Why moving to a country may not lead to learning the language & what learners & expats CAN do

Venice tourist

A lot of people are a bit fuzzy about this so I want to make it absolutely clear: If you move to a country for a few months (or even years) it’s very possible you will NOT learn the language.

Out of all the advice I give on this blog, based on my lifestyle you would think that “move the country that speaks it” is on my top to-do list for aspiring language learners? Absolutely not!

Being in a country is an amazing cultural and eye-opening experience, but believing that simply being there will lead to you learning the language shows little understanding of what is involved.

You see, as I travel to new places, as well as mostly locals, I meet quite a lot of expats and others who are staying for a few months like me and the sad truth is that the vast majority of them learn next to nothing in the local language. Consequently in many countries this means they make almost no local friends.

If you think that by throwing money at the problem and buying that plane ticket, you’ve done the hardest work, you’re delusional!

In the cities I’ve been living in over the last years; Amsterdam, Rio, Berlin, Budapest, Buenos Aires, Montreal, Rome, Paris, Manila, Bangkok, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Prague etc. what I consistently see is that many expats (especially English speakers, but other groups such as Spaniards can be just as bad) won’t learn anything beyond a few phrases.

I’m sad to say that this has been the majority of foreigners I have met who live in the countries (i.e. are renting somewhere for at least a few months, not there as tourists for a weekend). I’ve even met people living in these places for over a decade who never get beyond this stage!

Luckily there are exceptions, and today I want to discuss what I feel leads to many people not learning a language despite living in the country. I also want to reiterate that you don’t need to travel in the first place, but if you are already in the country, perhaps seeing these reasons will help you find ways around them.

Why is this?

While it’s too simple to say that they are lazy, I think this does contribute quite a lot to it.

  • The number one reason is excuses. They “don’t have the language gene“, they aren’t smart enough, they have a bad memory, they’re too old, or invent other bogus excuses like not having time. They never really try. They think too much about why they’ll fail and never get out of this terrible pessimistic mindset. Also, no matter where I go in the world it’s funny that there happens to always be the country with the “most difficult language” in the world.
  • In many countries they delude themselves into thinking that “everyone speaks English”, even in countries where almost nobody outside of the tourist industry can speak more than rudimentary English. (With people’s basic English skills of a few phrases to help them sell things to rich foreigners being blown out of proportion).
  • The main problem is that they have carefully moulded themselves into an English-speaking bubble so they are caught in a vicious circle that constantly provides them proof of why English is all you need. It’s nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. If all your friends are other foreigners, or locals that work in tourism, or who are university educated and perhaps using “socialising” with you for free English practice, and you eat in the same places etc. this says nothing about the vast amount of the country you’re ignoring. These people seem to be blissfully unaware of the possibilities and advantages of a life without English.
  • Even in northern European countries (like the Netherlands) where English is indeed widespread (although I can confirm that I have met Dutch people who are uncomfortable speaking English and relieved that I speak Dutch to them), expats use the excuse that nobody will speak the language with me! Well, I have yet to find a single Dutch person that has spoken English to me when it’s clear I want to speak their language. It’s amazing, but simply trying to roll your Rs could hide the fact that you’re an English speaker; they are so used to lazy English speakers, that out of force-of-habit they’ll switch when they hear an English accent. Apart from that that there are many ways to convince them to help you.
  • The “I’ll do it later” issue. You arrive and you have to sort out accommodation, make friends, get used to the city etc. You’ll start next week! But next week you have to get started working or studying in university – this weekend then! And so on. It gets postponed so far that eventually you know it’s never going to happen. This is especially true as you tend towards making other foreign friends, which is “easier” without working that extra bit hard to make local ones instead. This is why speak from day one is not just a good strategy, but a good routine to get yourself into immediately.

