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Expats, Fix Your Frustrations Abroad in Just 30 Days


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As a long-time expat, I’ve found that most of our experiences abroad are great. But it can be challenging to settle in a new country.

It takes a while to adapt to the new culture and language, and there are some frustrating elements that are difficult to overcome. I’ve found that they often show in the things we do week in and week out.

That might be when taxi drivers seem to know the way to a destination but halfway through, we realize that they aren’t that fond of the GPS and that feels more like a guided expedition than a quick ride to work. Or when we can’t find a particular product at the store but are unable to describe it to the clerk in the local language.

Many of these small annoyances come from transactional situations we do every week and they tend to happen due to the difference in culture and language.

I took on a little challenge to see what it would take to solve those situations and learn the language of my new host country.

The challenges didn’t disappear entirely but it reduced the frustration drastically because I have been able to better help out and explain myself when English isn’t enough.

This article is an overview of how I did that over the course of a month, if the challenge was worth it after three years, and how you can do that too if you are an expat living abroad in a foreign country.

The 30-Day Challenge to Survive In the Local Language

After living in Vietnam for a couple of years, I decided that it was time to give the Vietnamese language a shot. Up until that point, I had enjoyed learning everyday words and phrases to get by, but nothing too serious.

At this point, I was able to address people politely, count to ten, say thanks, and a couple of basic phrases such as “that is expensive” and ”thanks”.

I looked at different methods like the immersion strategy — where we spend all day everyday learning — along with alternatives, such as daily half-day sessions at the university like some of my friends were doing.

But because of my work schedule, neither was a realistic option, even though I’m sure they would work well.

On the other hand, I was not ready to spend years learning before seeing results, as I had experienced with German in school. I had already tried using a tutor with a couple of friends and popular apps, but neither were effective for me.

While the tutor was nice, I found myself bored by the focus on grammar in the group class and the apps had forgotten to highlight that it was teaching a regional dialect not used in half the country. The half where I happened to live.

Eventually, I came up with a little test to better understand:

  • How a tutor could help me 1on1 as I had never used one before,
  • If focusing mostly on speaking practice would be a better choice for what I wanted to do.

My overall idea was to first be able to handle transactional situations that happen every day, like buying things at the neighborhood kiosk or explaining directions to a taxi driver.

I listed all the real-life situations that happen often and decided that theory and philosophical topics I’d never really use weren’t for me.

Here is an example of what I came up with:

  • Buying stuff on a weekly basis (groceries, at the kiosk, at the market, etc.)
  • Using transport like taxis (directions, asking where the bank is, etc.)
  • Ordering in a restaurant and asking where the restroom is
  • Explaining the basics of my background (where I’m from, what I do, sports I like, etc.)
  • Fun jokes, slang, etc. for lighthearted bonding with colleagues
  • How to say hello to different people and be polite/show respect according to local customs
  • Certain keywords that I noticed seeing every day at work.

I wasn’t sure if it was possible to learn all of that in such a short period of time. And another challenge was to figure out how much time I would be able to commit each week.

I knew that I might run into unforeseen events, like last-minute projects at work, so I had to account for that, or I might be forced to pause the experiment halfway through.

I liked the idea of focusing on consistency over long sessions and came up with practicing for a half-hour per day over the course of a month. I knew that it would be too much without any breaks, as we tend to have different plans on the weekends, so I took them off altogether.

It became 30 minutes per day, Monday through Friday, for a month.

How I Put My Plan Into Practice – And Attained Success

I found a tutor, explained my situation, what I wanted to learn and what wasn’t important to me. I preferred Skype to meeting in person, so traffic jams or other surprises wouldn’t cause any delays.

The tutor recommended a podcast that we could use as a lesson plan because it covered real-life situations and helped explain some of the words. I committed to spending 15-20 minutes per day listening to that as my homework.

The first few days were overwhelming as I had to speak for the entire 30 minutes without really being able to say anything meaningful. I used a trick from Benny’s Conversation Countdown program that made it a lot easier, which was to prepare what I wanted to say and use Google translate to turn it into Vietnamese.

It wasn’t important whether it was perfect or not, since the tutor needed to assess my level, but rather that I felt comfortable making mistakes without breaking the flow of the conversation too much. It worked surprisingly well and, over the course of that month, we used about two practice sessions per podcast episode and practiced the same stuff twice.

It all culminated when one day I got a phone call that a delivery order had gone wrong. As I hung up the phone, it occurred to me that I had understood the entire conversation, even though it felt a little too fast.

Normally, that would have forced me to respond with “sorry, I don’t speak Vietnamese” and leave both of us frustrated.

I imagine that because transactional situations carry context, those are easier to learn than other conversational topics. For example, when we go buy something at the store, everyone knows that the next step is to get the price and pay. It’s predictable.

