5 Reasons to Live Abroad in a Country That Doesn’t Speak Your Language

Updated February 2, 2016

Move to A country that doesn't speak your language

This post is part of a weekly series on living abroad in Spain. Check out previous posts like How I Moved to Spain to Teach English and Did I Make a Mistake Moving to Spain?

I have a confession to make. Before this year, I had only lived in countries that spoke English, my native tongue.

It felt like I had a glaring hole in my living abroad experience because each time I moved abroad it was to an English speaking country. Of course there are still differences in moving to a country that speaks the same language, but the shared history meant it always felt a little familiar.

I didn’t choose to move to only English speaking countries because I was afraid of moving to a country where English wasn’t the first language, I always wanted to live somewhere that spoke that foreign language but it just never quite happened.

When I was 15 I made my first decision to move abroad, and I didn’t make the choice to move to the United States because they spoke English, but because I always wanted to go to school there (blame The Babysitters Club!). Canada and Australia were financial moves, then I lived abroad in Edinburgh rather than the more common choice of moving to London. I might have had some trouble understanding some of what was going on to begin with, but the Scots do speak English!

I moved to Spain because I wanted to finally live in a country that didn’t speak English. Do I speak Spanish? No. While it’s been more difficult because of this and I’ve have my moments, I’ve started to become settled in my life in Spain and it’s turning out to be one of my best decisions yet.

So, why should you live abroad in a country that doesn’t speak your language?

1. Learn the benefit of a smile

Smiling goes a long way, as do hand movements! When you can’t speak the same language you learn how important body language is, and how nice it is when you can tell how friendly people are being, even when you can’t understand what they’re saying.

2. Learn how to cope and find ways to make it work

No clue what people are talking about? It may not be perfect, but there is Google Translate. Sometimes it won’t pick up the nuances of what you want to say but when I’m really stuck it definitely helps!

In a broader sense, moving to a country that speaks a different language teaches you more about yourself and how you cope with stressful situations. I’ve never noticed so clearly before how impatient I am! Another thing I didn’t expect when I moved to a country that doesn’t speak English was that I would have to learn to rely more on others to help me, which I also wasn’t so aware I don’t like doing.

3. Learn different systems and ways to do things

Living in several countries has given me an appreciation for the different ways that systems work, from everything to setting up a bank account to recycling or the different kinds of shops available. Dealing with so many different systems can be frustrating, especially when they don’t seem to make sense and you know it’s so much easier somewhere else, but once again it teaches patience and flexibility. Plus, should I ever want to run for government (I don’t!) I feel like I’d have a good idea about how some things could be improved!

4. Learn another language

This is the most obvious reason to move to a country where your native language isn’t widely spoken. A smile and and hand gestures might get you most of the way, but ultimately it can be tiring to not be able to properly communicate. I’m embarrassed I only speak one language, and moving to Spain is my kick in the butt to finally stop trying to half-heartedly learn Spanish and actually do it.

Moving to another country doesn’t guarantee learning the language though. It’s easy to build a bubble for yourself in your own language. I could communicate only in English in Spain if I wanted to, since everyone seems to want to learn, I live with a friend who speaks English, and I can get by in social situations. Instead I have been trying to learn as much as possible, and while most of the time I’m not that confident to try and form whole sentences, or I feel stupid speaking Spanglish, I’m slowly getting there!

5. Really travel off the beaten track

In the world of travelling people often talk about getting off the beaten path, finding “authentic” ways to travel and immersing yourself in another culture. You can’t REALLY do this though, unless you stay somewhere for longer. There are things you can only learn by living somewhere, and especially somewhere that doesn’t speak your language. I took me 3 weeks in Spain to realise why they give me a fork with my toast at breakfast, and I’m sure there are many more basic (and complex!) things I won’t understand for a good while longer! To really appreciate another culture though you’ll need to make sure you don’t stick to a bubble of your own making, especially if it’s somewhere popular with expats.

Ultimately, even if you find it really hard, even if you hate it, even if you don’t stick it out and go home, you won’t regret moving to a country that doesn’t speak your language. There’s too much to learn and be gained from the experience. That’s when you have the opportunity to really learn, grow, and be thrown into another culture. How could regret giving a chance to something that could change your life? Because you might also find it works out and you’ve made one of your best destinations ever.

Have you lived in a country that didn’t speak your own language? Why did you go and did it work out? 

Sonja x

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24 Comments

  • Reply Trekking with Becky February 3, 2016 at 11:16 am

    I can’t say I know exactly how you feel since I haven’t lived in a country where the language wasn’t my own; the first language I spoke was Japanese and I grew up with it. Even when I hear Japanese that I don’t understand, it never sounds foreign or strange to me. However, any Japanese that I used before going to Japan was casual and friendly, so I never learned formal/business Japanese…yikes!

