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Expats: Learn the Local Language, Or Else Posted by on Dec 9, 2015 in Uncategorized

If you’re living in a foreign country, you should really learn the language.

Itchy Feet: Literally

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?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Jen:

    I think this hold true for well-monied people living in other counties, but I wonder if it can be applied to itinerant workers, many of whom have neither the means nor the time to learn another language, even if they are willing. Many of those individuals are living in poverty. Of course this also applies to refugees, many of whom may be moved from one country to the next in a search for a permanent home. Do they have an obligation to learn every language of the countries they pass through?
    Displaced people may want to keep their own culture alive, particularly if they are from a minority group, where their language is at risk of extinction.
    I also wonder how the author thinks this applies to individuals who are elderly, who have small children or are carers, doing daily tasks that occupy all their time, and to individuals with disabilities or learning difficulties. Not everyone who moves abroad has the means at their disposal, even if they have the inclination. Not everyone moves abroad by choice. Do children have an obligation of moved by their parents?
    I’d like to hear the authors thoughts on these groups. I don’t think shaming people is fair. it doesn’t strike me as being so cut and dried.

    • Jakob Gibbons:

      @Jen It seemed to me like the author was mostly addressing (wealthier/not poor) expatriates who move to another country because they want to, rather than people who are forced there for economic or other reasons 🙂

      Your point makes total sense though — in big, developed countries, especially the ones where English or another global language is the official one, it’d probably be a lot more productive to work on state integration and language learning programs than just shaming economic migrants who lack the time and money resources to invest in learning a language.

      But I definitely agree with Malachi that, at least for the generation of globally mobile Westerners living the laptop life, we do have a responsibility to learn the language anywhere we put down roots for a bit. Plus that way you get to learn another language!

      • Malachi Rempen:

        @Jakob Gibbons Very good points, Jen. In my haste to rant and rave, I was thinking too strictly along the lines of Jakob’s middle-class-mobile-youth, and didn’t stop to consider others that might not fit that mold.

        I agree completely that not everyone has these means or will or even obligation, so thank you for making that distinction clear!

  2. Eniko Frenyo:

    Thank you for this article!I love the article and I also love the comments. I am Hungarian, I have lived in Ireland for 10 years and now I have been living in Spain since January. My partner is keen on both Spanish and Catalan however he is working in a company where he has to speak English and French. He is also new at this company thus he must pay attention to his work. What I am trying to emphasize here is that he is so tired, that after work he needs to either swim to relax or just sleep. He could study on Saturdays however we really want to enjoy life too. I still believe that we must learn at least Spanish as Catalan is really more difficult than Spanish. We really try our best. I met so many immigrants here, who would love to speak the language, however all they do is trying to survive on a daily basis selling tissues on the train or begging. As a conclusion I totally agree with Malachi, Jacob and Jen. And read the poem about this here :

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