Learning new language still a hurdle for expats, poll shows

by Ray Clancy on July 15, 2015

Language is still a major hurdle for many expats worldwide, especially when it is not their native language, new research has found.

Some take classes provided by their employer, some try to get by with what they learned at school and upon their arrival in a new country, while many were able to rely on English alone to get by in their new home.

Changes include making language the most important selection factor

Learning a new language is one of the most challenging parts of being an expat

But overall, coping with a new language is positive. The survey by the Wall Street Journal found that learning a new language helped people to make new friends and to feel more at home within their community. Others found that despite living in a country that doesn’t officially use their first language, they were able to get by just fine.

Of the surveyed expats who arrived in their host country not knowing how to speak the language, 65% say they ultimately learned it. The majority of expats took classes, but many credit daily interactions and trial and error with improving their language skills.

The research reveals resourceful ways of learning a new language such as keeping a notebook to write down new words, joining a local choir, watching local television and using apps and language learning programmes.

There was even a suggestion that falling in love is a great way to learn the language. One respondent shared how she ended up in a relationship with a man who spoke no English and became fluent quickly.

Some 38% said that the majority of their friends were other expats, and those who had difficulty with the language tended to gravitate towards other expats, while 20% said that most of their friends were locals.

Also 38% of expats said that their social group is a mix of locals and expats, and 4% either don’t have time to forge friendships in their country of residence or hope to make more friends.

‘With every new place you live, you need to keep putting yourself out there. Sometimes it’s tiring, it can feel awkward, a bit like friend dating, but even if you don’t want to, you have to,’ said an English expat in Australia who has been abroad for over a decade.

Expats seem hesitant to immerse themselves in the political life of their country of residence. Only 16% claimed they were ‘very’ involved in their host country’s politics. However, many expats with dual citizenship voted in both of their passport countries. In more politically restrictive countries, expats may not have the option to be active. An expat from the US in Thailand said she only gets involved if it won’t put her visa at risk.

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