Learning a new language when you live abroad can be both pleasurable and painful. Although it's nice to observe daily signs of progress, it is also challenging and frustrating when you are already living in a new country and need to deal with bureaucracy, make new friends, and work or study in this foreign language. It’s completely different from learning it when you are back home, just for fun. And although many experts say that "the need" can help you learn faster, I've noticed from personal experience that it can add extra pressure on ourselves, and in some cases, make us less open to the language itself. Why?
Because everyday situations can cause a lot of anxiety and stress when you are an expat. Things that we never imagined to be challenging when we were living in our native country turns out to be a nightmare when we live abroad. Let me give you some examples that I am sure you can relate to.
When I first moved to Germany back in 2013 I didn’t have a smartphone in the beginning and even afterwards the internet data from prepaid cards were quite limited at that time (yes, so much has changed in just 7 years!). I remember vividly my first visit to the supermarket with my flatmate that had also just arrived from Vietnam. We were excited to be in Germany and to meet each other, so we went shopping for food and some German beer to celebrate our arrival. It was the beginning of my realization that as an expat the daily tasks would take twice as long because everything needed translation and I would never be really sure about what I was buying in the first few months. For such a simple task we spent over one hour but we went back home quite happy thinking that the “mission was successfully accomplished”.
We drank our first beer and halfway through the second I asked my friend if she also had the feeling the beer was quite light, to which she said yes. It was only then that we realized we've bought alcohol-free beers. Currently, it wouldn’t be a problem for me as I don’t drink alcohol anymore, but at that moment it was just too funny. We spent 1 hour at the supermarket trying to decipher the words in every product and it was just so overwhelming that we overlooked the quite straight forward word “Alcoholfrei” in the label.
And that was only one situation! My first visit to a cosmetic shop to buy a face cream and a hair conditioner was an equal failure, without a translator and not being able to communicate to the person that worked at the store. Even after 7 years of living abroad, I come back home with the wrong product sometimes - it happened again just about a month ago.
Back home, I used to love talking on the phone and I would never have a problem to call a service or a place to book an appointment, ask questions, or solve a problem. Since I moved abroad, talking on the phone demands a huge preparation beforehand. I need to think about what I want to say, the words I will use, how I will ask things. I need to be prepared for maybe not understand what the person says on the other side of the line and be ready to ask them to speak Langsam (slowly in German) - but more than that, be prepared that they will not like it.
Language barriers can also bring extra stress when trying to make new friends. If you are talking to only one person, that might not be a huge problem, but maybe, like me, you’ve also experienced the terror of being the only one on a birthday party that doesn’t speak the damn language. It’s painful, isn’t it? Not only not being able to communicate, but also not wanting to kill the vibe and ask everybody else to speak English or slowly because you are the only one there that don’t master the language yet.
Finally, and perhaps the most important, not being able to speak the country’s language make us miss a lot of social interaction and culture understanding, but also gives us the feeling that we are not being ourselves. It touches upon being you: you suddenly cannot communicate as effectively, can’t be as funny, neither understand the jokes in a conversation. And that’s even more hurtful.
BUT WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN?
Because living abroad exposes inner questions that were asleep when we were on our comfort zone. In the case of learning a language, there are two main questions at play.
The first one is the expectations that we put in ourselves and the disappointment that this might cause. We feel that learning a new language from scratch will be super easy and fast, that we will meet a lot of people that will be patient to speak with us in this new language and that it will be super comfortable to do that. We think that if we study just a bit we will be fluently quite fast. The problem is that reality comes with a shocking truth: learning a new language takes a lot of time and effort, is incredibly tiring and much more difficult than it looks. In this case, our mismatched duo "expectations vs reality" causes us to be frustrated about ourselves and to think that there is something wrong with us. That we are not smart or dedicated enough.
The second one is our perfectionism and the fact that we do not like to make mistakes. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to speak everything correctly, but this fear of saying something wrong blocks us from learning further. In the end, this fear boils down to the difficulty of dealing with rejection that most of us have. This fear is commonly accompanied by thoughts such as “What if they don’t like me? What if they think I am stupid?”. But the acceptance that we can make mistakes is fundamental if you are living abroad and learning everything anew.
FINALLY, HOW CAN WE SOLVE THIS?
To live in harmony with yourself when it comes to learning a new language abroad, there are a few paradigms that need to be shifted. In other words, we all have certain thought patterns that need to be challenged in order to create the positive change we so much look for.
Accept that you are not going to speak perfectly. Period. Take this weight out of your shoulders and understand that even if you do make mistakes speaking the new language, you still can achieve so much in this new country.
Lighten up and laugh a bit about yourself and the mistakes you make
If you are afraid of other people making fun of you when you speak the new language, try to put the situation in perspective. Have you ever thought that people might not judge you for making mistakes or pronouncing things a bit differently, but rather think that the way you speak is cute or even charming? I know I do that when my boyfriend tries to speak Portuguese.
Realize that your mistakes tell a story. They tell YOUR story. The fact that you are living in this new country and learning this new language gives the people around you a unique opportunity to get to know a new world, a new culture, and ultimately to grow. Your vulnerability of communicating even when making mistakes reflects your courage of leaving your country and comfort zone, and that’s more than enough. Trust me in that.
Think that you are doing a massive effort to speak a new language, whereas many people that live in this new country have never thought about learning a second language. You should be definitely proud of that about you!
Remember that to unblock your fear of speaking a new language and making mistakes is going to help you in many different areas of your life because it will support you on dealing with your fear of being imperfect, to accept your imperfections.
Recognize that starting everything from scratch can bring you countless growth opportunities. Speaking a new language gives you the power to be a new version of yourself too. Have you ever heard that our personalities change when we speak a different language?
Learn to say: “Sorry, I didn’t understand, could you repeat?”. Remember that even in your native language you have said the same sentence before. Why would you be afraid to use it when you are living abroad?
Acknowledge the fact that you will feel like a child sometimes because everything is going to be new. Sometimes you might feel silly or stupid, but that’s not true. Accept that you don’t know everything and that you don’t need to know it all. Own your mistakes, learn to let yourself look silly, and stop caring about what other people think of you. As I’ve heard once, you'd be surprised to know how seldom they do think about you.
Reconnect with your humility and be open. Remember that living abroad is having to learn everything anew, and that’s okay!
And if you feel like you need support in this process of overcoming negative thought patterns and creating the life you want to have abroad, I am always here for you! Coaching is a powerful tool to help you in this process and will open you many doors.