Learn the language of my expat country: when? How?

learn language expat
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Imagine arriving in your new country, you’re at the airport and you don’t understand a word of the announcements… most signs are also in english but not all… what do they mean ? What is this airport official asking me ? And the sign on these doors, does it say push or pull ?

Well honestly, the push and pull is something we don’t always pay attention to in our own land either, but I have to say I struggled several months in Brazil, because I kept confusing the 2 words « empurre » and « puxe », they are so similar. Also, the pronunciation of « puxe » is very close to push, but it means pull !

Anyway, these first few minutes in a new country are quite stressful even without the language barrier, so yes, it could be a good idea to know at least a few words before you leave.

The thing is, when you start talking about learning a new language, everyone has an opinion, but no one has the same opinion. As for me, I have have learned various languages at different moments and using various methods. I currently speak 6 languages, and teach a couple of them, so I’m not only talking from personal experience, but also from seeing other people learn a language. I have been able to see how different people react to different methods, what depends on a personal situation and what is common to most people.

So which one is more efficient : learning the language before leaving or learning it once you arrive in the country ? Actually, it depends on your personal situation : do you have enough time in your preparation to take a language course before leaving ? Or will you be moving pretty quickly ? So the answer is probably a little bit of both worlds.

If you have enough time before moving to your new country, you can sign up for a language course. It will provide you with basics on the language, its structure, its ‘music’. But you might find that, despite your motivation, you feel like you’re not learning efficiently. Why ? Because you are simply not using the language in your everyday life ! Also, you are learning the ‘proper’ language, which can be pretty different from the language you will hear once you settle in your new country. For instance, the various latin american countries have developed their own version of the spanish langages, they don’t all you the same pronouns (the argentinian ‘vos’ doesn’t exist in the countries above the Amazon), they developed other grammatical forms, their own pronunciation, and of course, they each have their own slang (the word ‘straw’ has almost as many translations as there are countries in Latin America!). These are things you can not learn in a standard language course. Of you have the possibility, you can try and find a local community of expats coming from your future country, so you can practice with them. If you don’t feel like taking a course or if you can’t, there are also many apps and online videos you can use to learn the language.

Another important key to learning a new language is through culture : listen to local music ! You can look up current hits or more classical, iconic tunes. Just try and fin rather slow songs, so you can have a chance to grab some of the meaning. For instance, when we were preparing to move to Brazil, I dug up the famous « Lambada ». I honestly did not understand a single word of the song, but it did give me an idea of what the language sounded like, and my ears started getting used to the very unique ‘music’ of brazilian portuguese.

But again, if you don’t have the opportunity to start learning the language before you move, don’t worry ! We all panic the first time someone addresses us in a foreign language. Whether you started learning or not, you will have that moment of total brain freeze. « What is he saying ? He is talking to me ! I don’t know what he wants !? ». Why don’t you understand it ? Because we don’t pronounce words the way they are written. How do you think foreigners react when they hear, for the first time, english natives using « ain’t » or « y’all » ? Probably something like « What was that ? I don’t remember learning about that pronoun ! What does it mean ? ». Also, ‘normal’ people tend to speak fast, especially when they are not used to talking to foreigners. We all speak fast, and we eat up half of the words, without even realizing it. It is only when you see a foreigner’s expression that you find out how difficult it is to follow such a conversation. Just to say that, no matter how much you’ve been learning and practicing, there is always a huge gap between classroom language and everyday-in-the-street language.

So how do I learn to speak the language fluently ?

When you settle in your new country, there are basically three methods to learn the basics of the language : take a course in a language school, take one-on-one classes with a tutor, or attend a university course. I have personally tested all three of these options, and all of them have in common that your teacher will be a native speaker who can introduce local slang and particularities, and who knows about foreigners’ difficulties. As for the differences between methods, here are the pros and cons of each one :

A tutor is more expensive, but it enables you to have totally adapted classes. If you work in a specific area or have questions about a particular situation, the tutor will teach you exactly what you need. You will be pampered, in a room where you can speak slowly. It’s comfortable, but it doesn’t necessarily prepare you for noisy environments or fast conversations for example. In a language school, you will learn fast thanks to a proven method. It will enable you to meet with other foreigners who are in a situation very similar to yours. At university, you can add the oppotunity to meet also local students, so to connect with various native speakers. It is also a place where you can get involved in social and cultural activities. Of course, all three choices are good, and you need to take into account your budget (from low in university to highest for a tutor), your schedule and availability (try signing up in a language school when you are at home with an infant and no one to watch over him!), and of course it should just feel good to you !

The classes will provide you with the basics in terms of grammar, sentence construction and vocabulary, but even with excellent grades, it doesn’t mean you are fluent. To develop more vocabulary and more natural phrasing, I highly recommend : A) watching cartoons with the kids ; B) watching TV news and of course the telenovelas, which are the best introduction to both slang and latin culture.

Finally, the best way to speak a language like people in the streets do is to… go out on the street, start talking to people : ask for directions, order some coffee, enter the stores and accept the help of a salesperson. Of course it is hard at first ! But don’t give up, you will get there. You will realize that, little by little, you start understanding more words, from main words you get to understanding sentences, and before you know it you will be attending a meeting totally held in your new language ! And of course, the more you speak, the more you’ll be able to make nice sentences, and the easier it’ll become.

If you have any worries or questions about learning a new language, hit the contact button or send me a message : mariette@mylatamexpat.com

So that’s for learning your new language. But what about saying it right, with the correct accent ?

We’ll talk about that in post… so stay in touch !

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