The Complete Expat Guide for Learning a New Language

The Complete Expat Guide for Learning a New Language

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Are you thinking of learning a foreign language? Maybe you’re relocating to Italy and need to learn basic Italian. Maybe you just want to learn how to speak Chinese for fun. Or, maybe you want to be able to read The Lord of the Rings in Swedish. Regardless of your reasons for wanting to learn a foreign language, there are many tools and resources that can help you achieve your goal.

But before you enroll in any language learning program, there are some things you need to know about learning a language.

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Why Learn a Foreign Language? 

There are many reasons to learn a foreign language: to upskill, to get qualified for a job, or simply to get into a new hobby.

One of the best reasons to learn, however, is if you’re an expat in a country where you don’t speak the language. When you can speak the locals’ language, it will be easier for you to communicate with the people and better understand the local culture. It will make your life a whole lot easier.

That said, some expats can live for years in a foreign country without learning the local language and do just fine. But being able to speak in the local tongue can bring immeasurable convenience and help you in unexpected ways.

Here are a few good reasons to learn.

To Get Better Job Opportunities

If you move to another country to find employment, you will gain an advantage if you can speak that country’s language. Besides your skills and professional experiences, your facility with the local language can make your resumé stand out.

In addition, you can get more job opportunities particularly if you apply for roles that require dealing with locals. You can even get offered a higher-than-normal salary because of your bi- or multilingual abilities.

Avoid Overpaying for Goods and Services

Being a foreigner in any country has advantages and disadvantages. One of the major disadvantages is being charged higher prices for goods and services simply because you’re foreign. While you won’t be able to completely avoid this — such as, for instance, if you’re white and live in an Asian country, or vice versa — you will be able to negotiate prices for things like apartment rent if you can communicate in the native tongue.

Plus, you will be more confident in asking locals where you can get better deals and which stores do not overcharge foreigners.

Connect with Locals More Easily

Expats who make the effort to learn the local language also tend to have an easier time making friends and connecting with locals. Locals generally appreciate foreigners who make an effort to learn the local language. It sends the message that you want to learn their culture, traditions, history, etc.

Note that there are certain countries where it’s imperative to learn at least the local language basics. Otherwise, you risk drawing the ire of locals who refuse to speak in any other language but their own whenever you, a foreigner, speak to them.

Live More Comfortably

Lastly, being able to speak like a local will make your life easier. As a foreigner, you will encounter many scenarios that will test your patience for which being able to speak the local language can make a huge difference.

Whether it’s applying for a visa at a local immigration office, ordering food from restaurants, or giving instructions to a cab driver, proficiency with the native language can make an otherwise difficult situation manageable and help you avoid miscommunications.

Tips and Recommendations When Learning a Foreign Language

Here are some things to note once you’ve decided you want to learn.

Dedicate Time

Make sure you have enough time to study and practice what you learn if you want to get the best results. According to research conducted by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), it takes about 480 hours of study to learn the basics of a language. This means that if you spend eight hours a day in your study of the language, in 60 days (2 months), you will be proficient at the basics of that language.

Set a Goal

You must also set realistic and achievable goals to keep you motivated.

For example, you can set a goal of one hour of study per day. This will allow you to keep track of how far along you are in the language course and see if you’re making any progress. Setting reasonable goals can also make you less likely to give up and get frustrated.

Bear in mind that achieving the proficiency of a native speaker can take months or years. And even then, you might still not be able to speak with full proficiency. But you shouldn’t worry about achieving that level of proficiency. Ultimately, it matters more to learn enough as to be able to communicate well with the locals than to achieve native or bilingual fluency.

Practice Regularly

The more you practice, the faster you will learn. You probably have lots of responsibilities, but setting aside some time in your day to practice what you’ve learned will pay off.


And it doesn’t have to be a slog. Set aside 15 minutes of practice and then add a few more minutes as you go along. Also, practice needs to be purposeful. Some of the ways you can enhance your learning is by watching movies or TV shows in the local language with subtitles, reading books written by local authors, listening to local music, listening to podcasts, finding study buddies, etc.

Immerse Yourself in the Language

This entails putting into practice what you’ve learned in everyday situations where there’s a good opportunity to speak the local language. These are instances such as buying food from a street food vendor, asking strangers for directions, or talking about yourself when in a social setting.

The best way to learn a language through this method is by spending some time in a country where the language you want to learn is spoken. This way, you will have the opportunity to be exposed to the language by interacting with native speakers, This will allow you to learn by listening to native speakers and practicing with them, thereby maximizing the skills you’ve learned so far and understanding certain nuances in meaning, tones, and manners in which the language is spoken.

