The Language Barrier: 10 Tips on Learning Languages as an Expat

When I first moved to Spain, I had done some night-classes and could have a basic conversation about the weather, order in restaurants and do my shopping. But that was as far as it went.

Arriving in Barcelona to live was quite a shock to the system and it even took me a few months to be certain sometimes whether people were speaking Catalan or Spanish around me. But, bit by bit, my ears got tuned in and I started to understand more and more.

The Spanish are wonderful when talking to you. They don’t slow down or speak more loudly to you. They speak to you as if you understand their every word, which I love. It makes it really challenging at first, but you do feel as if you are being treated as completely normal and not some dumb foreigner, for a start. It also helps you learn that much faster, though one of my most overused phrases was “Puede hablar más despacio por favor?” (“Can you speak more slowly please?”).

A few months after arriving, the real challenge began. My partner and I bought a wreck of a stone cottage in a small village to renovate and extend and I was the one who had to get it all done as he was travelling most of the year. At first, we had an English-speaking architect, but it didn’t work out with him and the second one, whose ideas we liked much better, didn’t speak English.

So, a very fast learning curve started and within literally a few months, I knew all the words for parts of a house, building materials, measurements and more.

When the builders got started, I was managing a whole team of non-English speakers, which became great fun when they started building walls in the wrong places or got frustrated because I hadn’t ordered materials they needed yesterday. Of course, we didn’t have Google Translate in those days or those gadgets you can speak into and it will instantly translate for you. No, I had to do it the hard way!

My vocabulary became really quite extensive when it came to construction, but it was still quite hard to have a normal conversation about everyday things with my neighbours.

Once we finished the house and moved out to the village though, there were fewer people around who spoke English, I made some great friends there and my Spanish went from strength to strength. One of the things which really helped was joining the local dog re-homing group, walking the dogs with locals every week and getting involved with fostering, rescuing and organising fund-raising events.

So, here’s my top tips for learning a foreign language when you’re moving to a new country:

1. Start Today

Try and learn as much as you can before you get there and you’ll feel much more confident getting started. But don’t get discouraged because it’s actually a lot easier once you get there and are immersed in it all the time.

2. Go Native

Spend as much time with the locals as you can and don’t be afraid to try and to ask for help.

3. Mime!

Use mime, drawing, pointing, anything that helps to get the message across and ask people to write things down for you if you don’t understand. That way you can get a dictionary out and work out later what they said if needed.

4. Language Exchange

Find someone to do language exchange with, they’ll help you with your chosen language and you can help them out getting to grips with English. Don’t forget, there are always people wanting to learn your language too.

5. Watch TV

Watch TV shows in your chosen language. Get films with subtitles and watch those regularly. The more you immerse yourself in it, the easier you’ll pick it up.

6. Take a Class

Do some classes. A lot of spots give free classes for foreigners and it’s well worth the effort.

7. Hit the Books

Try reading some books in the language. Start with children’s books if necessary.

8. Get on Course

Do some courses taught in your target language. I trained to be a vet nurse in Spain. You could do painting classes or flower arranging or crafts.

9. Get Active

Get involved in as many activities with the locals as you can. Join a sports team or a choir. Get involved with local charities or fiestas.

10. Have Fun!

Enjoy it and don’t be ashamed of your accent or pronunciation. People are remarkably tolerant of your efforts and delighted that you are trying. So, give it a go!

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