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Living Abroad: Do you need to be able to speak the local language?

Living Abroad: Do you need to be able to speak the local language?

Over the course of the last few decades, the UK has become what is now known to many as the “emigration nation.” It is a country whose nationals choose to flee the bitter weather in favour of a warmer climate, a new and improved lifestyle or a life of relaxation.

In 2014, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that 318,000 more people chose to leave the United Kingdom than enter it. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Brits decide to make this bold move abroad – the vast majority of these do it with no prior knowledge of local customs and the language spoken in their country of choice. This raises the question: how important is speaking the local lingo when choosing to make a move abroad?

There are a lot of reasons in favour of taking the time to learn the local tongue:

Respecting the locals

I think it is fair to say that you’re much more likely to get on with your new neighbours if you at least attempt to engage with them in their own tongue, rather than taking the “Brit abroad” approach of assuming that everyone speaks English.

Maybe it’s a cliché, but it is true that manners don’t cost a thing. Learning how to say basic phrases, such as “hello”, “thank you,” “please” and “how are you?” make you much more approachable and you’re likely to benefit more in the long run.

Making friends

People are much more likely to make an effort to be friends with you and invite you to social events if you make the effort to communicate with them in their own language. Not everyone in the world speaks English and living in a foreign country can be challenging if you aren’t able to make friends.



At the same time, there are ample opportunities abroad to be part of an English-speaking network. There are hundreds of open Facebook groups available to join to make friends with other English-speaking people in your area, so if you’re reluctant to learn a foreign language then there are options for you.

There are hundreds of posts available online with hints and tips on how to make friends abroad, with or without language skills, as well as websites such as MeetUp which are readily available and easy to navigate.


The last thing you want when you’ve made your dream move is to be left in the lurch in an emergency. Whether it be arranging doctor’s appointments, sorting out prescriptions in the pharmacy or calling the police, having basic local language skills does nothing but come in handy. If you have any medical conditions, learn the name of them in the target language as a precautionary measure and be prepared for situations where you may need to call the police.


Assuming you’re moving abroad with the intention of working, even basic local language skills will increase your chances of getting a good job. English language skills abroad are incredibly employable but having additional language skills will get you the job in the first place. These language skills will allow you to work on a more international level, as well as increasing your employability if you ever decide to return to the UK. It also makes it easier to communicate with colleagues.


If you’re raising a family out in your new home, then being able to aid them with their studies usually requires knowledge of the local language. Research done by InterNations claims that slightly more than half of expats raise their children to be bilingual and speaking from experience, there’s nothing more frustrating for a parent than hearing your children speak a language to one another that you can’t understand. Every parent wants to have an active role in their child’s education so improving your language skills whilst living abroad allows for a more inclusive role.

So how do you go about learning the lingo?

Websites such as My Language Exchange are run with expats in mind.

vocab list

Last year, I took on a teaching placement in Strasbourg, France. I’m lucky in the sense that I have a languages degree behind me, but I am by no means fluent in French. I personally used this website and a number of other, similar resources to help me further improve my language skills whilst I was living abroad.

The best thing? Your language level is completely unimportant. It doesn’t matter if you’re a complete beginner, or if like me you just want to smooth out any language difficulties, this website accommodates whatever need you have. It is an incredibly useful tool for helping your language skills. What’s more, it offers you the chance to meet like-minded people and make long-lasting friendships.

Meetups are casual, done over a coffee or a pint in the pub, so you’re able to feel at ease and get rid of all the anxieties associated with language learning. What’s more, because it’s an exchange programme, it’s completely free of charge.

Picking up a language whilst living abroad is much easier than one would believe. You learn little phrases and words passively whilst out in the supermarket, for example. Even watching 10 minutes of local news broadcast in the local language increases the likelihood of you picking up the language. Write your shopping list in the local language. Look around you for objects whose names you don’t know in the target language and look them up. If you’re willing to try, you will reap the rewards.

But I’m rubbish at languages…

Obviously, the necessity to learn the local tongue depends entirely on the country itself. In countries where English is a first language alongside the local language, the necessity to learn the language isn’t as much as in a country where English is rarely spoken. In these countries, English communities have formed with pubs, restaurants and shops being run exclusively by English speakers.

Learning languages is a skill which isn’t right for everyone. If it’s not right for you, there are ways around it and you shouldn’t base your decision to move abroad on whether or not you can speak the local lingo.

There are ways of surviving abroad in communities that speak a foreign language without foreign language skills, but there are obviously benefits to having some knowledge. As long as you are respectful to your new neighbours and acknowledge that their language is the local language and not yours, you will have absolutely no problems.


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