Learning a Language as an Expat

Published 2021-07-28 11:08:05
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Sponsored by Tutor House

We're all familiar with the classic line: if you want to become fluent in a language, go and live in the country where it is spoken. Immersion is the key to proficiency. Many of us would agree with this. Living in the home of your target language means constantly hearing it being spoken around you which, in turn, guarantees on-demand opportunities for you to practice. Great news for expats, right? However, the question of how language learning relates to living abroad is a more complex one than it seems. In order to improve your linguistic skills as much as possible during your time as an expat, it is essential to avoid the trap of assuming that a mere ‘acte de présence' in the country will skyrocket you to fluency. To properly understand the expat's language conundrum, a few home truths are necessary.

Limited progress at work

The surprising reality is that it is possible to live in a country while not actually being exposed to the language in very much depth. It's all too easy for expats to waste the opportunity for full immersion that is so crucial for language progression. You may be able to carry out daily tasks such as shopping and eating out, which involve superficial conversation skills at best. But if you work in an environment which really only requires you to communicate in your native tongue - which many anglophone expats do - chances are it won't be too difficult for you to get through an average day without speaking the language of the country you're living in at all.

This has been even more prevalent over the past year when the pandemic has demonstrated to us - albeit in a pretty exceptional manner - just how possible it is to live our lives with minimal social contact. Even if you are lucky enough to speak your target language at work, shop talk can present a relatively narrow sphere of exposure to the language. While living in France, I briefly worked in a bakery. Although I learnt, quite possibly, every piece of French bread-related vocabulary under the sun, the sophistication of my overall lexicon remained pretty static during my employment there.

Expat bubbles

This means that, when it comes to language progression, a lot of emphasis has to be put on your life outside work. However, success here isn't necessarily guaranteed either. We may all fantasise about having a rich, diverse social life while abroad, surrounded by natives of the country we're in. But this vision is not always easy to obtain.

Being a foreigner can get pretty lonely at times. It can be very challenging to make friends, especially ones who are willing to speak to you in a language you may lack confidence in. This means that many find themselves retreating into the dreaded ‘expat bubble'. Once we're settled into a familiar group of fellow expats, we tend to make less effort to properly integrate and practice the language with native speakers.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

So, what's the solution?


The first step is to expose yourself to multiple different social contexts and environments. This will help you ensure you're absorbing as many uses of the language as possible. Actively seeking these out will mean stepping outside your comfort zone, which can be a little intimidating - no one ever said serious language learning was for the faint of heart. But it's all part of the rich adventure that is expat life.

Be creative! Experimentalism is key to ensuring you come at the language from as many different angles as possible. Insert yourself into new conversational settings as part of your day-to-day, for example, by speaking to shop assistants about what they're selling (small bookshops are especially good for this). Other routes may require a little more organisation. Volunteering in a sector that interests you, for example, or going to the theatre. You could even go and watch public debates or trials - everyone loves a bit of legal vocab!

Break out of the expat bubble

No one's suggesting you drop all your expat friends. But it is vital to prioritise stepping out of the expat bubble on a regular basis if you want your language skills to improve. There are various ways of making sure you're surrounded by native speakers outside work. For example, if you're moving abroad solo - to Spain, let's say - look for a Spanish housemate; ideally somebody willing to be sociable and perhaps introduce you to their friends.

Language exchange events will also help you meet people. Yes, you'll only be speaking your target language for half the time during these events but 50% is better than nothing! Plus, it may lead to more long-term friendships that will hopefully allow you to speak their language more often than they speak yours. 

Old-school language study

This final piece of advice involves going back to basics and hitting the books. A lot of expats make the mistake of assuming that, because they're living full-time in the country, they never need to open a grammar book again. I disagree with this assumption, and this is where a bit of mild language learning controversy creeps in. There are those who suggest that, if you're surrounded by native speakers, a second language can be mastered with virtually zero understanding of grammar (they will often use childhood language acquisition as the cornerstone of their argument). I am by no means denying that this is within the realms of possibility. Expats absorbing, and successfully reproducing, the language that is spoken around them with minimal theoretical knowledge is certainly not unheard of. However, most adults will not achieve fluency in this way. And that's ok! 
I cannot stress this enough: grammar is your friend. Do not give into those seductive demons that tell you it is no longer necessary to focus on grammar once you become an expat. Yes, the speaking and listening practice provided by immersion is essential for improving your level in a language. But a solid understanding of grammatical structures will allow you to progress quicker and with far more efficiency.

Even when you're exposed to the language organically every day, it's a good idea to hire a private language tutor. They will break down all aspects of the language for you, allowing you to progress in a structured manner. Knowing that you thoroughly understand the mechanics of the language you're attempting to speak will do wonders for your confidence and linguistic sophistication. While theory alone is obviously no substitute for practice, a balance of both is what will get your level to those upper echelons of fluency.

A writer holding a pen while writing in a paper

Feeling inspired?

Hopefully this has given you a few ideas on how to up your language skills as much as you can while living abroad. Progressing in a foreign language is never an easy task but coming at it strategically will drastically increase your chances of success. Confidence in your target language will make your expat experience infinitely more enjoyable and rewarding, so investing time and creativity into actively improving will be so worth it - trust me.

About the author

By Ella Burgess, Content Writer at Tutor House

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