On the other hand, conversation over coffee can be about politics, sports, or any other topic so it’s a lot more challenging to follow.

3 Years Later: Do I Still Remember Anything?

It’s been three years since. I didn’t continue learning and I’ve forgotten some of the phrases that I didn’t use much.

However, I still remember most of the stuff that I use frequently. It’s definitely motivating to see things work over and over again in real life.

I’ve found that I got better in some specific situations and I imagine it’s like getting our driver’s licenses. We only get good at driving after getting it and practicing over the years. The initial training before getting the license is more about making sure that we don’t kill ourselves than it is about being a racing god.

All in all, it has been a worthwhile investment of a month’s time and money, and it has made weekly errands that could be frustrating at times a lot easier, as I’m able to handle situations that happen all the time.

For example, when taking a taxi to work, I’ll be able to explain the fastest route rather than being late to work. Or simply call and order delivery from my favorite restaurants that don't use delivery apps.

What Got Me Started After Putting It Off for Two Years

For years, I kept putting off making a serious effort in learning the language. But after taking the Conversation Countdown course, something changed.

It helped me shift my mindset from the overwhelming feeling of learning the entire language from scratch to breaking it down into smaller more manageable chunks, like:

  • Learning transactional conversations (ordering food, taxi, etc.)
  • Everyday small talk (talk about sports, the weather, etc.)
  • Deeper conversations (our health, how we feel, etc.)
  • Unusual topics (theory, infrequent topics, etc.)

I also learned not to care as much about sounding stupid or incorrect at first. I’ve found that especially important here in Vietnam, where people tend to get excited if a foreigner tries to speak in a local neighborhood kiosk.

At times, it can feel a little overwhelming with several people watching you trying to muster up a basic sentence without knowing how to pronounce it. The result is usually that they are laughing in the excitement of someone trying.

How You Can Use the Same Approach to Learn the Local Language and Fix Most Frustrating Situations

As I was writing this article, I was thinking about how best to break down the process if you are interested in replicating my experience for yourself. I decided that the easiest approach for you would be a step-by-step overview.

Step 1: Plan What You Want to Learn

Plan what you’d like to learn, which situations you’d like to be able to handle in the local language, and break it down into specifics.

That might for example be:

  • Buying stuff on a weekly basis (groceries, at the kiosk, at the market, etc.)
  • Using transport like taxis (directions, etc.)
  • Ordering in a restaurant and asking where the restroom is
  • Explaining the basics of my background (where I’m from, what I do, sports I like, etc.)
  • Fun jokes, slang, etc. for lightheaded bonding with colleagues
  • How to say hello to different people and be polite/show respect according to local customs

Step 2: Pick How Much Time You’d Like to Spend On This Project

That includes a specific timeline, how much time you’d like to spend per day, and which time during the day is best for you. I also suggest considering days off and what to do if things get busy at work, or if you run into unforeseen events.

Pro tip: I’ve found that it works well to pick the same time of the day for this experiment.

Step 3: Look For a Few Tutors in Your Price Range

Italki is a decent place to start looking at different tutors and this guide covers how to find a good one.

Alternatively, ask your friends if they have used a local tutor that they liked. Perhaps that person will be a good fit for you too.

Step 4: Explain This Challenge to the Tutor

That includes your goal, what you don’t care about learning for now, and the timeline.

I suggest asking the tutor if they can recommend any relevant material as homework. Alternatively, you might have to research online to see if anyone has recommended something for the specific language you are learning.

I suggest emphasizing whether your goal is to learn to speak, read books, write, or something else since it doesn’t make sense to practice speaking if you want to use it mainly for reading books in this short challenge.

Also, ask for their help with role-playing and ensuring that the situation you practice is as close to real-life as possible based on the local culture and customs.

Here’s a script you can use to get you started:

“Hey [NAME],

I’m [MY NAME] and I’d like to learn [LANGUAGE]. I’d like to try a 30-day challenge, my goal is [YOUR GOAL] and for now, I’m only looking to practice [SPECIFIC THINGS YOU WANT TO PRACTICE]. I’m thinking of practicing [X TIMES] per week for [X MINUTES] per session.

Is that something you’d be able to help with? And do you know of any specific homework between sessions (e.g. podcasts) that would be a good fit for this?

Thanks

  • [MY NAME]”

Step 5: Select the Tutor That Seems to Fit You the Best and Begin!

I’ve found that the key at first is to build the habit of practicing every day and getting used to it being a part of the day. I’ve also noticed that I find it easier to show up when I’ve paid for it in advance as I don’t waste money. Perhaps you’ll feel the same?

author headshot

Aske Christiansen

Expat Vault, Owner

Aske is the owner of Expat Vault. He helps expats make lifelong friendships and build their career abroad.

Speaks: Danish, English, German

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