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Survival Language: 5 ways to fit in a like a local

survival language - fit in like a local expat

Unless you’re moving to a country within the Anglosphere, there’s a good chance that you’re going to have to try and communicate in a foreign language. The odds are that you may have had an opportunity to learn a language at school, but does that mean you should only consider moving to a country where you understand some of the language. Learning survival language before you get on the plane can be one of the most rewarding experiences you can engage in.

survival language
Knowing even a smattering of the local language will benefit you in so many ways. Two  of the main ways are:

Respect from the Locals:

In many places around the world, foreigners who try and get by in their native language are often looked down upon. Also, if you’re buying goods from a local market, you will almost certainly be overcharged. If you want to be a “respected expat”, you need to know some basic phrases. Locals will be friendlier and you’ll have a better time.

Easier Logistics:

As an expat you are not going to lock yourself up in a hotel or your home abroad. You’ll want to get out and about and experience the culture. Knowing how to speak to taxi drivers, bus drivers and even the local folks on the street will help you find your way around, and settle into your adopted country. There is little worse than standing on a busy street pointing at a map trying to make yourself understood. Some basic language skills are going to help you save time and stress.

The Top 5 Ways to Build Up Your Survival Language

#1 – Books Won’t Help

Although for longer term study, books are and always have been a useful tool for learning, but for quick, solid survival language, they won’t help anywhere near as much as audio tools.

Listening to basic dialogues in your target language will help you pick up key phrases and intonation. They also allow you to hear how each word is pronounced. One of the major issues when learning with a book is that you often learn words without context, and words can change when used in different situations.

A good example of this is in Mandarin Chinese. Learning basic numbers is one of the first things most expats do. Consider the number “one”. In Chinese, it is written as “一” and pronounced “yi  But very few books will tell you that when you are giving a phone number or address it is pronounced completely differently as “yao”. It’s a subtle point, but a necessary one. Actually listening to dialogues will give you a better chance of bot speaking and understanding the language.

Many expats recommend the Pimsleur audio courses. They are based on simple survival conversations and are available in many languages.  Alternatively, Rocket Languages is also very popular amongst expats wanting to get their employees to a minimum level of language competency.

#2 – Set a Schedule

As with any goal, making sure that you set aside enough time to study and practice is a key requirement. As soon as you know where you’re going, start studying! Put aside some time on a daily basis where you can get some exposure to your target language. Download your Pimsleur audio course onto your iPhone and listen to it during your daily routines, such as: on the train to work, walking the dog, jogging or any time of day when you don’t need to mentally focus.

Make sure that your study schedule is divided into manageable units. Don’t try and overbalance time with frequency e.g. have longer study sessions but less frequently. Frequency is the trick to language retention, so make sure that you set a daily time no matter how short it may be.

survival language local expat

#3 – Find an Exchange Group

Do you know who the best person to practice a new language with is? Someone who speaks that language as a native. You don’t have to wait until you’re in-country to start chatting with a native speaker, there are many free language exchange websites around which you can use to improve your skills. Not only can you use a language exchange to practice day to day to language skills, you can also use them to find out the inside scoop on the country you’re going to.

Language exchange programs and websites are a fantastic way to make friends and contacts. Imagine that when you arrive in your new country, you’ll already have a friend to meet for coffee! Chatting with friends is the best way to pick up language in a natural way, you’re speech patterns will sound genuine, your pronunciation will be better and you’ll be using real language as opposed to “school book language”.

You can probably find a group to practice your newly acquired language skills through the local Internations chapter.

#4 – Key Elements of Survival Language

Whether you’re going to be abroad for a short time or a long one, there are key elements of the language that you’ll need.

  • Introducing yourself to others and understanding their responses.
  • Numbers: How to ask for the cost of something or checking the time.
  • Directions: Getting safely to where you’re going.
  • Asking for help with something: Basic question phrases to help you in day to day living. Such as: booking into a hotel, checking instructions for transport etc…
  • Ordering food: Knowing what things are, being polite, conducting the transaction.

If you focus your study time on the survival aspects, you’ll be better prepared than if you were to focus on a more structured language course. There are certain things that you’ll need to do in every country, by learning these first, it will be easier to communicate and navigate without getting stressed.

#5 – Be Brave

The greatest piece of advice for any language learner is: Don’t be afraid to open your mouth. Listening to audio courses will help you understand the language. Course books and dictionaries will help you get a grip on the vocabulary and sentence structure. But real communication can only take place if you open your mouth and actually try speaking the language.

There is no need to worry that people will misunderstand you. Most locals will be impressed that you’re even trying. The more effort you put into communicating, the more likely people are to go out of their way to help you. The more mistakes you make will help you develop as a speaker, learning from the mistakes and making small changes is a lot easier than learning a massive chunk of language and readjusting the whole thing.

Above all, when you live in another country and try to engage in the language, you’re showing respect to the nation and the people. You’re telling them that you’re open to their language and way of living and that you don’t come as a pure tourist looking to take but not give. Your experience will be more rewarding for the effort you’ve put in; there is little quite like the thrill of navigating your first conversation successfully. Be a local, not a tourist.

This article is written by Mark Angelides. Mark is a writer and educator who has lived in China for the last 8 years.

The Australian Expat Investor may receive referral commissions from companies mentioned in this article.


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