Apart from issues that are indeed the learner’s fault, there are problems they just don’t think about when moving abroad that can be extremely distracting and discouraging:

  • Sometimes making friends is really hard; a lot harder than they had considered. You are in an entirely different culture, with different mentalities and people treat one another differently. Separating a culture and a language is a huge mistake. This is one of the major reasons that people embrace an expat community instead of local friends; they simply relate to those other foreigners more. It’s important to try to adapt yourself and keep an open mind as to why those locals are acting so differently. Stop judging them by your standards!

Another big issue is putting “moving to the country” as the do-all-end-all of language learning. Because of this they would have done no preparation , or bad preperation of only studying before coming. Too many people tell me that they are moving somewhere in 6 months, and say that they’ll study a little until then, as if when they arrive a switch will magically go off to turn them into speakers.

While there are definitely ways to squeeze the little you know to allow you to converse on arrival, if you don’t start practising NOW (see below) you’ve shot yourself in the foot in terms of maintaining terribly slow progress right from the start. The “start” isn’t when your plane lands, it’s when you decide to learn the language!!

(Note: I start learning on arrival since I decide shortly before moving somewhere that I’ll learn its language, but that’s because I get a buzz out of an adventurous and certainly challenging travel lifestyle. As I keep saying, my goal is not language learning, but authentic travelling based around meeting as many locals as possible. Waiting until your plane lands before you start speaking is definitely not something I’d recommend as part of a good overall learning strategy).

Start learning and speaking now and you’ll hit the ground running on arrival.

Even more reasons;

  • The learner just isn’t passionate enough about learning the language. They thought it would be a “nice idea”, but that was about it. They actually have little interest in speaking the language with people; it’s important to be passionate about using a language, rather than just passionate about languages in general or academically, or just interested in travelling (i.e. physically being in another country, regardless of genuine interest in its culture). If you aren’t so interested in using it with human beings, you won’t actually get that much out of being in the country apart from eating different food and taking nice photos.
  • If people like languages for reading, history, listening to the radio or TV, that’s fine, but it’s important to be honest about it. All of these interests are great, but not necessarily related to speaking a language with natives. In this case, being in the country makes little difference.

Speaking before travelling

As I said above, I strongly feel that if you can start speaking now before you go to a country, then you will have the momentum behind you to speak on arrival. Even though it’s not my usual strategy, due to my own particular unique travel style, I have indeed done this before myself!

I made the decision that I was going to move to Brazil for the first time several months in advance, while still living in Toulouse in the south of France, and decided that I didn’t want to slow myself down on arrival. So I started learning Portuguese then. Yes, you read that right I learned Portuguese while living in France.

When I say “learned” I don’t mean that I simply bought some grammar book, or downloaded some ultimately useless pirated audio or software. I went to Orkut.com (which at the time [2005] was the main social networking site in many countries… Facewhat?), found the Toulouse community of Brazilians, saw it was pretty active and posted that I wanted to meet up to speak Portuguese. Someone answered, met up with me and helped me along.

We met up several times a week, and I struggled at first but did indeed manage to reach a rudimentary stage of speaking without simply using Spanish instead. Then when I arrived in Brazil I had the best possible start ever in a country, where I could communicate my thoughts and make deep friendships right from the start; something that is still a challenge for me at the very start when I arrive with no preparation. I still had a long way to go, but that head start lead to one of my best travel experiences yet.

Speaking is the key, not being in the country

Right now in my life, I enjoy moving to different countries and getting to know locals by learning their language; usually to levels that allow me to ultimately have very deep conversations with them. But this is my style of travel; “language tourism” or whatever you may call it. I’m a traveller and interested in social aspects of culture, well before I would ever call myself a language learner. Languages will always be a means to an end for me.

Because of that, it’s handy and fun for me to learn on arrival. I’ve made many mistakes in this process and learned the best way to do it. Some of these mistakes are easy to explain and blog about and others aren’t. So no matter how well I can attempt to explain it, you will indeed run into many challenges you hadn’t expected when moving to a country. This is all part of the adventure after all! But thinking it will be very easy to learn a language in an entirely different environment that you are not used to, can be quite short-sighted!

