Take some classes
Once you’ve landed in your new country and got yourself settled, I’d make it one of your first priorities to start taking language classes. You’ll be able to find information from embassies, fellow expats in your area or failing that the internet. Classes are also a great way to meet fellow expats. If you don’t like classroom environments, or find them a bit daunting, I’m sure you could find a one-on-one teacher.
Find an inter-cambio
An inter-cambio (which may be a Spanish expression I have adopted but seems to fit perfectly!) is an exchange between two people who want to learn each other’s languages. So find someone who wants to learn your language (easy if you’re a native English speaker as most people want to improve their English) and then organise a time to meet each week. This can be over coffee or a walk – the idea is to make it informal. You spend half the time practising your chosen language and they spend the other time practising their English.
Whilst you’re living abroad, this is a great way to meet native speakers from your adopted country. When I was in France I had an inter-cambio and we used to swap phrases – languages are full of colloquialisms and so meeting with a native speaker is a great way to get to know the real language. I learned expressions like ‘better late than never’, ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ all those kinds of phrases which enrich our language but don’t necessarily translate directly.
Masculine or feminine?
If you’re learning a language for the first time and not used to items having a different gender then a really neat way to remember which word is masculine and which is feminine write them down in different colours. Always use one colour for the masculine and one colour for the feminine and if there’s neuter as well, one colour for the neuter. So you can go traditional, blue for masculine and red or pink for feminine and something else for neuteror do whatever you like but if you’re consistent with it then this simple method will help you remember which one is which!
Learn like a child
Language is about communication and that’s how kids learn. Kids say all kinds of funny things when they’re learning to talk but you know what they mean and eventually they get the hang of it. You can learn from the kids’ ‘just go for it’ attitude. And you can’t be afraid to make mistakes otherwise you will never speak! When you’re learning a language in situ you are learning it very much like how children learn. Yes, you will make the occasional error and maybe sometimes it will be funny and maybe other times you just can’t get yourself understood. But ultimately people will be grateful that you’re making the effort. It’s much better to try than to keep quiet as you’ll never perfect it if you don’t at least speak.
Watch TV and listen to the radio
Also, watch local television and listen to the radio as these both help drum it in. Make the effort to hang around in areas, or with people who converse in this language, rather than just spending time with your expat friends.
Don’t compare yourself with the kids!
Although I advise to speak as if you were a child learning the language, please do not compare yourself with children! If you have children you’ll notice they pick the language up really quickly as their young minds are like sponges and they have the ability to absorb so much easier than adults. A consequence of this is it can make you feel really slow. Don’t worry about that, just keep on going as you don’t want your children speaking a language you don’t understand.
Make your life easier
All the feedback I’ve ever had is you really must learn the language when you live abroad as it broadens your experience and increases your opportunities. You don’t need to become a master, but you do need to be able to communicate. Focus on what’s going to be useful for your life, not just tonnes of unrelated vocabulary.
Not learning the language will make your everyday experiences stressful – like going to doctors, shopping or getting your car paperwork done – simple things you’ve always taken for granted become minefields when you’re trying to do it in a foreign language.
Remember, learning the language is inclusive and will open so many doors for you as well as boosting your confidence and giving you a massive sense of achievement.
Have you ever lived in a foreign country where you had to learn the language? What was your experience of living there? I’d love to hear from you.