Do I need to learn a new language when moving abroad?

This is a great question to ask yourself and one that comes with multiple answers. In our case we were told by numerous people that learning the language wasn’t essential or even necessary. So we went along to Spain completely clueless about the Spanish language and struggled on through as best we could. It wasn’t great through! One of the recommendations here came from our English landlords who, as it turned out, spoke pretty good Spanish. I’m not sure how they could then suggest that not knowing the language was OK being that they could easily sort problems if they needed to. Not a rant for this post but something I’ll cover at a later date.

Back to the question – I’ve come to the conclusion that the real answer to this question is ‘It all depends on your circumstances’.

Based on my experience in Spain I reckon you can pretty much fall into two pots of people, which are:

  1. Pot 1 – Those with a considerable amount of spare cash or backup money don’t need to learn the language (as much)
  2. Pot 2 – Those who have no backup money and not a lot of spare cash each month should learn the basics and then some

You might question why I’m relating the volume of money you have to whether you need to learn a new language. I’ve tried to cover this as best as possible by creating a few scenarios and summarising the response from the two different view points.

Scenarios

Utility bills are higher than expected

This actually comes from my own personal experience. Imagine you’ve budgeted to the Euro how much your bills are going to be. You’ve researched as much as possible before relocating and now you’re just hoping that the numbers you have match the numbers that come through the door on the first bill. The bill arrives and it’s over €100 more than you expected it to be.

Pot 1 don’t panic straight away. They know they have a back up fund and have more income going into the bank than they need for monthly bills so regardless of whether it’s correct or not they know they will be able to pay the bill. They might do something to understand whether the bill is correct or not but it’s not a really big deal.

Pot 2 (me) panic (or worry). They don’t have any spare cash to chuck at this inflated bill and they have no idea whether it will continue to be this high. If they were in their native country they would ring the company straight away to understand the bill and work out how they could pay it. As they don’t speak the language in the new country it’s going to be very difficult to contact the company and ask detailed questions on the bill to make sure they’re covered for future bills. In my case I managed to get a work colleague to call on my behalf but this didn’t work very well and I never really did find out whether the bill was right or not. They probably end up just paying the bill but at the detriment to money elsewhere, potentially shopping money or disposable.

Something breaks in your property, or with your car/motorbike

You come home one day and find that you’ve got a pipe leaking in the house. Or perhaps you take your moped for an MOT and it fails because there’s a problem with the steering column (this was my example!). Your first challenge is that you have to find someone to come and sort things out, but then what about the cost?

Pot 1 don’t have to worry too much about finding the most reasonable price for a trader (or trying to work out the price at all). It’s another conversation they don’t need to have. They can get someone in and know that, excluding anyone who charges silly prices, they will easily be able to pay for the work needed. They may get annoyed about high costs of something but they can get the work done quickly regardless as it won’t eat into their day to day budgets.

Pot 2 once again don’t have spare cash flow to be chucking at these things so they need to be really careful about who they use. They’ll also likely want to try and get a fairly concrete price upfront before going ahead with any work. Not knowing the language in this scenario potentially means delaying the work until you’re happy with the cost of the work or you’ve found a support person who speaks the same language as you.

See the pattern here?

I could go on with these scenarios for a long time but the basic principle is that when you’re living that bit more comfortably and have a bit of a safety net you can be less vigilant (if you choose). There’s less need to know the detail of the basic financial transactions that are going on around you as you know you’ve got them covered and don’t need to worry. If you’re living a little bit ‘hand to mouth’ like we were then you’ve got no buffer. Whenever a challenge comes up you’re more likely to need to know the ins and outs so you can work out your budget and plan accordingly. Without the language this is much more difficult and something you’ll struggle to do without help.

There’s a bit more to it than that

There are of course a load of other things to factor into this view. For example, think about when you go on holiday to another country and how you get by without knowing the language. You’ll generally be able to speak to the people in the hotel as they’ll have multiple languages. You’ll normally be OK in restaurants, bars, taxis, attractions and anywhere/thing else that tourists would normally be using.

Now think about all the things you have to do in your day to day life and whether the people you interact with in those situations are likely to be able to speak to you. Examples would be schooling, government/taxes, healthcare, public transport, utilities/bills, mobile phone/internet, car servicing, maintenance and anything else that’s a bit more official and less tourist related.

So when people say ‘oh yeah, you can get by without knowing the language’ they’re not telling you lies. You can get by, depending on where you go. The moment you need to do something official or fix a problem though you’re likely to encounter multiple problems because you don’t know the language. There’s a good chance things will take longer and cost more because you’re unable to negotiate and unable to understand what’s being done around you.

Even if you have backup funds it won’t necessarily help you with the healthcare and the government related challenges as you can’t send someone else on your behalf to hospital if you’re not well. Having more cash flow would mean that you’re more likely to be on private healthcare though and you’ll be in a better position to get hold of a doctor who speaks your language.

An example I have where money wouldn’t have made much difference was on my commute home one night. I was on the train and it seemed to be having a few technical problems. Eventually it stopped at one of the underground stations outside Barcelona and sat there for around two hours. I had no idea what was going on and couldn’t ask anyone. There were announcements coming over the speakers and I didn’t know what they meant. I just had to follow the crowd and hope for the best. If you don’t know the language then these situations will crop up a lot!

There’s another great benefit to learning the language, which revolves around being part of the community. The locals will really appreciate it if you’ve put the effort in to understand the language and attempt to speak to them in their mother tongue rather than try and force them to speak yours. I had a couple of situations where I got praise from the Spanish for trying, even though I was rubbish!

Summary

Bit of a shorter post compared to some of my others but I hope this gives you a feel for whether or not you’ll need to learn a new language for the country you’re moving too. From my experience I’d recommend that anyone moving abroad does whatever they can to understand the basics (bare minimum) before heading off. It’ll mean you’re life is less stressful, it’s easier to integrate into the community and you’re more equipped to handle the more ‘official’ situations such as healthcare, maintenance and day to day life that would come as second nature in your native country. I’ve included some of the resources I’ve used below and have also added in some links for options I haven’t used but have heard good things about.

In most countries you’ll probably be able to get along without knowing the native language but I guarantee it’ll make your life more painful and will impact the cost and timings of things that you’ll need to get done. And as a word of warning, just take other people’s advice with a pinch of salt when they tell you it’s easy to get by without knowing the language. Perhaps you could ask them how they handle some of the situations I’ve talked about above and see if they pay extra or get someone else to do it for them.

As always, drop me a note via the ‘contact me‘ page or leave a comment with any questions and I’ll do my best to answer.

All the best

Al

Language resources

 

– www.duolingo.com – free website and apple/android app to learn multiple languages

– www.mindsnacks.com – free apple app to learn multiple languages. This one is more game based and could be a good place to start prior to Duolingo. Available on Android in 2013 at some point.

Rosetta Stone – you may have seen the adds on TV for this. There’s a cost associated with it but from what I understand it’s a great product. In never got round to using it but I’m tempted to at some point on the future.

– Your local college/education centre – If you really want to take learning a new language seriously then it’s definitely worth taking a look at your local education centre and getting hold of a prospectus. They often run language course although it will depend on how you work best in terms of learning. I’m less of a classroom person and more of a ‘self taught’ person.

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