• Karla Fraser

Do I Need to Learn a Language to Live Overseas?

Essential Words and Phases can build Understanding

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You have been thinking of moving abroad, but your less-than-positive language experiences have you thinking twice. No need to be overwhelmed, learning the local language or dialect is not always a necessity for a move to all countries. Yes, not knowing the language can you get frustrated, whether you’re at the grocery store or completing paperwork. But let’s face it; you have some of those same nuances at home now. So wouldn’t you rather be living abroad and gain experience, and learn a new language or at least the pleasantries? When people talk about learning a language, they often forget to mention that it is hard work. Not everyone is a natural linguist. So, you may experience challenges in learning, and no one will mention this until after you start experiencing them. Let me advise right now.


What did you Say?

As expats, we do not always move to a location for which we speak the language, be it the official or any of the local dialects. So, with more than roughly 6,500 languages spoken all over the world today, it is likely you might have some challenges. Even if you are fortunate to move from one Spanish-speaking nation to another, word context, pronunciation, or meaning can be different in the same language. Look at English, the official language of the majority in the USA, UK, and Australia. It also has content and pronunciation variations. At the opposite end of the spectrum, you could be moving from Angolan Portuguese to Mandarin-speaking Shanghai. I say all this to say; there will be misunderstandings, miscommunications, and misinterpretations.


Many conscientious expats make it a goal to learn the official language or even a dialect. Yes, you want to integrate and communicate well in your host country. However, the expectations are more challenging than the reality as some languages may not be easy to learn even with language apps and/or a native tutor. In many cases, you are balancing your earnest desire to learn the local language with a job, and in some cases, family. Thus it is not uncommon that the study of language tends to fall off the radar. This was my case of attempting to learn Arabic while in a demanding job in the UAE.


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So, you do not have to give up entirely on this goal of bridging the miscommunication gap. Taking small steps can help. Try a few of these:

  • Learn common words before you move to a new country.

  • Take an intensive language class upon arriving in the first 30-60 days. If not, learn some quick conversational basics.

  • Have colleagues or local friends teach common phases that are easily understandable.

  • Learn once a week over lunch or after work with a tutor.

  • Watch TV, movies, or videos in the language you are learning. At first with subtitle, then not.

  • If all else fails, turn to the latest advances in translation apps and a mini pocket dictionary.


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In summing it all up…

Learning a new language for some is a formidable task. To be open, I have not learned any of the languages of the countries I have lived beyond the daily pleasantries. Granted, learning a language also requires intention, and I just could not make it a priority. I have also been fortunate to be in places that English was widely open or attempted, especially with expats. As we know, speaking with travelers or expats is a great way for nationals to practice their English.


When learning a language, you have to stay active in speaking it, or it becomes dormant in your brain. You can fall behind in speaking and understanding. I was once close to being fluent in Spanish but now I am back to being a beginner.


Learning the language of your location can be an asset in your settling-in process. Knowing the local language or dialect increases your transformative experience of living and working overseas.


But do not let your lack of knowledge or inability to grasp it quickly deter you from your journey abroad.


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If you enjoyed this story about your personal crisis management while overseas, then please comment as well as share it on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. Thank you!

—Karla A. Fraser, Do I Need to Learn a Language to Live Overseas?, Roseapple Global, LLC

At Roseapple Global, we provide specialized services in expat career coaching and guidance for individuals or groups.  We also offer to consult for the administrative and operational areas of campus/student life and student services units at higher education institutions internationally. Contact Us

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