There is nothing about being in a country that means you will learn its language. You can always create an English-speaking bubble or be antisocial or shy. Whether you learn it or not depends on your commitment, not on changing your latitude and longitude.

If you aren’t in the country yet, then find ways to speak right now so you don’t have to worry about the initial bump. Then when you do arrive, it will be so much easier! If you are in the country, then stop thinking that being there is enough and that you’ll magically start speaking with time. You WON’T. Not unless you look at the reasons you aren’t speaking now and try to solve them.

Have you been abroad and found a way to speak the language despite challenges listed here? Or did you run into other challenges? Are you preparing now before moving to a new country? Let us know in the comments!



I'll send you the first lesson right away.
Click here to see the comments!
  • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane Claes

    Your suggestions on how to keep learning (or maintain) a language have had me thinking lately.
    I’m moving to Sweden shortly (in hopes of getting a visa — long story) after just 4 weeks of French. Not only am I not going to be fluent in French (though I am conversing well already) my Spanish has fallen off a proverbial cliff. I can still comprend well but I’m using French words in Spanish sentences.

    Since I may end up being in Sweden for a while and the language / culture / business there is interesting to me I really want to consider learning the language. However with A2+ French and B2 Spanish I’m afraid I need to find a way to polish up (become fluent) and maintain both of them first! If I could I’d stay in France for another 2 months to become fluent (or close). Oh, and I’m trying to maintain my Mandarin as well =/

    I’ve started alternating each day listening to the news in Mandarin and Spanish and spending some time with my Anki decks for each while still studying French. When I get to Sweden I hope to use my skillset (computer programmer) to find people to practice both with (and even learn some specialized vocab for my profession)…

    Whew! Lots to consider…

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Just because you’ll be in Sweden doesn’t mean your Spanish and French will disappear. I’m in AMSTERDAM but spent most of Saturday speaking Spanish (hosting a Spaniard) and the previous weekend in Portuguese and Italian. Find ways to speak those languages and then you can keep improving on them.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Amazon has several decent books on Hungarian, but the point is to find a speaker and try to use it that way. You can use various sites online to find conversation partners; you’ll certainly find plenty who are willing to trade Spanish or English for Hungarian!

    And if you are really clever, you’ll find Hungarians where you live. Have you used the social search tools I’ve outlined in a previous post? Have you looked into Hungarian communities there?

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Do try to alter that mentality!
    And as I’ve said many times before, I’m not interested in discussing my next missions in comments ;)

  • Amelia Fernández Fagúndez


    Learning a language is a defying activity and we need to read a lot!

    We have a blog where we write about topics related with different foreign languages.


    We would very much like to get your comments!


    • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

      Wow, you just decided to spam everyone today, eh?

  • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

    “If you aren’t so interested in using it with human beings, you won’t actually get that much out of being in the country…”

    Or, indeed, out of the language at all. These things called languages were invented by humans for the purpose of communicating with other humans.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I agree, but sadly many don’t. Books and podcasts are all you need to them.

      • http://www.michaelcorayer.com Michael Corayer

        I really can’t understand these types of comments. Books and podcasts ARE humans communicating with other humans. These are ways of communicating that go beyond the physical limitations of face-to-face interactions and allow communication across large distances and time spans. I’m not dismissing the joys of in-person interaction, but I really don’t see the logic in dismissing reading books. I can’t comprehend why you, someone who communicates with thousands of others via the written word, are critical of texts so often.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

          Critical of texts would be if I said books (or blogs) are crap, which I never do. I’m saying that a learning process based *only* on books is crap if the end goal is to speak.

          If the end goal is to read well then obviously the smartest thing to do is invest all your time in reading. If the end goal is to read well and speak well then read some AND speak some.

