Of the many challenges that an expat partner faces through the course of relocation, there is no one clear champion. Different individuals react differently when they are confronted by the myriad move-related tasks and circumstances that are not just bothersome and uncomfortable, but often painful.
Yet when the relocation dust settles and the partner has a chance to reflect and assess his/her feelings, we frequently hear about the physical and social isolation as the biggest pain point.
Research has shown that learning the local language, or at least taking the first steps to learning it, is an effective and easy way to adapt to a new culture. It gets you on a clear path toward starting to bring down the cultural barrier and finding your new social environment. It seems obvious that during the relocation experience, an ability to communicate will be key to feeling connected, both locally and globally.
So why is it that expat spouses, who dedicate endless energy to supporting the employee through the transition, and helping the kids get settled in and get connected to their new life, often ignore this important step for themselves?
Is it lack of time? This is typically not the primary obstacle, since most expat spouses are unable to join the workforce in their new location, and are often searching for something to do once the initial move-related flurry of activity dies down. Is it lack of resources or access? Not really! There are a host of options waiting to be utilized: from English-as-Second-Language classes on a budget, to private tutors, to online courses and state-of-the-art corporate learning tools. Not least, an environment where native speakers are all around you is ideal for learning a foreign language.
Could the real reason simply be fear? One’s innate human insecurity may be heightened by the experience of being away from all that is familiar, safe, and normal. We are afraid of being misunderstood because we don’t follow the meaning behind cryptic idioms and slang terms, while we struggle to express simple ideas. We are afraid of making mistakes with a bad accent or the wrong pronunciation, or of using an incorrect word or conjugation and appearing dumb. We are afraid of being different: thought of as odd, strange, and foreign.
The most successful expats are those who are fearless. I remember my shock (backed by a rather decent command of English since my early teens) at a friend who showed up in London with about 100 English words in his vocabulary and would engage in every conversation he could get into. People raised their eyebrows at his absolute mutilation of the language. He often totally failed to get his point across, yet he connected with people. Over and over again and within a year he had a city full of friends and he was fluent. This recipe never fails. Try it for a day and let us know how it went.
Step out! Lean into being different. Take the language challenge. People are curious about newcomers. Embrace your accent. Gather every word you know and start engaging. It is easy to make connections in America. Speaking to a complete stranger is almost always acceptable and perceived as friendly. Speak to the server at your local café, to the lady in the grocery store checkout line, and to your spouse’s co-worker at a social event. Make time to meet with other relocated accompanying partners through local and company-sponsored spouse networks, and practice speaking together.
You will discover that the world is waiting to meet you. With a smile, and a myriad of accents of its own.