Six Language Tips For Expats


(A nifty compilation of The Simpsons in German)

Learning a language is hard, especially when your native language is English. English is pretty much the lingua franca of the world, and it’s the language of international business, so in many ways it’s easier to be an English speaker abroad than someone with a different mother tongue, but it also means that you’ll meet a lot of people who will speak English to you, and you may even conduct much of your daily life in English (such as work, university, etc). This is especially true if you’re in a major city, though it’s more true for some than others (some cultures are more resistant to English). Still, I hold that if you live somewhere, you should learn the language. It helps you feel just that much less like a “foreigner” and helps you make the place home. It’s also very practical. Even if you’re in a city where people speak a lot of English, it can make things like banking and dealing with bureaucracy a bit easier (I say a bit, because dealing with bureaucracy is never easy, even in your native language). In Berlin (and I’m assuming other cities as well), people will often answer you in English when you’re trying to speak German, especially when you’re just starting out, but don’t let that discourage you. Learning a language when you’re an English speaker just involves a bit of persistence. Sometimes, it also helps if you think outside the box. That’s why I’ve put together this list of various things I found helpful when I learned German. Many of my resources will be Germany-specific (because that’s where I live), but you can probably find equivalents in your country. The tips are applicable to most places.

1) Watch television. German television is notoriously awful (at least for a developed country), but watching it will do you favours. When I recommend this to people, I often get a response like “but I just don’t know enough German to understand anything.” I get that, but I don’t think it should let it stop you. When I moved here, I spoke very little German. I’d learned the bare basics in a first year university class and I’d grown up hearing it here and there (but don’t think I grew up speaking German, because I did not!) When I first started watching television here, I didn’t understand much, but it’s amazing how it helps you pick stuff up. You get used to the speed of how people talk, and a sense of inflection. I recommend starting small. I used to watch the Simpsons (which runs on ProSieben daily at around 6 pm) quite often, because I’d seen most episodes multiple times in English, so I could get a sense of what they were saying and follow the plot. After a while, I started watching Galileo, the show that runs after the Simpsons. I found it interesting because it’s an info-based show, so I learned a lot of vocabulary, as well as a lot of things about life and culture in Germany. TV in Germany isn’t as good as TV in the UK and the US, but once you get over dubbing, you can enjoy it and learn a lot by checking out your favourite shows in German (especially since they air so late here, so you’ll likely have seen it in English already). You may even find yourself checking out some of the documentaries they often air (which can be decent) or reality TV (which can be strangely addictive). Once, when I was in the hospital for a week after getting my tonsils removed, I watched a lot of Frauentausch. I kind of enjoyed it.

2) Write letters. I don’t really mean to friends and family, because unless they understand German, that will be kind of useless. I mean to get active and write letters about things you care about. It doesn’t have to be letters either…you could send emails or even tweets. It could be to political representatives about an issue you care about…as a foreigner you don’t really have a federal political voice as you’re not a voter, but you’re still a taxpayer (hopefully). Also, you may be able to vote in some local, state or EU elections depending on your citizenship, so you’ll have a bit more of a political voice in those cases (I can’t tell you the exact conditions because I have a German passport, but I’m sure you can easily find out). You can also send letters to companies. Tell them you don’t like their overuse of packaging (I’m looking at you, anyone who makes dishwasher tabs) or that you don’t think their foundation comes in pale enough colours (yes, I did this), or something else that you think would help your experience of their product, improve their customer service, or something like that. Get a German (or whatever nationality of the country you’re in) friend to check it over for you for grammar and spelling mistakes. This tip mostly applies to those who have learned enough to be able to string together sentences, but if you really care and you’re starting out, many companies accept complaints via Twitter (such as Deutsche Bahn), so you can practice in 140 characters or less. If you don’t have German friends to check it over….

3) Get German (or whatever) friends! Seriously. You need to have friends from the country you live in. It’s easy to make friends with other expats while you’re abroad, and that’s fine. Just don’t live in an expat bubble. Even if you mostly speak English with these friends, it will still absorb you into the culture just that much more. If you don’t know where to meet people….

4) Do a tandem. These are great. It’s like a language exchange where you meet up and speak both languages to practice. It works best if both of you speak each other’s language at a somewhat functional level (meaning you can go beyond ordering coffee and talk about a few things, even if it’s in basic terms). Check out bulletin boards, both online and off, to find one (or place your own ad), or ask around.

5) Volunteer. This is a great option because it lets you give back a little to the place in which you live. In Germany, there was a strong tradition of the social service program (the alternative to military conscription) that young men did after school, but now that this is cut, those volunteers need to come from somewhere!

6) Read. I started with magazines and newspapers because shorter texts were easier for me to follow (and less tedious when I first started and had to look up every other word. I read books now, and I try to read a book in German regularly. Mostly I read translated stuff, because I haven’t really got into German literature as of yet, and also my motivation is that I read a lot of the “guilty pleasure” stuff that I’m too embarrassed to read a lot of in English, like really bad vampire novels. It’s still intellectual, because I’m reading it in my second language, right? I think it’s great logic. Once you hit a certain level, replace your English-Whatever dictionary with a straight-up dictionary (eg. Bedeutungsw√∂rterbuch in German). Then you still expand your vocabulary, but you can keep your thinking in context of the language you’re learning, which helps you out a lot more.

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2 thoughts on “Six Language Tips For Expats

  1. It’s so true about speaking English, I’ve lived in France and Korea and learn new languages has been very hard. The worst is when I try to speak the local language and they have no clue what I’m saying, then I switch to English and they understand me no problem. Number 6: Reading, really helped me with French, Nice post

    1. Yes exactly. I found when I was first learning German, people would always respond to me in English. More people spoke a higher level of English than I could of German, as they’d been learning it since school. I had to be really persistent and practice lots. After you speak a certain level of a language people don’t do it anymore, but getting there can be tough!
      I also find that in a lot of places, they’re accustomed to hearing English, but not their own language with an accent. This always seemed odd to me as a Canadian, as Canada has lots of people from various places with different accents, but I guess most places aren’t as multicultural as the West Coast.

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