          Please don’t put words in my mouth. I’ve NEVER been “critical of texts so often” and would never tell someone to give up on reading entirely.

          To paraphrase what you’ve just said “I’m not dismissing the joys of reading, but I really don’t see the logic in dismissing in-person interaction”. Please think about that before presuming I’m attacking reading and podcasts.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    I also don’t understand the moaners; they constantly complain and yet do nothing to change their situation!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    You’ll be older later and can do what you want and then you’ll wish you were younger :P haha Your time will come! :D

    But yeah, expecting everyone to speak English in other countries really is terribly hypocritical.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Definitely a better use of time!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    If you’re already outgoing, I’m not sure precisely what your issue has been? It really shouldn’t take two *years* living in a place to become “generally comfortable” in the language.

    What may really give me an advantage is my deadline; I’d highly suggest you pick a date in a couple of months and give yourself something really hard to reach by that time like speaking in public in Dutch or sitting the hardest Dutch exam etc. Something you wouldn’t consider normally.

    The problem with “making a life and future here” is that technically you have a whole lifetime to learn Dutch, and frankly that’s not good enough. If you have a tighter deadline then you can make incredible progress very quickly and THEN gradually improve on that over a lifetime.

    • http://ifitsnotaboutme.blogspot.com Agmcdonagh

      I guess it’s also possible my standards are different. I have a job where only Dutch is used, I read Dutch novels, have made a couple of friends who only speak Dutch. I have already passed the hardest Dutch exam, but there is no C2 available in Holland (that I’ve found, other than private ones that aren’t officially recognized). I’ve found two main challenges with the language. One, Dutch is much more context-based than English and two, spoken language is littered far more with expressions and allusions than English (other than pop-culture). But obviously that hasn’t stopped me, I just notice a lack of fluency.

      I was intrigued by the deep friendships part more than the language part I suppose. I miss my friends in Canada, and have found it surprisingly different and difficult here to make deep friendships. I thought it was the language but recently ran across a post by Tiffany of Clogs and Tulips discussing how so many Dutch people don’t seem to be as open to making new friends as North Americans. Sure, they’re sociable, but that’s not friendship, and definitely not deep. But maybe that’s just in my book.

      • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

        Fair enough! :)

        I’m curious: what do you mean by saying it’s more content based than English?

        Also, I’m not really sure where you think I said I had made deep friendships? This has been a huge issue for me, as most conversations I’ve been having are superficial and I can’t seem to convince people to meet up with me more than once. But I’ve still got 4 weeks left in this mission and other ways I intend to attempt to make this work!

        Having said that, I do miss not having to work so damn hard just to be able to spend time with people. The temptation is there to simply hang out with other foreigners (especially since I’ve got quite a lot of nationalities I can pick), but I’ll brave the waters of focusing on the Dutch for the next month and see if I can find a solution to recommend to others in a similar situation.

        But I can certainly agree that hanging out with expats in the Netherlands indeed isn’t a simple case of being lazy. This place is quite a challenge! And I have had lots of those :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    That’s an excellent list of excuses and justifications there! I suppose there’s probably no mother in history who has EVER learned a language then!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Yes, even when we use no English we can always overuse pointing! I don’t know how you didn’t go insane without conversations in ANY language!! Good to see you getting a start on it now then!

  • http://yetanotherlanguage.blogspot.com/ Crno Srce

    So very true!

    I travelled to France after having studied French in a formal setting for a year or two, and just expected to rock up and be awesome after 4 weeks. Then I spent all my time with English speakers…

    Pretty much ditto for when I lived in Germany for 6 months. I did learn some stuff by just being there of course, but this was all from interaction – at the market, getting around, etc. I can only echo your sentiment from here and elsewhere – it’s the interactions with people, not the location, that make all the difference!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for the comment. I answered the Asian language question here: http://www.fluentin3months.com/fi3m-faq/

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Great project in Ecuador!
    Being in the thick of it will force you to understand quickly ;) Although if you want an advantage, you may wish to have text with the Spanish you are listening to, accompanied with translations. Lingq.com has a Spanish section with a free reading & audio tool that could come in handy.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    I’ve also been been nomadic for the last 10 years, and seen BOTH sides of living just with English and learning the local language to fluency or conversational.

