Expats: Learn the Local Language, Or Else Posted by Malachi Rempen on Dec 9, 2015 in Uncategorized
If you’re living in a foreign country, you should really learn the language.
Touring is one thing. It’s okay to be a tourist and not speak a word of the local tongue. In my experience, speaking even a little bit will get you much farther, but it’s certainly not a requirement. You’re just passing through; nobody expects you to be conversational.
But if you are living (let’s generously define “living” as six months or more) in a foreign land, imbibing the local culture on a much more intimate level, participating in, contributing to and benefiting from the local society, you should at least learn how to talk to the people in the language of their hearts.
I would guess that in most places, it’s impossible not to learn the local language. Your typical countryside town probably won’t be very proficient in English to begin with, even just passing through as a tourist, but if you were to try to start a life there, even a temporarily, you’d have no choice but to pick up the local language – probably along with the local dialect and accent! In fact, even though English is commonly spoken in big cities and tourist areas around the globe, to live there you’d still probably have to learn to talk native.
But this isn’t the case everywhere. In Berlin, where I live, English is very widely spoken. There’s a thriving expat community, and most local Germans are quite proud of their excellent English, and rightfully so. However, it’s led to a new class of expatriate: the willfully ignorant (I admit it’s entirely possible that this kind of expat has always existed, and I’m just now noticing it). They don’t have to learn the language, so why bother? All their friends, work colleagues and schoolmates, German and otherwise, speak perfectly good English. Some of them have been here for years (years!), but if they have trouble with an official letter or at the town hall, they can just bring someone along to translate. And German is hard! Their time is better spent elsewhere. Right?
Wrong. Shame on these people. Shame on them!
You can’t truly become a local, no matter how long you live somewhere, if you don’t speak the local language. It’s as simple as that. You’ll always be an outsider. And think about it: is that who you want to be? Yes, in many cultures you’ll be considered an outsider forever just by dint of your values or cultural background or skin color. But if you speak the language, you’ll have a door into people’s hearts that you wouldn’t have even with the same values, background and skin color.
You don’t even have to speak that much! Enough to have a simple conversation is plenty. It demonstrates to locals that you are trying. You consider their language valuable, and that’s a much stronger sign of your respect for them than wearing the same hats they do or eating the same food. Think about it the other way around: if someone lived in your country for several years and didn’t bother to learn the language, how would you feel about it?
I know I’ve complained often enough about how difficult language learning can be for various reasons, but you don’t have to be fluent. You don’t even really have to be conversational. You just have to show that you’re trying. It’s the least you can do.
I realize that if you’re reading this on a language learning blog, you’re probably not one of these people! But it’s something we can all keep in mind, both at home and abroad, wherever that may be.
Anyone have a good counter-argument?