For students, there are international student exchange programs and study abroad offerings that allow young people to practice and improve their language.

Learning Method

Language learning is often integrated into other skills such as writing, reading, speaking, and listening. And regardless of what level of study you prefer (beginner, intermediate, advanced, etc.), there are several language learning methods you can choose from, with some focusing on certain related skills more than the other.

The Direct Method

In this method, instructors will not allow you to speak in your native language and only in the language being taught. This method focuses on enhancing pronunciation.

Grammar Translation Method

This method mostly involves the memorization of grammar rules and vocabulary and makes little to no emphasis on oral ability.

Audio-lingual Method

This method uses the repetition of phrases in dialogues used in everyday situations. The focus is on learning a new language by hearing it before then learning its written form. This method may work well for people with good auditory perception.

Immersion Method

In this method, students learn the language by learning it in natural ways. First, they learn the basics, then they spend time hearing and speaking it. This method also entails learning about the culture, listening to music, watching movies, practicing every day, etc. 

Immersion promotes the assimilation of the language, as you are forced to continuously interact with other people using the language you are learning.

And if you already know the basics of the language because you have studied it for a long time, immersion allows you to practice, learn new expressions, and regain the fluency.

Pros and Cons of These Methods

The Direct Method

  • Pro: As this method encourages to speak using the knowledge you acquire while listening in class, it will help you develop your pronunciation.
  • Con: If your way of learning is visual, it might be difficult for you as there is very little use of written explanations of the rules or vocabulary. 

Grammar Translation Method

  • Pro: Unlike the previously mentioned method, this method will encourage you to learn grammatical rules and you will also learn to read and write properly in the new language.
  • Con: One disadvantage is that this method hardly focuses on the development of speaking and listening skills. Another disadvantage is that if your way of learning is auditive, you might find that taking this method of learning will not be useful for you.

Audio-Lingual Method 

  • Pro: If your way of learning is auditive, this might be the right method of learning for you. It will develop your speaking and listening skills.
  • Con: A disadvantage of this method is that, unlike the grammatical method, this focuses on developing the listening skill and not so much on the writing skill. 

Immersion Method

In my opinion, this is the best method of learning because it doesn’t only focus on the development of a particular skill, but it develops all the skills needed to learn a new language.

Therefore, when choosing a language learning method, you must bear in mind that it will depend on you and your efforts to succeed in your learning process. 

Online courses are a simple and inexpensive way to learn new languages. You can opt for an online course, which is one of the most popular ways of learning new languages nowadays. Some of the best platforms to get online language courses are: 

You can also find a good language school with experienced teachers, but this option requires you to have enough time and finances. Schools that offer language certifications will be the better choice.

These schools teach and prepare students on the skills they need to dominate the language they are learning. Then, they take some tests to evaluate the students’ level of competence and issue an official certificate.

Another option could be to find a private teacher or tutor (who should preferably be a native speaker) which, in my opinion, would help a lot to speed up the learning process because you would be the only student, so the teacher will focus on you and your achievement.

Or, you could learn it yourself! There are also many people who have learned languages on their own. You can do that too. You only need to have the determination and find the right resources to facilitate your self-learning (books, videos, online sites, etc.)

And, of course, as mentioned above, by being in an immersive environment, learning will come naturally.

Obstacles You May Encounter 

Mental Barriers

There are so many mental barriers that you might have to face when deciding to learn a new language, such as:

  • Negative thoughts about oneself (“I’m not good at learning languages”)
  • Realizing that it will take you years (at least 2) to be a little fluent
  • Thinking that you need to achieve a perfect native speaker’s pronunciation
  • Thinking that you need to spend a lot of money on courses and language schools, etc. 

One or more of these thoughts may cause you to feel anxiety and insecurity, resulting in mental blockage and fear of learning. The barriers to overcome differ from person to person. Some people will experience negative thoughts about their own abilities of learning, while some others will experience wrong thoughts about the process of learning.

To overcome these barriers, you must be self-aware and find a way to convince yourself of your capability of learning any language.

You must keep in mind that you have the capability to learn any language (or at least the basics) to communicate with speakers of that language.

Be natural, be yourself. The more you practice, the more confident you will feel.

Think positively. Positive thoughts can also help you learn better.

Lastly, every country has different accents and pronunciations, which reflects differences in the cultural history. Every foreigner has a particular accent that they developed from their home country, and that accent blends with the new language they are learning. So don’t be too bothered by your accent when you’re speaking a foreign language; you don’t have to sound like a native speaker. Depending on the language, people will still be able to understand you even if you have a foreigner’s accent.