    Having been to several countries where I don’t speak the language, I can definitely relate to how you feel, but someday, when I live in another country where English isn’t spoken, I’ll remember this post. 🙂

    Thank you so much for linking up this great post for Trekking with Becky’s #ExpatTuesday! 😀

    By the way, why do you get a fork with toast? 🙂

    • Reply Migrating Miss February 3, 2016 at 3:31 pm

      I would love to have grown up with another language like that! I’m hoping if I ever have children I can try and at least expose them to different languages early, although of course it will ultimately be their choice! I learnt Japanese for two years at high school but I can’t really remember anything at all now. It found it pretty difficult!

      The fork is to stab the bread so that when you put the olive oil on it it will sink in not just roll off the tomato or cheese or whatever on it. Makes total sense once you realise haha.

    • Reply Tasman June 11, 2017 at 10:22 pm

      I completely understand!, i am doing the same thing in the same country. I have just recently moved to Valencia to meet up with my girlfriend, who i met in Australia. The plans are very loose, but the goal is to try and make something work in Spain and from there who knows. I have found it very challenging, and i’ve had some great moments and some pretty low ones, but i can feel that in the beginning things are always going to be the hardest.
      For me the biggest thing is to learn the language, and i’ve started to dot that by joining a school in the area. Like you i haven’t learnt another language before and it’s something that i really want to do/need to do, seeing as all of my girlfriends friends are Spanish. So far it has been slow going, but i am noticing the words that you pick up one by one , that give you an insight into parts of peoples conversation.
      The experience so far has really pushed me, and has really put me out of my comfort zone. But for me it is the small victories that have been great. Ordering some coffee, or getting some groceries from the supermarket. It makes me feel a little bit more confident, even if i still don’t know when they are asking me if i want a plastic bag.

      • Reply Migrating Miss June 12, 2017 at 3:57 pm

        Hahaha oh the plastic bag thing, took me FOREVER. I still had moments when I would just an immediate “no” whenever someone would ask me something, and then I would realise what they said and be like wait! I understand! Yes! It’s definitely a challenge to move to a country where you don’t speak the language but like you’re finding, it’s also very rewarding and makes you appreciate the little things in life! Although Spanish bureaucracy is always a nightmare haha. Best of luck with the language learning! I recommend exchanges and speaking as much as you can even if it’s wrong, because understanding seems to come much faster than speaking (at least for me). Listening to podcasts helped me a bit too. If I ever had to walk anywhere I’d listen to one!

  • Reply Kelli February 3, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    This is a great list! When I first moved to the Dominican Republic, I didn’t speak Spanish and I was so frustrated and felt so helpless. I didn’t like not being able to take care of simple things (like ordering a pizza) by myself. But I taught me so much about myself! I didn’t learn as much Spanish as I wanted but I felt very accomplished when I was finally able to take care of myself again.

    • Reply Migrating Miss February 3, 2016 at 3:28 pm

      Thanks! I know exactly what you mean it’s been really frustrating for me too and I really dislike like being able to take care of things myself, but I’m getting there! The Dominican Republic would have been an awesome place to live 🙂

  • Reply Paulette Romero February 3, 2016 at 9:16 pm

    How did you end up moving to Spain? Did you have a job lined up or you basically work online? I’d like to move somewhere else myself as I’m an English teacher and a translator Eng-Spa. How are you learning Spanish? Through classes or just through every day encounters?

    • Reply Migrating Miss February 4, 2016 at 10:30 am

      I’m doing the Auxiliar de Conversacion program, I wrote about it in a previous post :). This means I already had some work lined up. The program is run through a lot of countries so maybe check it out! I’m learning Spanish with a tutor and then trying to practice a lot on my own. I have been a bit slack but I’m going to start practising a lot more. Most people want to speak in English with me so it can be hard to learn in everyday situations.

  • Reply Karen Wanderlustingk February 3, 2016 at 11:42 pm

    I ended up doing this when I moved to the Netherlands. I struggled a lot at first just being able to do basic things like just figuring out if the cashier wanted to give me the receipt back where I’d just start saying No in fear of what would happen if I said Yes. (Stupid, but true). I’m far from fluent now, but I’m comfortable enough to spend most of my days reading in dutch for work although I definitely struggle with social situations due to a limited vocabulary. I can do enough to get by until I get too deep in a conversation and I have no idea how to explain the often semi-complicated thing that I need to do (if it’s a company/govt thing) or weird item that I’m looking for. However, it is really rewarding to become comfortable enough listening to understand some of the little jokes/sense of humor that people make since you lose something not learning the language. It also can definitely be an impediment to making friends depending on the country.

    I hope you learn Spanish. It’s a beautiful language!

    • Reply Migrating Miss February 4, 2016 at 10:32 am

      I feel like dutch would be a very difficult language to learn! That’s great you made the move there and can actually get by at work. Definitely an achievement! I totally understand the just saying no thing, I find myself doing it a lot and I need to actually stop and ask people to repeat themselves or slow down. Most people would be happy to do so and I’m only hurting myself!