    To be frank I think you’re delusional if you think you don’t need languages for a deep experience in that culture while living there. I find it sad when I see and meet English speakers like yourself who have created this illusion in their heads as an excellent excuse to not even try.

    You’re right that some people, even fluent speakers, don’t have as deep connections with people as others with lower levels, but that’s no excuse to not try to improve on your level, so that you CAN have those deeper conversations. Your level in languages is something I would only accept for my first weeks, not for years.

    • Mark

      I think we just have a different definition of “deep experience in that culture”. To say that you need to be at least conversational (that to me means the ability to talk about stuff deeper than where you want to go and what you want to eat etc) to have a deep experience is demonstrably wrong – because I have deep experiences all the time. Hang out with me for a day and you’ll realise what I mean. I’ve been doing it for 10 years and have built up many techniques in that time.

      Personally, I’m more interested in building deep connections with people. And I can do that far better using the language we can most fluently communicate in (usually English). If I had insisted on stumbling through the local-language then I can definitely say I would have missed out on several deep connections I have made. The shorter the time I am in a place, the less sense it makes to invest time in the local language to conversational level.

      I basically do (almost) everything locals do. I eat ONLY local food and eat ONLY in local restaurants. In China, I don’t go out to bars, I go to parks in the evening instead like most locals do. I talk to locals there but I really can’t say my Chinese is conversational. Doesn’t stop loads of people gathering around listening to my poor attempts though.

      You won’t find me in Starbucks or hanging out with westerners. You also won’t catch me watching western movies. I also try to flatshare with other locals.

      Get yourself a local girlfriend and hang out with her friends and do all the things that they normally do. Go visit her family in some tiny village somewhere and spend a long weekend with them and you’ll experience the culture very deeply indeed.

      Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree that learning the local language goes a very long way to opening all sorts of doors in the local culture. I just disagree that it’s essential for a “deep experience”. Maybe it’s essential for a “total experience” but that’s something different, in my dictionary :)

      I guess your repeated use of the word “excuse” comes from the fact you see local-language learning as essential. But for me, I have no excuse. It’s simply that I sometimes choose not to learn the language (to a conversational level) because I have better things to spend my time on. There are higher things in life than language-learning!

      BTW – @aarongmyers – Well said, I totally agree!

      • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

        We’ll have to agree to disagree then. We seem to have very different travel styles.

        There are certainly things I do that would mean I don’t have a “total experience”. As a vegetarian for example, eating local foods all the time just isn’t practical in many places so food doesn’t contribute to my travel experiences. I don’t appreciate architecture, nature, history etc. as much as other travellers, so level of authenticity could vary for everyone.

        While I don’t care much for Starbucks, avoiding it doesn’t really say much in my opinion. It’s there because it obviously has a clientelle. I eat at pizza hut on occasion no matter where I am, as do locals. I think there is a danger of taking “local culture” to the extreme. I’m more interested in modern culture and how locals live, and this can and does involve watching Hollywood blockbusters, eating pizzas, spending time on the Internet and dancing to American music at weekends. Locals do these things too.

        For me the quality of my travels is mostly the people I meet, and without the local language the only “girlfriend” I could have and people I could hang out with would be university educated, or those in the tourist industry who would speak excellent English, or forcing others to speak English with me, which is not something I feel is such a great thing to do. Or occasionally sticking to absolute basics in a language, which make it very hard to have deep conversations, and motivates me to improve to a higher level quickly.