Choosing an Ineffective Learning Method

As I mentioned above, it’s very important to carefully choose a method of learning a foreign language because your success or failure will depend on your choice. Choosing an ineffective method can frustrate you and compel you to discontinue learning.

Every person has their own preferred way of learning — some people are visual learners, some are kinaesthetic learners, some are auditive, and some others are a mixture of these. It’s critical that you identify what kind of learner you are, so you can choose the best method of learning languages based on the kind of learner you are. 

Some people can learn languages a lot easier than others — some people are just natural at it. But the speed and ease with which some people learn a language can also be attributed to several factors.

For example, I started learning a language on the platform Babbel, but it didn’t work for me because I’m a visual learner and my lessons were all written and not auditory (I’m an auditory learner). On the other hand, I know of someone who did great in learning languages because in the platform that she chose, the program involved teaching many rules and concepts, which worked very well for her because she tends to absorb lessons quicker in such teaching method.

First Steps to Overcoming Obstacles

There are a few things you should keep in mind to overcome obstacles to learning.

  • You must have an objective and a goal. Your goal could be to get promoted in your job, be able to communicate better with your native speaker friend, or be able to travel to a foreign place and speak their language easily.
  • Develop a habit of setting aside a few minutes every day and a few hours every week for learning.
  • Remember to enjoy the learning process, allow yourself to make mistakes, and not be too harsh on yourself. Try to see the humor in your mistakes, so you can be rid of your embarrassment and insecurities.
  • Be critical. When learning a new language, it’s okay if you want to make comparisons with other languages about the complexity of the language, to confound yourself with slightly ridiculous expressions, or to compliment other expressions, etc.

You can use italki to find a private teacher online, or start with using an app like Duolingo, or even listening to a podcast.  


Persistence and hard work are crucial in the learning process. If you persist and work hard, you will eventually meet your goals.


Should I Focus on Reading and Listening More Than Writing?

Writing is an important part of learning any language. You might think that you don’t need to know how to write properly in the foreign language you’re learning, especially if your profession doesn’t require writing skills in that language. But believe it or not, it will greatly help in your learning.

Do I Need to Learn Grammar?

It is important to learn at least a little grammar because good grammar will help you be more confident when communicating.

What Level Should I Aim for?

It depends on the reason why you’re learning the language in the first place. If you are learning a language because you are going on a trip, you might need a basic A1 level, but if you’re learning the language to communicate with clients in a professional setting, you’ll need a B1 level (per the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages or CEFR) to learn to communicate fluently.

Do I Need to be Fluent in the Language I’m Learning?

Although it would be fantastic to achieve the highest level of fluency, it’s not necessary to be able to communicate well. If you complete a basic level, you will still be able to communicate in useful contexts/situations. The level of fluency you wish to achieve largely depends on your reasons for learning the language.

How Do I Start?

The best way to learn a language is to learn as children do. They become familiar with the language by listening to it. It is important to identify the phonetic differences in the new language as compared to your language. A native speaking teacher would be most helpful.

Can I Benefit from Learning a Language Beyond Just Speaking It?

Yes. You can pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree in the field of translation, or you can teach at your level — from basic to intermediate level classes — to train university-bound students. 

Why Do I Need to Pay When I Can Learn a New Language for Free? 

Well, there are many reasons why a paid method is usually better than free sources.  

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First, paid courses are better structured and give you more learning resources. You can follow steps and improve your language fluency systematically. 

Second, there’s also an option to customize lessons to be suitable to your learning style and the purpose of your language learning.

Third, it gives you more motivation to learn a language since you have paid for it. The instructors or apps that you are using will also keep motivating you to learn a language.

Forth, it saves you time. This is because you will learn a language faster than trying to learn on your own saving you a significant amount of time. 


At ExpatDen, we know that learning a new language is important for expats. This is why we have come up with an extensive list of articles that can help you learn a foreign language.

Check them out:  

Now, on to You 

Although learning a language requires a lot of effort, the numerous benefits are worth it. Also, when you are learning a new language, you can see the results immediately if you know, and are motivated by, the reasons you are trying to learn. Know the method that works best for you and be persistent. There really is no secret to it; by taking the first steps, you can learn one or even several languages.

Yuri García, currently works as a translator; he also writes content and makes proofreading & book editions in several languages. As a polyglot, he is working since 2018 with these languages: French, Spanish (Mexican & Castilian), English, and Catalonian.