      I really hope I learn too. Best of luck to you!

      x

      • Reply Wanderlustingk February 5, 2016 at 12:35 am

        The most important is NOT to be afraid to try to speak it, no matter how bad you are. If you let fear paralyze you when it comes to speaking (especially for me at work), you will never learn it, which is where I’m stuck right now with Dutch. The best thing is to learn phrases for little things you do every day and the response needed as well as a some basic verbs/words related to that situation. From there, it’s easy to build and master that situation. 😉 If you explain outright that you’re learning and you might need something repeated, people will react positively and in Spain based on my experiences, be happy to help. Memorizing a short introduction to yourself is good too.

        • Reply Migrating Miss February 5, 2016 at 2:46 pm

          I think this is what I’m struggling with! Because I can’t put together a whole sentence I don’t even try, but I need to not be afraid to mix Spanish and English or just say the words that I do know and try at last. I was reading some tips (procrastinating actually learning…) and one said to make yourself a phrase book so every time I want to know how to say something I’m going to write it down in a little book so I can use it again later. Thanks for the support!

  • Reply Shelly February 4, 2016 at 5:22 pm

    Living in a country where you don’t speak the language has been a real eye opener for me. We have been in Panama now for 18 months and while our Spanish is improving there are still many every day things I would love to converse with people about, but my Spanish still isn’t good enough. Sadly, people here don’t get to know the real me (the funny sarcastic me) as I cannot convey that in Spanish.

    • Reply Migrating Miss February 4, 2016 at 8:52 pm

      I know what you mean about the humor! I feel like mine definitely doesn’t come across and I didn’t realise how much I relied on sarcastic comments to feel at ease in social situations. Hopefully we both get there soon!

  • Reply Katie Featherstone March 3, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    Thanks Sonja, this is really inspiring. I love your point about a smile and body language- I found it so important in South America when my Spanish was terrible! 🙂

    • Reply Migrating Miss March 3, 2016 at 1:30 pm

      Thanks Katie! It’s definitely not easy but I’m slowly getting there and I’m super determined to learn Spanish and make it work. I think body language and smiling are so key when travelling to places where you speak little or none of the language.

  • Reply Bradavon April 14, 2016 at 12:52 am

    Okay I have to ask, and Google failed me, why do they give you a fork with your toast for breakfast?

    I’m visiting in a few months so think I should know. I’ll be finding out then how well my Spanish lessons have paid off. I’m learning for this very reason to live somewhere that doesn’t speak English.

    Fun blog btw.

    • Reply Migrating Miss April 14, 2016 at 9:03 am

      Hahaha I forgot about this! It’s so you can poke into the bread to let the olive oil you put on top seep in. Especially if you have cheese you need to make holes in. I usually get tomato and then you put a little olive oil and salt on top!

      Good luck with Spain! I love it here. I didn’t start really learning Spanish until I got here, and it’s more difficult in the South with the accent but you’ll get the hang of it. 🙂

  • Reply Rahman April 23, 2016 at 10:32 am

    I’m happy you’ve pointed out the fact that it’s a good idea to learn about different systems and ways of doing things. Some people begin to complain, “I’ve never seen anything like that. Why don’t they do this instead of that?” and so on. These people shouldn’t travel. If they don’t want to learn, why do they travel?

    • Reply Migrating Miss April 23, 2016 at 1:15 pm

      Thanks! I’ve definitely learnt there is more than one way to do things from living in so many places. Interestingly, no one seems to be completely right (in my mind) and there are so many ways I’d love to pick and choose from each!

  • Reply Megan Johnson August 25, 2016 at 9:52 pm

    I jut moved to Framce to be an au pair and it is a bit though with the kids not knowing a lot of French, I just started learning at the beginning of the year, but self taught through Rosetta Stone and Duolingo so it is a bit hard. But it really puts you to the test and when my time is up here I will have been through ups and downs but I will be thankful for it and know I can push through what life has in store for me

    • Reply Migrating Miss August 25, 2016 at 10:47 pm

      It’s definitely a challenge, but you found like you’re up for it :). I find you still need to make an effort to learn the language even though you’re living there, but it is also the best place to do it. I’ve always found the rewards of living abroad and taking a chance far outweigh the hardship! Best of luck x

  • Reply Stephanie Gradzki June 1, 2017 at 7:38 am

    I love this article. I moved to Poland a week ago with two kids. My husband is back in the states so it’s just me here. I started to feel overwhelmed because it’s so difficult to get around via metro, bus, or tram when you can’t understand the signs. I’m trying my hardest to learn my way around the city, and I’m trying to pick up the language. I’ve already experienced so many things in this article. Hand gestures help, a lot. We are here to broaden the kids horizons. Poland opens up Europe for us. I am really so excited to be here. The kids are already learning so much!

    • Reply Migrating Miss June 1, 2017 at 11:53 am

      Thanks so much! I’m glad you could relate to the article. Moving somewhere where you don’t speak the language is a really difficult thing, but SO worth it in the end. I think your kids will thank you! Good luck!!

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