        Of course, you can have very deep experiences with English-speaking locals, I just feel you are limited in who you can spend time with. In many countries I’ve been to, the only way I could have local friends without learning their language would be to focus on hanging out in upper classes. They are of course just as authentic as everyone else, and I’m sure we could only eat in local restaurants and such, but it’s too limiting for me personally. So yes, I do see local language learning as essential. Obviously, I’m quite alone in this when it comes to long-term travellers.

        But yes, there are higher things in life than language learning. Thanks for the interesting retort ;)

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Yup, I tell people that with the internet now, broadband, all the language exchanges plus other additional ways of getting native speakers on Skype (chat rooms, social networking sites, etc.) there’s just no excuse for not being able to learn a language now because talking with a native on Skype is 99% as good as talking with them in person, and you can easily get as many hours a day speaking practice with native speakers (2, 3, 4, hell you could spend the whole day on Skype if you were really determined to!) as you want to, for free!

    No excuse anymore, it’s just too easy. There might be some really obscure languages this doesn’t work for, but I’ll bet they’re really, REALLY obscure (I’ll bet you could find native Mongolian speakers to practice with if you really wanted to).


    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Moses McCormick told me he was able to practice Hmong online! So yeah, the potential there is immense.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Mark, I don’t doubt your sincerity, but you have also failed to provide examples to illustrate what you mean. I would find it hard to have a deep relationship with someone in the way you described with your girlfriend, but as you say it went beyond the words.

    Sorry if me calling you delusional is so blunt, but saying that McDonald’s wouldn’t have any business if it weren’t for expats and tourists really is delusional. You don’t go into these establishments, so you simply don’t know who is there. It’s mostly locals and the menus are printed in the local language. If there are “discos everywhere” but the vast majority of young people don’t go into them, then I see that as a major contradiction. Are they all empty apart from the tiny sprinkling of tourists and expats? No.

    If the people you spend time with frequent places that have absolutely no western influence, that’s great! But in my experience there is a little westernisation everywhere and I neither fight it nor embrace it. It’s just there.

    Once again, I don’t doubt your sincerity, but I we have different travel philosophies and that’s why I offer again that we just agree to disagree.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/FluentCzech FluentCzech

    Benny, people often lump you into an “output” camp, as apposed to an “input” camp. I don’t think you are in either camp. Part of the issue may be that you often say “Speaking is Key!” – and people equate speaking with “output”. However, speaking is about creating monologues. Your approach, as far as I understand it, isn’t about monologues but about dialogues. So, “Conversation is Key!”. It is neither an input nor an output method, but what I will call a “round-trip” method. Of course, people could then say “well, I listen to the radio, plus I make videos of myself speaking, so I am doing that too”. They are not. The round-trip approach you follow is more than simply input plus output. It has a vital feedback loop – wherein each person in the conversation is giving constant feedback to the other and using this feedback to adapt. Only conversations provide this. There are no simulations.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Well said; I think I should make that clearer in future and emphasise conversation rather than speaking so people appreciate the two-way street.

      Agree 100% that I’m not an “output” guy at all. I discussed the feedback loop concept in detail here: http://www.fluentin3months.com/engineer

      Thanks as always for the cool comments!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    If I misunderstood you then I’ll take it back this once. Your examples haven’t answered my question about how the experience is deep without conversing. That’s where I get confused. Of course spending time in the countryside is deep and I’m sure you experience a lot that I never would as I go to cities. I’m just wondering how far you can get while maintaining a language barrier. If you feel having a translator gives you a full understanding of everything going on then I guess that solves the issue.

    It sounds like you do a lot in your travels, so I don’t doubt the depth of the experience. I’m just saying I can’t understand it without communication. I’m not trying to claim my experience is deeper than everyone else’s because it isn’t, as this depends on each person’s definition of depth and experience. I’m just saying that there is something you are missing out on in my opinion. Just as there are plenty of things you could easily say I am missing out on if you saw what I had missed in a given country. I’m biased of course conversation to discover cultures is how I rate my experience.

