There is no clear champion when it comes to the challenges an expat partner faces through the course of relocation. Different individuals react differently when confronted with the tasks and circumstances of moving abroad — many find the process to be stressful and emotionally draining, others have an easier time. However, when the relocation dust settles and the partner has had a chance to reflect on, and sort out, their own feelings, physical and social isolation is one of the biggest pain points you hear about — across the board.
Scholars and researchers are quite unanimous in the assessment that learning the new language, or at least taking the first steps to learn it, is the most effective and easy way to adapt to a new culture, this goes for employee and partner alike. It gets you on a clear path to start bringing down the cultural barriers and get going towards finding a new social environment. As is often the case in all things cross-cultural, whether the goal is to achieve personal satisfaction in a new location or business success, or anything in between, communication is the key.
Then why? Why do the expat partners, who will typically dedicate endless energy to supporting the employee through the transition and helping their kids get settled and connected to their new life, often ignore this important step for themselves? Is it a lack of time? A lack of resources? Time can be an issue, especially at the early stages of relocation, however, for many, that changes once the family is settled. Access to resources vary of course, but in many locations, there is everything from private tutors, to traditional “second language learning” classes, to corporate learning tools. And if none of those are available or viable, there is a number of language learning apps that are effective when first starting out. And then there is this — what better place is there to learn a language than in an environment where the native speakers are all around you?
Yet, many report having a hard time getting started with language learning. So then could it be something as simple as fear holding us back? The human insecurity heightened by the experience of being away from the familiar, safe and “normal”? Is it because we are afraid of being discovered as different: the accent, the grammatical mistakes, the complete loss at how to use slang terms. Are we afraid to be funny, strange, foreign, misunderstood? Just afraid…?
The most successful expats I have ever known were 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. He would engage in every conversation he could. People raised their brows at his absolute mutilation of the language, he often totally failed to get his point across, but he connected with people. Over and over again. Within a year he had a city full of friends and he was fluent. This recipe never fails.
People tend to be curious about newcomers, especially when the newcomers are showing an interest in learning the language. So, perhaps the best thing one can do is to step out and lean into being different. To embrace your accent. Gather every word you know and start engaging. Speak to the server at your local café, to the lady in the grocery store check-out line, to your spouse’s co-worker at a social event. Take the time to meet with other relocated people around you and practice speaking together. You will then discover that the world is waiting to meet you. With a smile, and with a myriad of accents of its own.
By: Elena Mosko