to get by in situations that matter to you, you really don’t need to know more than the basics.
Just make sure you write your new vocabulary down in a notebook or a digital device of your choice.
3. Participate in a basic language course without the goal of becoming fluent or proficient
Many people think that taking a language course means that your aim should be becoming a competent speaker, if not fluent.
Well, I’m here to tell you that you can take a language course without having either of those as your goals.
Taking a basic language course simply gives you a bit more of a boost in understanding basic things that may be going on around you. Yes, it’s a time and money investment, but so is building an image vocabulary.
For instance, in the French-speaking Switzerland and in Portugal I only took language classes in the first two basic levels in French and Portuguese.
Even though I was by no means able to speak those languages beyond some basic expressions after finishing those classes, having this basic knowledge of the grammar and some vocabulary helped me so much in navigating certain common language scenarios and getting a sense of what was going on around me.
For me, that was enough to get by living abroad without knowing the language inside out.
What are your tips for living abroad without knowing the language? 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.