    Thanks for the mature discussion! Not everyone can put up with my frank statements ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Ah Brazil! That’s easy though; you have no idea how warm and friendly Brazilians are!! :) You can transport me to any village deep inside any state and I’ll be invited to 7 parties within a few hours ;)

    I’d have to agree with your observations. Dutch are always curious to hear my story, but once they’ve got the summary that’s all they need :P

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    I kind of regret that term now, since people presume it means I only learn languages to ask for directions :-P i.e. learn a language to be a tourist haha

  • http://profiles.google.com/danjones50 Dan Jones

    Hey, I really liked this post, it’s so true. I’m living in China and although I know plenty of people who can converse much better than me I’m always amazed by how many people don’t speak any, they are living just half the life they could have here.

    I had some problems learning the language when I first arrived though, because of a point you have missed and that is getting by in a country that was until the about 20 years ago cut off from the outside world. I arrived in a small town (by China standards: 2million) which had maybe just 10 foreigners, I tried to learn using books and CD’s but the Beijing accent the CD’s used didn’t sound anything like the local accent the people in the town had, also because they had very limited contact with foreigners they weren’t used to hearing bad Chinese. Every time I got a tone wrong it completely threw them so I couldn’t understand them and they couldn’t understand me. I couldn’t find a Chinese teacher there because very few people could speak English and there had never been any need for Chinese teachers before. I had a student who gave me a lesson each week but she wasn’t great. It was very frustrating and I progressed very slowly not that I ever thought Chinese was going to be easy. I studied hard but I think the environment was too much in the deep end. My shining moment though was buying my first train ticket alone (opening a bank account with just hand-gestures comes a close second).

    I have since moved to another city where I have a very good tutor and my Chinese has come along a lot in since, I’m thinking of visiting the town so I can speak to the people I could only smile at before.

    Love the blog Benny,

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Yes, Chinese seems to be a favourite of people to say that it especially causes problems. However, I have heard from many people who have learned it quickly. Of course factors are different for everyone; I personally wouldn’t choose a small town (but I do have to laugh at a 2 million population as counting as one!!)

      Great to see you working with a good tutor. Good support will make sure you make good progress! Keep it up!

  • http://ifitsnotaboutme.blogspot.com Agmcdonagh

    Hi there – I don’t have kids and I’m not here as an expat, I’ve moved here permanently, but I still really relate to the ghost-feeling you seem to be describing. It’s so hard to figure out how to participate in social activities here. A Dutch friend of mine said that one of the best things she did once she had her son was to post an ad on marktplaats.nl looking for someone in her area to trade childcare one day per week. Of course she met a lot of people before she found one that she had a good ‘click’ with, but perhaps something like that is for you? That way you could arrange to take a class or something for a few hours on your child-free day, and even though most people will stick to English with you at first, you can always tell them to please try twice in Dutch first, it’s really not rude at all to be pushy about that here!! Plus, then you most likely have found a Dutch-speaking woman who also has kids, and perhaps you can take extra-long to pick up the kids and ask about something you’d like to find out more about?

    It has also been my experience that Dutch people are busy with their own lives and tend to not be bothered to accommodate others, but it has also been my experience that you can *push* them quite a bit without them finding it the least bit weird or pushy. They just hadn’t thought about it, so you have to tell them to think about it, you know?

    Anyway, I hope you find a way to feel like you have a place here, it sure can be difficult!

  • Erica Odum

    I’ve been wondering…..does anyone here have any experience with Rosetta Stone?  I’d like to learn another language…….at least get off on the right foot.  I’d appreciate any answers any can give me.  Thanks!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      To get off on the right foot, use your feet to walk up to a native speaker and spend time with them. Don’t waste money on empty promises from nothing but clever marketing.

