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When someone is living abroad and doesn’t know the local language, it can be an anxiety-provoking experience. Adding to the stress, local residents may be less inclined — or able — to provide directions and assistance to foreigners who can’t speak the language.
“It goes back to basic anthropology,” says Susanna Zaraysky, author of the book, Language is Music. “We like to talk to people who sound like us. The more foreign you sound, the less someone will want to talk to you.”
Fortunately, there are strategies that expats can use to help ease the transition while they’re learning a foreign language.
— Dr. Samuel Dyer, CEO and chairman of the Board of the Medical Science Liaison Society
When living in a new country, learning the basics of the local language will accomplish two things: Locals will recognize that the visitor is trying to assimilate to the culture and therefore be more patient, and it also helps that visitor communicate basic necessities.
Rebecca Smith Hurd, freelance editor and founder of All About Puebla, an online, English-language resource on Puebla, Mexico, shares tips on pleasantries every expat should learn for their new country:
· Thank you
· You’re welcome
· Excuse me
· I’m sorry
Individuals can combine the following phrases with nouns to articulate many of the things they’ll need to say:
· I need …
· I want …
· I have …
· I’m looking for …
· I (don’t) like …
· Where is …
· How much …
For more complicated sentences, Dr. Samuel Dyer, CEO and chairman of the Board of the Medical Science Liaison Society, suggests using apps like Google Translate, which can help expats learn the right phrases on the go.
Individuals should also become familiar with the international language of exchange rates. By learning to read an exchange rate chart, expats will set themselves up to have more control over their money when engaging in currency exchange.
Some foreign languages such as Greek and Mandarin use a different alphabet, so individuals should consider using a map with the native language and an English translation, Zaraysky says.
Individuals may also consider utilizing smartphones. “There are apps that translate the words from signs just from taking a picture of it, but the translations are often word for word and sometimes don’t really translate the meaning, especially if there are puns or idioms used. This is not a totally dependable feature, but it can be useful,” Zaraysky says.
Apps such as World Lens let people use the camera in their smartphone to help translate the words on signs or menus.
Another option individuals can consider is attending local expat meetings. “I think getting in with expat groups and putting yourself out there, asking a lot of questions, can help individuals avoid some of those awkward situations where language is a factor,” Dyer says.
In France, for example, rather than saying “Bonjour” as a greeting, Dyer says the proper phrase is always, “Bonjour, Madame” or “Bonjour, Monsieur.” Individuals can pick up on formalities at expat meetings by listening to others’ experiences. “The meetings become an opportunity for individuals to immerse themselves into the language,” Dyer says.
When living abroad, it is helpful to approach life with an adaptable attitude. “You’ll have to ask a lot of questions, so don’t be embarrassed that you don’t speak the language or that you’re going to butcher something,” Dyer says. “You have to be prepared for that.”
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