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A citizen of the world needs language skills – but only 1 in 4 expats are fluent

More and more people are moving abroad for work, but are their language skills up to it? – A survey by expat networking site InterNations suggests not: Only 1 in 4 speak the local language fluently.

Despite – or perhaps because of – the looming threat of Brexit, the number of people leaving the UK to work or study abroad continues to rise. This reflects the global trend with more and more people choosing to relocate, often to countries where they have to learn a new language. It is estimated that a little under 60 million people would now be classed under the term ‘expat’* and the number only increases every year.

The choice of a new life abroad brings both excitements and challenges. For many, one of the biggest challenges is language learning; something that is often vitally important for the success of a move in the long run. To really feel at home in a place, as well as to contribute to it, being able to speak the local language is a must.

Language barriers and expat bubbles

When Theresa May coined her infamous phrase that a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere she was roundly criticised by many, but perhaps struck a chord with some. Being an expat is a quintessentially dislocating experience and executives who move abroad for work are especially vulnerable to feelings of isolation. Often they don’t have any existing support networks when they arrive in a new country. 72% of respondents to the InterNations survey of members said they did not have existing friends or family in their new home when they moved.

Language barriers just reinforce this potential isolation. According to InterNations, only one in four of its expat members speak the local language fluently and language barriers were identified as the top reason why expats may feel unwelcome in their new home.

So-called ‘expat bubbles’ often arise to combat this. Expats hang together and speak English with one another, choosing the comfort of their main language over the challenge of communicating with the locals. This is a very understandable reaction to challenging circumstances, but it can lead to ongoing feelings of alienation. A third of respondents to the InterNations survey said that they had mostly only expat friends, while only 19% said the majority of their friendship group was made up of local people. Again, language issues were identified as a key reason for not mixing more with the locals.

Language learning brings people together

Language learning has the potential to turn this story around. It not only provides the means to communicate with local people, it provides a reason and an opportunity to communicate with them. The act of learning is a great way to make new connections and language exchange provides an opportunity to contribute, sharing your language with the locals (so often keen to improve their English).

“Many great cross-cultural friendships and relationships have started with language learning and it will always be a force for breaking down prejudices and resentments on both sides of the expat divide.”

“The real gift of speaking another language is the ability to form friendships with people you wouldn’t otherwise have had. Being able to connect with people from different linguistic and cultural background gives you a new perspective and deeper understanding of the world.” – Michele Frolla from The Intrepid Guide


There are ever greater numbers of language exchange gatherings organised in major cities – not least by InterNations – where local people are encouraged to attend and get the most from having expatriate communities in their midst.

Overcoming the fear of talking to local people

Many people assume that living in another country makes language learning easy, but nobody ever learnt a language through osmosis alone. Wherever you are, to learn a language you need to study and to find the right environments to support you.

Fear of looking foolish is a powerful force and one that people living and working in a different language environment are very prone to (more so than people taking an evening class in their native country). The fear of being misunderstood or laughed at prevents many from interacting with local people as much as they would like.

“With language, the fear of making mistakes often prevents us from just speaking, perhaps much more than we realise. So, we need to recognise that fear inside us and actively combat it.” – author, singer and motivational coach, Naomi Susan Isaacs


Finding a safe space to practise

The reality is that most people, especially beginners, need a safe space to practise before they can speak with confidence in social or work situations.

Rosetta Stone provides this service for many businessmen and women living abroad. Weekly tutor sessions provide a unique opportunity to get into conversation with native teachers and fellow learners. Available in a range of time slots, tutor sessions revise study points and develop conversations – all with the core aim of increasing speaking confidence.

“The training sessions are really all about gaining the confidence to communicate and use your language knowledge. Immersing yourself in a language means having conversations right from the start, if you don’t know exactly the right word, you use what you do know to work around the problem and get the point across. It’s better to use the little you know, than to learn a lot and be too scared to use it.” – Aliona Dameron, senior manager of the live tutoring department, Rosetta Stone.

Rosetta Stone’s entire focus is on speaking the language correctly. With the industry-leading pronunciation tool, the software also creates a safe feedback space, where you can practise saying a word as many times as you like until your accent is perfected – nobody will be laughing!

“The great thing about Rosetta Stone was being able to say the words and get confirmation that they sounded OK. This enabled me to build confidence and have a go at the more complicated words and build up my vocabulary. I keep repeating the course to ensure that I am not becoming sloppy with my pronunciation.” – Rosetta Stone leaner of French

*Number and definition from the InterNations survey

About the Author Simon Goodall

Language learner, teacher and contributing author to the Rosetta Stone magazine

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