  • Eric Mwangi Kariuki

    Wished I had read this, when I was based in Chile and Argentina although I did watch your TEDX video. Quite inspiring. I guess I do agree with some of what you have to say regarding the barriers we erect in learning a new language. For me, I was there for a one year, working for an international NGO and I can remember what a big challenge it was mastering Spanish. Perhaps, initially I really liked the thought of me someday speaking the language but I did not pursue it as an objective from the get go. And as I got busy and it got harder to immerse myself in the new culture, pride did get the better of me.

  • Linh Do

    I’m a Vietnamese student and I go to a college in the US. 25% of the student body are international students and the Vietnamese population here is HUGE compared to other international populations. So, when we Vietnamese who have been speaking Vietnamese for all our lives met each other when we first arrived at the school and, continued to speak Vietnamese and make friends and hang out together, even though this is an American school and the official language is English and 75% of the student body are native English speakers. I admit that I didn’t prepare by speaking English before I came to the US. It’s been 3 months and it seems that I have settled in our Vietnamese community. All of the people I hang out with or have conversations outside the classroom are Vietnamese, with some exceptions of international students, but absolutely no local students. It’s like a vicious circle: I would speak Vietnamese with my friends, then I would find it hard to switch to English when I meet the native English speakers, so I would appear more quiet and thus this impedes me from making friends with the local students and thus limiting my chances to practice my English. It’s like 2 separate worlds now, and I really want to comfortably speak English with the local students. If could offer me some advice, I would be very grateful to you!


  • D. Kruegel

    I am from Germany. I lived in Italy for 9 months and now I live in Poland for 3 years already. Three basic rules helped me learning the languages (with Italian it was in fact reactivating my language skills from high school, but with Polish it was basically learning from scratch):
    1. Language is key to integration. Accept that you are now in a country with a different language (or even several different languages) and that it is YOU who has to integrate. By learning the language of the host country you show respect to that country and its people.
    2. Avoid fellow countrymen. At least for the first few months. Look out for local groups who are open minded towards foreigners and who can help you learning their language(s). You can also consider moving into a flatshare with locals.
    3. Take language courses also in the host country. It really helped me speeding up my progress in Polish language proficiency, and outside the classes you can immediately practice the new learnings in your everyday life.

  • Juan

    Hi Benny. I really liked your article. I agreed with the majority of your thoughts.
    I’m from Argentina, but I’ve been living in Miami for the past 3 years. As you know, spanish is my main language, but I have studied english in Argentina for several years when I was younger. Thanks to my job in Miami I’ve been able to practice my english on a daily basis, and I feel pretty comfortable speaking and writing in this language. The thing is that at a corporate level if you want to succeed, and get a higher position, your english has to be almost perfect and totally fluently. In the written aspect, I’m pretty good as you may see, but speaking the language sometimes I feel not that comfortable. Let’s put this way: Let’s say that my spanish is a 10 (oral and written), then I consider my written english skills to be an 8.5, and my oral a 7.5. I would like to improve the language up to a 9 at least (both written and oral). My idea is to travel to England for 2 months (that’s all I can because of my job), and perfect my skills. I wanted to travel to a city in the UK, whether is England or Wales (not Ireland or Scotland), but I wanted to make sure I choose a city that most of the people speak english, and is not full of tourists, so I can engage daily in conversations with real local people. Do you have any suggestion, or comment? thanks in advance

  • Jewell

    Hi! I just got to Mexico for a foreign exchange program. I will be here for 4 months and I am 15. I only know basic ways to conjugate and simple vocab. Is there any advice you have for me to understand people’s conversations around me at school etc?

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Well said Yael – and what a “surprise” that expats are as lazy in Israel as they are elsewhere I’ve been… I’ve met lots of Israelis with excellent English, but this won’t change anything whenever I do make it to Israel. Their English level is irrelevant; it’s how the learner acts among them and how much work he does that matters.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    They “want” to, but their excuses make them think they can’t.