Illustrations by Alejandro Mesa.
Even if you’ve never lived in another country, you probably know someone — maybe a family member or friend — who decided to pack their bags and make a fresh start abroad. There are those who move for work or to study, and others who are simply looking for new opportunities. There are those who go on vacation and never come back, and others who move to be closer to loved ones. There are endless reasons to emigrate, but in the end, moving abroad (especially to a country where people don’t speak English) means being in situations that will undoubtedly test your patience. In these cases, speaking the local language will make a huge difference. Here’s how:
1. The Visa To Live The Dream
Let’s start at the beginning: If you want to move permanently or live in another country for more than 6 months, you’ll constantly have to deal with consulates and visas. Even though English is spoken in many consulates, and a lot of the relevant information is often offered in English, forms and “small print” are usually exclusively in the local language. For example, in Germany, where about 60% of the population is proficient in English, the Foreign Office is notorious for having only German-speaking personnel. If you want to succeed in the first step of your move abroad, you’ll need to have a command of the local language.
Sure, you can always go to expensive agencies that take care of some of the paperwork beforehand, but once you get off the plane, you’ll have to handle things on your own (or hire an even more expensive translator).
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2. Adapting To The New Country
Moving to another country is an experience that necessarily includes mixed feelings. On the one hand, there’s the excitement of a new place and of facing a new challenge. But on the other hand, many uncertainties have to be dealt with, as well as a nostalgia for what one left behind. Understanding and being understood is one of the best ways to adapt and cope with the first moments of change. Simple situations such as buying coffee in the morning, figuring out how to use the metro-ticket machine, or even trying to book a hotel room can be challenging. They might seem insignificant, but they will generate frustration if you don’t speak the language. Especially over time, these small irritations can build up to become a real burden.
Even in Europe (in countries such as Germany, France, Greece or Italy), English may not take you very far. To give you an everyday example: dealings with your landlord. In the nearly 8 years that I’ve been living abroad, I can tell you from personal experience that the level of English of most landlords is very low — they’re a generation that decided to invest their time in other things. They’re also the ones providing you with a service, so if you want to get a broken pipe fixed or internet installed, you’d better be able to communicate with them.
3. Bürokratie, burocrazia, burocratie, biurokracja...
The word “bureaucracy” refers to the set of procedures that must be followed to resolve administrative tasks — something every adult has to deal with at some point. If you already feel frustrated handling them in English, imagine talking to irritated civil servants and filling out paperwork in Russian, German or Turkish! It’s not fun at all, and the only way you’ll get through it is by … speaking the local language.
Now, I’m not even talking about buying a house or setting up a business, but about basic things. This includes tasks like getting health insurance, registering your home address in a city, getting your tax information (and subsequently filing your taxes), acquiring license plates for your car, switching over your driver’s license, or simply opening a bank account. Pretty necessary, right? All of these will require speaking to (often bitter) locals and filling out documents in another language.
If you already feel frustrated handling bureaucratic tasks in English, imagine talking to irritated civil servants and filling out paperwork in Russian, German or Turkish! It’s not fun at all, and the only way you’ll get through it is by speaking the local language.
4. Day-To-Day Complications
Here are two common situations that can easily make you panic when you’re in a place where you don’t speak the language. First, all those simple questions at the cash register: Do you need a bag? Will you pay with cash or by credit card? Do you have, or would you like to have a points card? Do you want to donate 1 cent to the abandoned kittens foundation? Every question adds another drop of sweat to your forehead. In the end, you pay and walk away thinking that you said everything wrong but you managed to get what you wanted. Hopefully.
Second situation: You managed to get an internet plan with unlimited calls to your country of origin for an incredible rate. When the first bill arrives, you realize that you’re being charged three times as much as you thought you would be. What now? Well, you have to call customer service to tell them the whole story of how you were so excited about the deal but now are being overcharged. While this scenario is specific, calling customer service for help or clarification is common for most people, but it’s more complicated in another country. Believe me, this scenario is one of those moments where speaking the local language really makes your life easier.
5. Enjoying The Local Culture
Once you manage to master the local language, it’s as if your bonds with the locals are magically strengthened. Suddenly they begin to invite you to family dinners, to their uncle’s birthday or to their cousin’s wedding. It’s like they finally wanted you to experience their culture first-hand, which is just great! The only problem is that during most of these events, they tend to speak their own language. You’ll have to make an effort to understand, make yourself understood and still have a good time. It seems complicated, but when you have a command of the language, it finally flows naturally.