Learning the Local Language – a Key to Social Adaptation

As a non-native English speaker, I have had my fair share of English language faux pas over the years. Mostly, the mistakes have been innocent and without great consequence, such as mispronouncing a word or messing up grammatically. There are a couple of instances that my children will never let me forget – they particularly like to tease me about the time I got the expression “on the DL” (on the down-low, defined as “keeping an act, action or some other piece of information a secret”.) reversed. Yep, I asked them to keep something “on the LD”, which was immensely funny to them – it has been a source of entertainment to the family ever since.

Sure, I felt a little embarrassed about my mistake but clearly the consequences of my mix-up were non-existent – other than said occasional teasing by my children. There are times however when language gaps can present real problems, and within the globally mobile community, it’s definitely a concern. Studies show that it’s one of the big worries expats have before relocating. Furthermore, the ability to learn the local language is a contributing factor to how well someone settles in a foreign country.

Whether we like it or not, language is a social identifier. Think about it, in your home country with your own language, you can probably build yourself “a rough picture” of someone based on the way they speak – posh, working class, from the North, highly educated, and so on. That’s because the way a person speaks – dialect, choice of words, etc. is an indicator of sorts of where they come from and who they might be.

If you don’t speak the language where you are living you are always identifiable as “other”, and that in itself can be stressful and isolating. Likewise, if you speak the language a bit, but struggle to express more complicated thoughts, that is equally frustrating and can enhance the sense of isolation and not belonging. The nuances of everyday-life are harder to grasp when you have limited knowledge of the native language.

There are other concerns as well, practical tasks and business matters become much tougher when you don’t feel comfortable with the language – be it a phone call, a doctor’s visit or filling out school forms. I remember my first year abroad when I had to make phone calls to the bank, the utilities office, or any other “official” place – I truly dreaded it. Even though I spoke the language pretty fluently, I had a hard time understanding people over the phone and I felt like I struggled to find the right words, making me nervous and prone to mistakes.

My strategy was to write down what I wanted to say and practice out loud. Once I had gathered enough courage to make the call, all I could do was hope that the person on the other end of the line spoke clearly and slowly and without too strong of an accent.

Language barriers can come to have more serious consequences in the workplace. Especially if you have an international workforce where many people have different mother tongues and English is the common shared language. The chances of misunderstandings and miscommunication are pretty big. Also, in a professional environment you may feel less likely to admit to not understanding or parsing a conversation, thinking it may reflect poorly on you.  

Learning a foreign language can feel like a big-time task, but the impact on social adaptation can’t be underestimated. As I always tell my kids when they complain about homework – learning a foreign language should be done vigorously and wholeheartedly, and definitely not on the DL…

By: Felicia Shermis

Source: HSBC Expat Survey

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