Dealing with the Language Barrier as an Expat

Language and the spoken word is our most direct way of communicating. It’s how we connect with others and how we make sure our needs are met. So it’s only natural to feel lost, confused or anxious when you can’t speak a local language, or struggle to speak it well. The secret is to develop a committed belief in yourself – and to be kind to yourself – as you learn the lingo.

As an expat, you’re no stranger to adapting to new circumstances and thinking on your feet. But it can still come as a shock to find that you can’t order a loaf of bread, or make a doctor’s appointment, or that the quality of your conversations is limited by your vocabulary.

Although it’s tempting to remain in the international bubble or to spend time only with those from our home country, learning the local language can be invaluable to our expat experience. (I wish I had known this when I was a new expat. Fortunately it is never too late!)

Speaking the language can offer a professional edge when job hunting; a sense of empowerment and personal accomplishment; a more inclusive social group; and the chance to meet new people, and locals in particular.

Yet the language barrier remains a major challenge of moving abroad for most expats. Because learning a new language is not just about grasping verbs and pronunciation… it’s a humbling experience that forces us back to the classroom of life.

If you’re not a native speaker, you may relate to some (or all) of these common challenges:

  • “I can’t express myself properly, because I can’t find the exact words I need.”
  • “I struggle to discuss complex subjects, because I just don’t have the same depth of vocabulary as in my native language.”
  • “I’m struggling with grammatical constructs I don’t even know in my own language!”
  • “I can’t access the healthcare system because I don’t speak the language.”
  • “I feel like an outsider/I feel self-conscious because I have an accent.”
  • “I can’t support my children with school subjects/homework.”
  • “Some of my mistakes, or the way I say things, offend people.”
  • “I feel anxious about speaking in groups.”
  • “I feel disempowered/left out because my partner/kids speak the language.”

Expats in a new country or culture also have to deal with nuances like slang, context and different communication styles. Mastering all this can become especially intimidating when there are expectations from a partner or parent-in-law, children or locals.

Anxiety can also inhibit us from noticing relevant or important language messages from those around us, which may lead to more misunderstandings.

Mastering language anxiety

It’s important to recognize that “language anxiety” – feeling stuck, or being afraid to speak the new language – is normal.

When we don’t feel in command of a language, it’s easy to become unsure of ourselves. We may even have to confront a long-held belief like “I’m no good at languages” or “Mistakes mean I’m not smart enough”.

Here are some pointers to help you develop both your confidence and your language skills:

  • Accept that you will experience some discomfort – this is okay – and acknowledge how brave you are to put yourself out there everyday.
  • Allow yourself to make mistakes – and not to take it too seriously or personally. Mistakes are how we learn and, as time goes by, you’ll be making fewer and fewer of them.
  • Give up your ideal of perfection. Here’s an opportunity to see yourself – and the way you express yourself – in a more creative and flexible way.
  • Remember that you’re not alone. Many expats are in the same position as you. Share your experiences with them and get practising together.
  • Own your accent! Though some locals may become impatient, many will find it interesting or charming.
  • Celebrate milestones. Whether you’ve uttered a few phrases or taken part in a group conversation, congratulate yourself.
  • Keep trying. It will become easier!
  • Practise affirmations like “I’m improving my [insert language] every day.” (The beauty of this one? It’s true!)
  • Consider joining a language class. You’ll meet others in the same position and can share learning tips and techniques.
  • Use technology. Take advantage of the many language programmes, apps, online resources, books and audio CDs available. (See’s top five language apps). Even using the ‘notes’ function on your phone can help you to memorize vocabulary and encourage learning by repetition.
  • Make language learning interactive. For example, using mnemonics – like a song, rhyme, acronym, image or phrase – to remember grammar rules or key phrases.

P.S. Thanks to Thomas Tischhauser for his contribution.

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